Give me your days, at least those moments you would squander. This could have been the longing of the young neurosurgeon who ran out of time. This is probably the final good-natured plea of almost all who are on the brink of life. All deaths are untimely, including the deaths of the old if we listen carefully to what they say.
That raises the disturbing question — what must the living do with their time? Should they live every moment like those who know they are very close to death, is that where the secret of life lies? A life made of pure substance, it is daunting but is that impossible?
Just over a year ago Paul Kalanithi, an American neurosurgeon, reviewed images of a CT scan. Later, he would write in the New York Times, ‘In my neurosurgical training, I had reviewed hundreds of scans for fellow doctors to see if surgery offered any hope. I’d scribble in the chart “Widely metastatic disease — no role for surgery,” and move on. But this scan was different: It was my own.’
He was then 36 years old. He knew too much to be fooled by hope, but still he allowed himself a bit of its warmth. ‘…My health began to improve…I began to walk without a cane and to say things like, “Well, it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll be lucky enough to live for a decade, but it’s possible.” A tiny drop of hope.’
He died last Monday. In the months that preceded his death he documented his thoughts that included how he perceived time and, inevitably, what a man in his circumstances would do with time.
“To live life to the fullest” is an expression that amused him enough to mark in quotations in one of his essays. That might be a wonderful idea to some, he suggested, but didn’t make much sense to him.
His daughter was born months after he had received his diagnosis. Naturally, he spent the best part of his remaining life with her.
She was growing fast, growing every day, in other words her cells were multiplying in a controlled preordained way.
His cells too were multiplying but in an uncontrolled destructive way, which is what cancer is. He wrote a note to her: ‘When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.’
There is a photograph of him with his daughter. He is a happy young father, sunlight on his face. She is sitting on his lap distracted by something that is outside the frame.
‘One time, this guy handed me a picture of him. He said, “Here’s a picture of me when I was younger.” Every picture is of you when you were younger.’ — Mitch Hedberg, stand-up comic
Kalanithi, in his final days, said that he perceived time differently from how he had perceived it earlier, in the days when he did not have to think so much about time. He did not see time as “linear”. To him it had become static, even a space.
The true nature of time is disputed. Some theoretical physicists say that it was created from an infinitesimal point that contained the seeds of both space and time.
What preceded that moment, they imply, is a pointless question best left to humanities.
There are scientists who are consumed by the question — does time move in miniscule jumps, like a dotted line, or continuously like a smooth line? Is time made up of moments? Does a moment have an absolute minimum span? Some neurologists believe that there is a minimum duration of time that the human brain can register, anything shorter than that would not feel like the passing of time.
All this, and the flow of time, had lost meaning for Kalanithi. Even so, he did see his little girl transform before his eyes, a joyous multiplication of cells that also reminded him that if she were growing, if time was flowing, he was nearing his death.
Last month, the neurologist and writer, Oliver Sacks announced that he was dying. ‘My luck has run out’. He appears to have a clear idea as to how he may enrich what remains of his life.
The 81-year-old wrote, “This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well). I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at ‘NewsHour’ every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.”
What does this say about the rest of us? About the conferences we attend where people are marked by little water bottles; how we stand in queues to pay money to a cashier who wants to be elsewhere; the company of people who do not matter; our arguments about global warming and our entrapment in journalistic time that fabricates topicality. And, how vulgar it is to be bored — to have so much time that sorrow is hatched, which is what boredom is about.
‘How must we live?’ is not the question whose answer we seek. ‘What are we waiting for?’ is the question. If the reason why we defer our pursuit of beauty and meaning is the notion that our death is not impending, we do know we are mistaken.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
Twitter: @manujosephsanThe views expressed by the author are personal