When Breath Becomes Air

My husband, nature, quiet time -- three of my favorite things.

My husband, nature, quiet time -- three of my favorite things.

"You have to figure out what's most important to you."

I (Cary) just finished reading the extraordinary memoir "When Breath Becomes Air" by the late Dr. Paul Kalanithi.  Kalanithi passed away last April from lung cancer, within a year of the birth of his daughter and his own graduation from neurosurgical residency.  During the brief period between his diagnosis and death Kalanithi wrote this book, with excruciating awareness and sublime honesty, about what it is that makes a life worth living.  

The quote above comes from Kalanithi's oncologist, referred to in the book as "Emma."  Kalanithi asks Emma often about statistics and projections for his illness; he seeks out solid footing in numbers and timelines.  Emma understands that what Kalanithi really wants to know is this: how ought he navigate his new life on this foreshortened timeline?  Her simple, sage advice:

"You have to figure out what's most important to you."  

I was drawn to this book months ago but put it down midway due to a period of loss in my own life.  When I picked it up again, hungry to put words to my own experience, I was drawn in particular to the grace with which Kalanithi grieved the chasm between how he'd imagined his life would be and how it was actually unfolding.  

For me, the bargaining stage of grief was the most illuminating.  In this stage, what it is that one holds most dear becomes crystal clear.  For the first time in my life, I knew with total certainty what I would trade, what I would give up, all of the things that I would, without a thought, toss out the window if it meant that I could have what I lost back.

And at that point, the idea of "stuff' and what we believe we "need" reveals itself in a pure way.  Stuff isn't bad; it brings us comfort and joy, beauty and ease.  But stuff is worth precious little, if anything at all, when we are stripped naked in front of life's big events. 

Minimalism, like grief, is a powerful tool for uncovering what matters most.

"When Breath Becomes Air" is written by a doctor and a philosopher.  Yet more than any book I've ever read about simplification or decluttering or design, Kalanithi's words get at the heart of what Kyle and I aim to do through New Minimalism.  

On the surface, we help people declutter and design their spaces.  What we really do is guide overwhelmed, fatigued folks through a process of peeling back layers (of stuff, commitments, habits, beliefs) until they have clarity around what matters most to them.  

In our sessions, it's typical for our clients to hit roadblocks.  As the morning's coffee fades and they sit, surrounded by so much stuff which they've chosen to bring into their lives, clients often struggle with deciding what should stay and go.  They're adrift in a sea of reasons of why they "should" keep something, why it came into their lives to begin with, and how much they gave up in order to have these items.  

This is where considering the brevity of life is so valuable.  

Trying to sort through million potential futures in order to determine an item should stay ("I might need this some day if I...") is a herculean task.  However, armed with the awareness of the shortness of life, we are instantly called back to our cores, to the very center of what matters.  

Here our clients can step back and say, "Oh, this is what matters to me: how I spend my days; how I feel when I first open my eyes in the morning; how I respond to the cries of my child; how much mental and emotional space I feel in my own life so I can bolster those I love in their lives.  Which of my things help me do that?"    

Which is precisely when the extraneous stuff goes flying out the door.  Spare bathrobes, old shin guards, extra pots and pans, old paperwork, unfinished projects -- what are these objects other than things which are blocking the way or at least fouling up the path as we try to live a full and meaningful life?

The author, Dr. Paul Kalanithi.

The author, Dr. Paul Kalanithi.

There is no reason not to follow your heart.

It would be debilitating to live life with your own mortality in the forefront of your mind each day.  But don't we owe it to ourselves to think about the shortness of life more often?  To, on occasion, strip bare our lives and consider really, truly, deeply, just what matters to us?  And then to do everything in our power to live our lives honoring and investing in what we value?  With however much time we have?

As Steve Jobs said, "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."