When Breath Becomes Air
“You seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.” Baron Brooke Fulke Greville
Thus starts Paul Kalanithi’s memoir where he questions what is the purpose of life in the face of death. It is a human question. We are blessed and cursed with a consciousness that leaves us at once full of wonder at the mystery of life and the connection between everything but also painfully aware that it is, at least this life on earth, a temporary phenomenon. What then is the point? If it is to end anyway why should we do anything and if we choose to do anything what should drive that choice.
Paul’s question was there throughout his life and he sought answers to it through literature, poetry and neurosurgery. The question became much more urgent when, at the age of 36, he found himself diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Suddenly death was not something that would happen at some indeterminate point in the future. It was breathing down his neck and taking his breath away. He had hoped to spend twenty years or so as a neurosurgeon, he was on the cusp of completing his residency when the shock came. He struggled with the sense that all he had worked for, all the sacrifices he had made of his own time, energy and the strain he had put on his personal relationships, was for nothing. His life was one of potential that could and would never now be fulfilled.
He was fortunate with his oncologist who worked with him to help him live what life he had according to his values. She asked him what mattered to him, made him focus on what it was he was unwilling to give up on. Because of that he found that although his life was no longer what it had been it was not without purpose. During the twenty two months between diagnosis and death he reconnected with his wife, strengthened his marriage, became a father, undertook some surgery and completed his residency and in his last months he wrote his book.
In some ways he was fortunate. The urgency of his diagnosis made him study himself and what mattered to him, what made his particular life mean something and the respite he had from his symptoms allowed him to act on those, albeit for far too short a time for those who loved him. What if we all did that? What if we recognised that our time was limited and that a full life was one not measured by how much we did in that time but how committed we were to the things we held dear?
Those things will be different for everyone, though their drivers may be similar. A house builder and a surgeon may both be driven by the will to serve others, though the way in which they do this will differ. And what of the recognition that our breath is also air? The nourishing life force we take into ourselves is only breath because we are alive, afterwards it returns to being air. So the atmosphere itself is in service to us while we walk through our collection of days.
If we are to savour life, should we not also savour the air that we breathe? The way many of us live now we don’t believe we have time to breathe, not properly. We hold our breath, we snatch a breath, we snack on air when we could be feasting. Through my acting training and my work as a voice artist I have developed a new relationship with my breath and the body that needs it. Through meditation and voice exercises I have worked to let go of the held-in stomach and tried to release the tension that prevents my lungs from filling with nourishment. I have discovered that building a habit of breathing fully allows my voice to flourish. And with that voice I can take on the challenges of reading audiobooks over several days in a studio, comfortable and free to enjoy the beautiful words and the exciting stories unfolding around and through me.
Now when my daughter looks worried or my son is upset I encourage them to take a breath, to slow down, to let the air heal their pain and then tackle the challenge that faces them. Our brains work better when our bodies are comfortable, a chance to slow down can be a breath of fresh air to an anxious mind. And in that state we can see what matters, we know what our values are, what and who we care about and we can serve those better, more fully, with our whole being.
It has helped me too in my struggle with anxiety. My mind can race and thousands of thoughts can gush through it like a river bursting its banks. I am left swamped by this tide of unruly considerations, unable to do much but try and hold my position with all the strength I can muster. But if I stop pushing against this, stop trying to jam my thumb into a makeshift dam in my mind, there comes another thought that I will be annihilated by the deluge. It is hard to ignore but experience teaches me that stopping for a moment, taking some air, slowing down my breath, also slows time. The rush then becomes a flow, the burst river a babbling brook, something I can wade through, splashing the water with my playful feet.
In this state I can let my mind wander. I can hear the childish excitement over a new idea for a poem, a book, a blog, a family outing. I can hear the fears and concerns too but I can choose what I listen to, what I act upon and in making that choice I can rely on my own moral compass, the values I hold dear. For me those values are based on love; love of literature, of stories, of family, of life. It matters to me that I do what I love and I love what I do. This I have in common with Paul who, though his life was brief, was uncompromising in doing what he loved and loving what he did. I can wish no more for myself, my children or any one of us who lives in the shadow of death.
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