I have always been the type of person that has done the responsible, safe thing in life. I’d like to think that I take risks, but they are calculated risks. I consider each option, side effect, and potential outcomes. I try to color outside of the lines, but somehow always end up making it only to the outer most edge, and just before the line blends into oblivion. This safe attitude has proven useful thus far in my life; however, it’s also prevented me from doing other things in life out of fear. It’s a fear of failure. Fear of using time inappropriately. Fear of letting it affect the current goal/task at hand. Fear of making a bad choice that will lead to some type of suffering, albeit even a trivial amount of suffering.
Last fall, I began to wonder (more than ever) what it would be like to do uncalculated things now, rather than wait for some future point in time. This attitude jokingly started with a jar of jam. An attending that I highly respect and admire, gave me a jar of jam that was made by his wife and him. That jar changed everything! I know it sounds crazy, but bear with me on this one. With the consumption of the delicious spread, I had an incredible (4 a.m.) epiphany: when you learn how to make jam, you have made it in life! What kind of people make jam? My Answer: those that have figured out the nuances of life, and have made time to enjoy random things in life like jam making. It’s become the symbolic equivalent of “successful adulting” in this exhausted resident’s mind. It’s just that simple!
Recently, a profound writer and a few of my patients have helped me realize what this concept of “making jam” in the now rather than the then is. The first realization came while reading Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air. (For the folks that have not read this book, GO GRAB IT RIGHT NOW!) He had three major goals in life:
- Become a neurosurgeon
- Write a book
- Become a father
However, Dr. Kalanithi, like many other residents, had willingly become entrapped by his training and had postponed actively pursuing other life goals until residency would be over. The trajectory of his success was headed towards great heights when he suddenly got diagnosed with terminal cancer during the last year of his residency.
Realizing that endless time he once thought he had was no longer a given, he zealously started pursuing all three goals. Despite having metastatic lung cancer, he went back to finish his residency and even started going on job interviews. He also showed how prolific of a writer he was and created one of the most important, inspiring, and raw books that has ever been written about the intricacies of life and death. The last accomplishment was his best: he became a father to an amazing little girl. With it came both joy and an immense amount of heartache. Fatherhood led to the complex realization that yes, suffering is real, saying goodbye is tough, but it is nonetheless an honor to allow that much love and vulnerability to infiltrate a man’s life. My favorite exchange from the book sums up this concept:
Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, states,“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together? Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”
He responded: “ Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” He then wrote, “Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”
He never played victim. He never asked, “why me?” He just understood that cancer was a fact and life just was. After finishing up the book, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I would play the role of victim or warrior if the stakes ever became that high.
“There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.” –Paul Kalanithi