Life, Life and Love! A Reflection on “When Breathe Becomes Air”
I recently did something that made me stop and take notice of life around me. My mother died last year, after a long and eventful life, full of many joys, sorrows and challenges. She was a survivor, surviving the death of 2 husbands, and raising 4 children with very little money. Her only brother lived almost all his adult life in the UK, or more accurately around the world as a journalist for Reuters News Agency. He sadly passed away earlier this year, so within 6 months of one another both had gone. However, in their later years they became quite close, with various trips either out here to Perth by Alan or to the UK for my mum. One love they shared, almost from the time they could earn a quid, was racing, horse racing. They would discuss the jockeys, the trainers, the horses, and follow the various ups and downs of the industry, of course always having a small wager here and there. It was a love they shared until the very end, with mum in particularly reading the racing page over her morning tea in the hospital! I remember vividly many an afternoon spent at either Ascot or Belmont raceway, roaming the course while mum was in the betting ring, checking the odds (a time when that was not regarded as bad parenting!).
We had decided, as a family, that we would spread mum’s ashes at one of the racetracks if we were allowed. Amazingly Ascot raceway officials were very helpful, and agreed we could put mum’s ashes just off the track in line with the winning post, a very apt position for her.
As Allan shared this passion, his wife Doreen requested that Allan’s ashes join mums here in Australia and also at the track! So his ashes were carefully packaged and sent by airplane to Australia, where I was to pick them up and bring them home.
And this is where I started, because picking up the ashes of your Uncle is not an everyday occurrence. Particularly when the storeman hands you a box, and says, “here you are love, be careful”. Be careful!!! Of course I am going to be careful, it took them a while to find him so I wasn’t going to lose him now.
When I took him to my sister’s place, we opened the box, to find a plastic container inside. And inside the container was Allan’s ashes. Wow. There he was, or what was left of him, all the way from the UK. I had only seen him last year and now … It seems the wall between life and death is paper thin, one minute you are a living breathing reality, and the next, some ashes in a box. Seems hard to fathom it really. It made me ponder a question I have pondered often, since I was young. What makes us human, what makes us alive in the world? And what makes life meaningful? Okay, more than one question!
I was pondering all of this as I finished a book recently called “Breathe into Air” about a brilliant neuro surgeon/scientist, Paul Kalanithi, with an incredible career ahead of him who gets a terrible cancer and dies very young. Yet before he dies he writes a book about life, and death, and everything in between. He also asks these questions, but he writes initially from a position where he operates on the brain, and deals with patients with neurological conditions, and then from the perspective of someone dying. A little bit closer to the problem than me.
It is really is an amazing book, and makes the reader contemplate their humanity deeply. Well it did for me!
What is it that makes us human? What is it that makes life meaningful? He recounts his first contact with cadavers, dead people who have donated their bodies to science. It was an account that brought back my own experience, which lead me on a spiritual quest that has culminated in me being a part time Pastor in a Uniting Church. A long way from cutting up dead people! But even now I remember distinctly the feeling that I knew there was more to us as humans than what was lying on the table. Yes, we are blood and tissue, and joints and muscles and organs and skin, but we are also thoughts, and feelings, and hopes and dreams, and joys and sorrows, a subjective life that seems to stem not just from the physical world but from some culmination of all that we are. It led me, as it led Paul, to explore the nature of life, and the age old question of God or at least the idea there was something else going on here that cannot be seen or measured.
A journey that has taken a life time, but sometimes we don’t have a life time. That was the dilemma for Paul Kalanithi.
He crammed the meditations of a life time into 30 short years. In that time he had seen and was so close to the question. From when he was young he searched for what it was that made us, well us.
It led him to literature, philosophy, then to neuroscience.
And finally to neurosurgery, because for him moral speculation was puny compared to moral action, so he acted.
Amongst his experiences as a neuro surgeon, amongst his patients, who suffered and died and were changed, he delved into the questions of life, and meaning. I think what he discovered, with his patients and within himself, was that meaning and understanding is found in the messiness of real human life.
And that is where the rubber hits the road. As he writes, he had been a scientist all his life, yet “science is not enough to explain the existential, visceral nature of human life”. What made life meaningful even in the face of death and decay? I think the answer to that is Love!
What Paul found was that love and care for others, family and small things was what it meant to live a meaningful life. Even when everything was taken away from him there was still living to be done….
“because I would have to learn a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor, but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living”.
He also found that we are more than can be measured, what can be seen and operated on, we are more than blood and bone. “The most central aspects of our human life cannot be measured, “hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honour, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue”, and I would add, joy and compassion and forgiveness. “Between these core passions and scientific theory there will always be a gap. No system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience”.
Funnily enough, he found that Jesus reflected this compassion for others and what he searched for about meaning in life was also found in a tradition he had left behind but rediscovered. Yes, he did go back to church!
But he does not suddenly take on the religion of certainty. Rather he determined that while no one human sees the total picture, “the basic reality of human life stands compellingly against blind determinism.”
So in the end it came down and comes down again and again, to relationships, love and love of and for others. It comes down to seeing each day as a gift, living in whatever way we can, and finding joy and gratitude in the smallest of events.
Paul Kalanithi found that he could not have his old life back, but had to find a new way of living, a gift a surgeon friend gave him during his treatment. But he had already gifted that to his patients. As he discovered “the physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back and face, and make sense of their own existence.”
This is what he did. He worked until he could not, he had a child who he adored, he wrote this book, and he loved those around him for as long as he could.
Spirituality, or what gives us meaning and purpose in life, is a life lived for others, with others, in relationship and connection. Love is its central core.
For me, what it is to be human and what it is to be a Jesus follower, a believer in a divine presence that urges us to connect with one another in love, seems to be the same thing.
Living a life, however short, can show us that it’s as simple and as difficult as loving. Once we love, know love, give love, we will never find life meaning less.
You may not need to be a Jesus follower to get it, but sometimes it helps to have a guide.