Every now and then I read a book that rocks my world. This was the case last week when, while holding my newborn daughter in my arms, I read When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir written by a young man, a neurosurgical resident, who knows he is dying from cancer. Lucky for us readers, he is also a beautiful writer who chose to share his experience of terminal illness in a raw a transparent format. I’ve never cried so hard for the death of someone I did not know.
As one of the reviews on the back cover reads;
This is one of a handful of books I consider to be a universal donor – I would recommend it to anyone, everyone. – Ann Patchett
After Paul (the author) learns of his stage IV lung cancer diagnosis, he describes appointments with his oncologist, Emma. Emma’s focus is not solely on his treatment, but on the life Paul intends to lead while he is still alive. She continually presses Paul to figure out his ‘values’, so that she can choose the treatment that allows him to live those values. Does he want to continue performing brain surgery? Should he and his wife try to conceive a child? Should he write a book?
Emma the oncologist reminds me of a skilled financial life planner. Life planners are not (generally) working with terminally ill patients, but we have both the luxury and the challenge of helping clients discover their ‘values’ and live the life they would choose if they were diagnosed with a terminal illness. While there are exercises that assist clients in finding their values, such as Kinder’s Three Questions, these do not create the same sense of urgency, for most, that Paul faces in his memoir. Although it seems, even Paul struggled to figure out his values.
Grand illnesses are supposed to be life clarifying. Instead, I knew I was going to die – but I’d known that before. My state of knowledge was the same, but my ability to make lunch plans had been shot to hell. The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many month or years I had left.
Perhaps terminal illness is not even enough to provide the clarity we need to determine our values. But what I find most profound about Paul’s passage here is that he had always known has was going to die. We all do, even if we are in denial. Perhaps this is the knowledge one must tap to determine how to live a happy and fulfilling life.
I come away from this beautiful book with a renewed vigor to live my life with purpose and to help clients do the same. While I continue to save and plan for the future, I do not want to lose sight of the present. Life, after all, is brief. If today were my last on Earth, I am happy I spent it cuddling and rocking a newborn baby while writing this post.
A larger portfolio won’t make life more meaningful. Nor will returns that beat the index. Money is a tool. For many, it is a safety net. It should be carefully maintained and preserved. But in the end, we cannot take it with us. The Egyptians tried, and their graves were robbed a millennia later. Let us find ways to spend it on a meaningful life.