“I can’t go on. I’ll go on” When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, quotes C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed in her epilogue:

Bereavement is not the truncation of married love, but one of its regular phases — like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too.

Beyond all the gore and responsibility of the OR, all the climbing of towers built upon literature reaching for meaning, Kalanithi’s story is a testament to the simple fact that love transcends death. There is perhaps no cliche truer than this: despite the tragic notion of a neurosurgeon succumbing to the very cancer he has spent an entire lifetime learning to fight, Kalanithi’s love expands, blossoming in Lucy’s tender epilogue, his final paragraph dedicated to his daughter, the countless pre-medical students wishing to better understand the moral cross they must bear, and all other readers ranging from those who wish to find camaraderie in a similar experience to those who wish to better understand that common end we all share. In witnessing Kalanithi’s progression towards death we all draw a little closer to one another, family and strangers alike, bound by our common human reality that we must all follow that same path.

The beauty of literature to simultaneously allow for the perception of an individual experience (or perhaps even more: to step into an experience) yet amplify understandings of our own idiosyncratic lives, is never more apparent than it is in the discussion of death. In the past week I’ve spent with Paul, carrying this book around my travels, my trip felt more like a gift than it would have otherwise: a chance to reflect on my own privileges of being alive and elsewhere, away from routine, seeing the world. I began this book early morning (for Korean standards) in a Starbucks in Seoul, bagel in hand, coffee to the side. Workers trickled in for a moment of quiet, sending emails and reading the news, students scratched their heads and tensed their eyes as they struggled with a problem set, and others nestled into comfortable chairs with books. The quiet morning, filled only with light chatter and clinking of cups and spoons, is something I’m sure all early risers (of which I have only recently joined the ranks) cherish. But perhaps we feel most alive in such moments because the air is gently woven with a mutual understanding that we are all here, preparing for another day filled with its own chaos and emergencies (whether we are surgeons or not), and for now we can simply be together even without saying a word. If that much human relationship can be fostered by unity forged against a single day’s burdens, it only follows that we draw nearer in the face of death. Lucy observes the way death fuels life:

Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult — sometimes almost impossible — they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.

When Breath Becomes Air is a complement to Lewis’ journal entries following the loss of his wife, Joy Davidson, to cancer. With both books we are able to bear witness to both dying and bereaved, and come to understand that dying is not so different from living —  to die we must be alive, and to be alive we must die. But despite all of this, we casually fling aside memento mori and continue to live as if we are the exception. Lewis notes:

“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”

Similar to what I had written in a reflection to Death ParadeI naturally spent a lot of time, on trains and buses, taking a break from the weight of Kalanithi’s words and contemplating the role of literature in my life and the imperatives that come with really knowing you will die. To avoid making this post too long and unnecessarily autobiographical, I’ll be brief.

One quote in particular rang particularly true for me, which pithily captured what I felt around this time last year:

Throughout college, my monastic, scholarly study of human meaning would conflict with my urge to forge and strengthen the human relationships that formed that meaning. If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?

Even in reading and giving myself assignments to reflect through this blog, there are times when I wonder if spending an evening at home, clutching the writings of someone so far removed from me at the expense of spending time in the company of people who add fullness to my life, is a huge mistake. The cliched quote from Good Will Hunting comes to mind, but somehow fits nicely into this conversation about love and loss:

So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much.

It speaks to the immense depths of human experience that even I, as extremely privileged as I am to have traveled so much of the world, doubt that I have experienced nearly enough — it’s why I continue to read and take risks when venturing out. But closely related to this question of what we have and want to experience is the question of identity, and I find myself at times saying “that’s not something would do.” In many cases it’s our formation of identity that prevents us from chasing experiences or following through on our goals. Experiences form our identities (“I’m a neurosurgeon”) but our identities also often dictate our experiences, and I’ve found myself growing to challenge such limitations, however gradually.

*Featured photo is from a trip to the Pyeongchang Olympics I took just this past week. The ice games were in Gangneung, and I was fortunate to go to the beach before heading back to Seoul. The beach showcased some local and international pieces of art, the most captivating of which was this giant skull.

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The Sellout and “Post-Racial” America

Having left America right before its plunge into race relation chaos, a confrontation with the sweeping consequences of social media in its construction of echo chambers, and the rise of the #metoo movement, I’ve found it at times overwhelming to coordinate the self-exploration that comes in living in a country where everyone looks like you in relation to an unsettling zeitgeist. In particular, while the implications and frictions of globalization are so blatantly manifest in America, in Korea I’ve often felt conflict over the fact that most other countries in the world will never quite get it. That is to say, while of course globalization touches the entire world, most of it remains relatively homogenous and I can’t help but doubt at times the purpose behind the agony we commit ourselves to over identity politics, treading a thin moral line. Of course I, like most of my generation, believe in the egalitarian ideals, but sometimes I can’t help but be discouraged by the sheer gap between such ideals and reality — as Beatty observes, we say we’re “post-racial” and no longer segregated, but of course there will always be segregation in some sense: the recent election speaks volumes to that. But of course, my optimism, like that of many others, is grounded in the immense wealth that living in America has brought to my life in the form of learning about different cultures through lasting friendships and reconfirming over and over the fact that, at heart, we are all one species with the same joys and flaws. It’s not so much my doubt over the fact that such a world can exist, where people of different races and beliefs can coexist peacefully (this world, despite what current news may scream, already exists in some places) but the fact that getting a glimpse of this world requires economic privilege.

