We all heard Amanda Gorman yesterday
Her words, poise and beauty
Could escape none of us
In this time of too much
When we have been seeking nothingness
Her grace lifted our numb minds
From the chasm of despair
Into a hopeful world
With all but a few words.
Amanda has been a dose of optimism and reminded us of the magic of poetry!
It also reminded me of a line from one of my favorite books, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – “And so it was literature that brought me back to life during this time.” The book talks about Paul’s personal reflections as he goes through the illness of a terminal cancer.
“Lost in a featureless wasteland of my own mortality, and finding no traction in the reams of scientific studies, intracellular molecular pathways, and endless curves of survival statistics, I began reading literature again: Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich…. Anything by anyone who had ever written about mortality. I was searching for vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again. The privilege of direct experience had led me away from literary and academic work, yet now I felt that to understand my own direct experiences, I would have to translate them back into language. Hemingway described his process in similar terms: acquiring rich experiences, then retreating to cogitate and write about them. I needed words to go forward.”
Paul was a super specialized doctor, a neurosurgeon blessed with exceptional intellect, knowledge and accomplishments. The moment I started reading his book, I was floored by his persona. I was enamored by the way a scientist could so beautifully articulate the complexity of human mind and life. Literature inspired him in those moments of absolute hopeless and uncertainty. I feel that the depth of his writing can easily stir emotions even among the restrained. His vocabulary and language are impeccable. I can only aspire to write with such clarity.
Here are some lines from Paul’s book that particularly touched me.
As a doctor, Paul relied on statistical data when diagnosing and treating his patients. He says – “It occurred to me that my relationship with statistics changed as soon as I became one.”
“The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?”
“Yet the paradox is that scientific methodology is the product of human hands and thus cannot reach some permanent truth. We build scientific theories to organize and manipulate the world, to reduce phenomena into manageable units. Science is based on reproducibility and manufactured objectivity. As strong as that makes its ability to generate claims about matter and energy, it also makes scientific knowledge inapplicable to the existential, visceral nature of human life, which is unique and subjective and unpredictable. Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue. Between these core passions and scientific theory, there will always be a gap. No system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience.”
And my favorite of all…these are the lines from Paul for his infant daughter, Cady, “who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.” –
“When you come to one of the many moments in life where 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 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.”
Such is the magic of words! It can provide inspiration, strength and most importantly, power of expression, during need of the hour.