One of the books I read while on vacation was When Breath Becomes Air the #1 New York Times Bestseller by Paul Kalanithi. A dear friend living with cancer loaned it to me, although I have had several people tell me how powerful the book was for them. I cannot commend a book more highly. Beautifully written and full of wisdom, I was quickly drawn into Paul’s story—the story of a chief resident of neurosurgery diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at the age of 35.
In his journey to become a doctor, Paul cared deeply about faithfully guiding his patients and their families through the process of learning how to live a meaningful life, in the face of tremendous suffering, grave illness and, very often, death. And then he became the patient, navigating those waters not as the guide but as guided. His words capture the care with which he lived and died, inviting the reader to travel alongside, mining his insights to inform our own living.
Recently I heard author and theologian Peter Rollins observe, ‘we live between our lived lives and our unlived lives: that is, the lives that we have and the lives that we would like to have, we live in the middle of those, and that is frustrating and difficult and somewhere like Las Vegas gives you the unlived life’. Except that promises of the unlived life aren’t real—that are illusions that cannot be sustained. Eventually the infinitely varied ways we seek to run from or anesthetize the struggle and pain woven into the fabric of being human, fail us.
I believe that is one of the tremendous challenges of life—that the life we live is not what we imagine or in some cases yearn for. On top of that, we continually find ourselves in situations where the life we do have is upended—as with Paul’s diagnosis—very often without warning, such that the future we imagine is suddenly and irrevocably beyond our reach. How do we respond? In the words of his wife Lucy, Paul “faced each stage of his illness with grace—not with bravado or a misguided faith that he would ‘overcome’ or ‘beat’ cancer but with an authenticity that allowed him to grieve the loss of the future he had planned and forge a new one.”
We are not promised that life will be what we want it to be—easy and without pain and suffering. Clearly the cross implodes that theory. Rather, we are promised that we are not alone as we journey through each day, and that the more we can live the life that is actually ours, experiencing the full gamut of what life has to offer and embracing all of what that means in any given moment, we discover the life worth living. It is a mystery indeed. And not at all easy, living as we do in a culture that invests a tremendous amount of time and money offering ways to numb or escape, temporarily at least.
Embracing our real life, including grieving unrealized dreams and forging a new life based on what is, takes tremendous courage. And very often we cannot do so without leaning in to a community of love—building the treasure, as Kate reminded us in her sermon this past week, that cannot be taken away from us. In what ways are you running from the life that is yours? In what ways are you embracing it, and nurturing the bonds of affection that nourish and sustain?