As I struggle to articulate my thoughts in this reflection I realize that what has weighed on me recently is the complex matrices of segregation that divide culturally, within a culture, economically, and by any other metric we subconsciously measure one another by.  That is to say, it’s not that I don’t believe in the merit behind debates over intersectionality, feminism, Marxism, and all the other -isms, but that, at the the end of the day, so many people simply lack the means to leave their communities. When I said that at times I struggle with the knowledge that Koreans will never quite get it, I was thinking about how those who get to even attempt to look into recent works of American art that grapple with race-related intricacy already reside in some of the highest levels of society. The fact that in order to watch Moonlight, after it won the Academy Award last year, I had to take a bus to the largest theater nearby is one example (the experience of watching it in a theater full of Koreans was intriguing but not something to write about now). Another example is the means by which I obtained and read this book — it came to me through a friend, another English teacher, whose Korean co-teacher passed it onto him because he just couldn’t make sense of the introduction. All this is to say is that you need immense amounts of economic privilege to get a grasp at the world outside Korea, and even then, for all your ability and money, you still won’t be able to fully understand the nuance of wordplay and satire in something like The Sellout unless you directly experience the many ironies that underlie American life.

Perhaps one of the chiefest ironies is this: that while we lampoon one another over critical theory, none of us really want to move back to insulated communities filled with people who have never stepped on a plane. Reading this article in The Atlantic deeply unsettled me as it forced me to stare directly at my own immense privilege:

“But spend some time reading the biographies of your representatives in Congress, and you’ll notice, as I did, that by the time they reach office, many politicians have already been socialized into a cultural, educational, and financial elite that sets them apart from average Americans. While some representatives do have strong roots in their district, for many others the connection is tenuous at best. Even for those members who were born and raised in the part of the country they represent, that place is for many of them not their true home. Educated at expensive colleges, likely on the coasts, they spend their 20s and 30s in the nation’s great metropolitan centers. After stints in law, business, or finance, or on Capitol Hill, they move to the hinterlands out of political ambition. Once they retire from Congress, even if they retain some kind of home in their district, few make it the center of their lives: They seem much more likely than their predecessors to pursue lucrative opportunities in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and, of course, Washington. By just about every metric—from life experience to education to net worth—these politicians are thoroughly disconnected from the rest of the population.”

It’s deeply unsettling to me that on college campuses people will often skewer a conservative for being immoral because they lack the liberal ideologies that largely come from bastions of privilege — privilege not exclusively in the economic sense, as you can come from a lower-class immigrant family but the fact that they immigrated at all is usually a product of education or ambition (I realize this is a flimsy point, and one I’d like to think more about). Our self-justified selves inevitably arrive at this uncomfortable point of nature versus nurture, that of course people can be blamed for some aspect of character that lies beyond environmental influence. Usually at this point we just ignore this complexity and cave into the same tendency of communities to justify and support one another — after all, confirmation is the lifeblood of camaraderie.
This reflection has taken on a life of its own, but these thoughts only scratch the surface of all that I’ve been thinking about recently, before and even more intensely throughout reading The Sellout. And it’s these same complex thoughts, same feelings of helplessness in reaching a dead end, that triggers our survival mechanism to tell us to step back, laugh it off, and try not to take it too seriously — let’s just pretend we can hold hands and sing Kum Bah Ya. But the tenuousness of this humor, the way it’s a mere glaze over the dark depths of self-insecurity (read: “Who am I?”) and screams of frustration we all keep pent-up inside, is why The Sellout was such an uncomfortable read for me: it forced me to simultaneously laugh and question why I was laughing.
Some of the final lines are a testament to the fact that after the endless cycling between not taking it seriously and taking it too seriously, we end up just pushing on, numb as we are:
There should be a Stage IV of black identity—Unmitigated Blackness. I’m not sure what Unmitigated Blackness is, but whatever it is, it doesn’t sell. On the surface Unmitigated Blackness is a seeming unwillingness to succeed. It’s Donald Goines, Chester Himes, Abbey Lincoln, Marcus Garvey, Alfre Woodard, and the serious black actor. It’s Tiparillos, chitterlings, and a night in jail. It’s the crossover dribble and wearing house shoes outside. It’s “whereas” and “things of that nature.” It’s our beautiful hands and our fucked-up feet. Unmitigated Blackness is simply not giving a fuck. Clarence Cooper, Charlie Parker, Richard Pryor, Maya Deren, Sun Ra, Mizoguchi, Frida Kahlo, black-and-white Godard, Céline, Gong Li, David Hammons, Björk, and the Wu-Tang Clan in any of their hooded permutations. Unmitigated Blackness is essays passing for fiction. It’s the realization that there are no absolutes, except when there are. It’s the acceptance of contradiction not being a sin and a crime but a human frailty like split ends and libertarianism. Unmitigated Blackness is coming to the realization that as fucked up and meaningless as it all is, sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living.
These are all but cursory thoughts and I hope to explore them further in more polished writing, but for now, as always, I’m glad I was able to jot down and make sense of at least this much.

 

More reading to reflect on: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/no-compromises