[Books] Dying, When Breath Becomes Air, The Denial of Death
Three years ago, I published my second ever blog post about something that had always bugged me. I wanted to know if life was truly whimsical or whether each one of us had a purpose to fulfill. Even today, I occasionally ponder this question, continuously fascinated with the meaning of life and the motivation that drives people to get up every day.
Recently, after finishing two memoirs on the topic of death and dying — Dying by Cory Taylor and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi — I’ve only become more curious about the nature of my existence and what type of outlook I should have on life. These two books complement the last book I read on the topic, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. As I write this in the waiting room of a hospital, waiting for my father to recover from his surgery, I also quickly think back to a piece of work I skimmed my senior year of college — Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death.
When I came across Becker’s work, two main points of his thesis stood out to me. The first point stated that humans are the only living creatures to be completely conscious of their inevitable mortality. This consciousness, paired with a overwhelming desire to seek reassurance through heroism, can render a person so debilitated to the point that anxiety and fear take over. The second takeaway, underpinning the first, states that in order to conquer this fear of death, humans should succumb to the mundane tasks of everyday life in order to repress the constant fear of dying, even though all of us are actively dying with each passing moment. Becker also suggests that the yearning to leave mementos of ourselves behind is a result of the eternal struggle between one’s metaphysical mind and one’s physical body. Even though our material selves at the most primitive level are hardly any different than say, a monkey or even a dog, our minds have the ability to think beyond a mere instinctive level, allowing only us humans to mentally contemplate our deaths.
“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity — activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for men.” — Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
Cory Taylor’s memoir on her own terminal illness provides an insight into the mind of someone who is consciously aware of her death. For someone suffering from stage-4 melanoma-related brain cancer, Taylor is still very consciously aware of her imminent death, and even expatiates on topics such as euthanasia, life after death, religion, and depression. Instead of equivocating through the use of euphemisms, Taylor provides a blunt and honest perspective on the topic of death, writing what she calls an autobiography of the dying to give to the living.
“In this, my final book: I am making a shape for my death, so that I, and others, can see it clearly. And I am making dying bearable for myself.” –Cory Taylor, Dying
Death is something no one wants to talk about, yet dying is something everyone must do. Taylor realizes that in order to be truly at peace, she has to accept her fate. She knows that dying is inevitable, but that writing is a way for her to cope and leave something for the living.
In many ways, her story reminds me of Paul Kalanithi’s, a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist fond of literature. His memoir When Breath Becomes Air was utterly heartbreaking and made me realize how unpredictable and capricious our lives are. At the age of 36, Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer; without a definite timeline of how long he had left to live, he had to choose whether he wanted to continue practicing medicine or pursuing the path of writing. Although he had originally envisioned starting to write several decades later, his plans were tragically cut short, causing him to triage three things that were important to him— medicine, family, and writing.
“Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.” — Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
As I came across this quotation, I felt myself instantly teleported to the cusp of life and death, causing me contemplate my hopes and dreams and whether everything I’ve been striving for holds any meaning in the grand scheme of things. For me, I’ve organized and documented my professional and personal goals so clearly I’ve written down where I want to be a year from now, five years from now, and even a decade from now. Yet, when I take a step back, I realize that these plans seem so distant and fragile, so easily shattered by the smallest thing that doesn’t go my way. I could die tomorrow; I could die fifty years later. This uncertainty of not being able to achieve all my goals, paired with an inclination to overthink about the timeline of my life, causes me anxiety and stress.
In addition, I’ve realized that I, too, am trapped in the banal occurrences of everyday work, “chasing after wind”, as Kalanithi puts it. All the inventions and activities we dream up as humans, the societal constraints we place on ourselves and others, and the social interactions and relationships we develop only serve to tranquilize us with the trivial, because ultimately, we all stop living one day.
Before he died from cancer at the age of 37, Paul Kalanithi wanted to finish his memoir, constantly telling his wife he wanted it published posthumously if he wasn’t able to complete it himself. I feel distressed to know that when I die, so will all my thoughts and dreams. My work will eventually be forgotten. The impressions I’ve left on others will die with them. As a designer, I feel especially impelled to leave something valuable behind for the next generation of designers and anyone who sees or interacts my work. Yet, I know that I have entered as merely a drop of water in the ocean of people all wanting to differentiate themselves and pursue work that means so much to them.
Even three years later, I realize I’m no closer to finding an answer than when I first published my blog post on being mortal. In fact, I feel only more confused, overwhelmed with so many uncertainties and shifting changes as I continue to age. Perhaps, like Cory Taylor and Paul Kalanithi, only will I start finding answers once I face death head-on.