Death and Stories

If Ben Franklin is right that death and taxes are all that’s certain, our time in this world is pretty much defined by uncertainty. And if you’re seriously ill, like Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who wrote a lovely piece for Sunday’s NY Times about his fight against cancer, the uncertainty of knowing how much time you’ve got left takes on an entirely new level of intensity.

Skilled at offering hope to terminally ill people while being careful not to predict how long they might live, Kalanithi suddenly found himself in the same maddening position as his patients. At first, he persisted in trying to get his oncologist to tell him how much time he might have – of course to no avail.

But eventually he realized something important:

I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one.

He began to understand that when patients become obsessed with how much time they have left, they are not really asking about how much time they have left:

What patients seek is not scientific knowledge doctors hide, but existential authenticity each must find on her own. Getting too deep into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.

Science has helped to keep Kalanithi alive for a bit longer, but it had no power to help him through what was arguably his real crisis: a heightened and crippling uncertainty. For that, he needed Samuel Beckett:

I remember the moment when my overwhelming uneasiness yielded. Seven words from Samuel Beckett, a writer I’ve not even read that well, learned long ago as an undergraduate, began to repeat in my head, and the seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted.

What are the seven words? Read the full piece here to find out.

And then go read Samuel Beckett. Or whatever writer helps you grapple with the uncertainty that – unlike death and taxes – actually defines our lives.

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