In a recent New York Times, 36-year-old Paul Kalanithi wrote How Long Have I Got Left about his diagnosis of terminal cancer, and coming to terms with his doctor’s inability to tell him how much time he had left: The reason doctors don’t give patients specific prognoses is not merely because they cannot..[but because] ...the range of what is reasonably possible is so wide….Yes, you will die. But one wants a full pound of certainty, and that is not on offer.

Kalanithi eloquently addresses how he learned to live aware of but NOT knowing, with the gravest of uncertainties:

I remember the moment when my overwhelming uneasiness yielded. Several words from Samuel Beckett…began to repeat in my head, and the seeminly impassable sea of uncertainty parted: 

‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’

 And then, at some point, I was through.

Kalanthi found a way to LIVE, despite, or because of, a diagnosis of his mortality.

‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ is a  powerful mantra no matter what we’re facing.


Soon after, we found this quote by Stephen Girard that seemed like an utterly hopeful way to deal such a diagnosis, or even just the feeling of not being able to go on:

If I knew I should die tomorrow, I would plant a tree today.  

Courtesy of Steidl/ Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Mitch Epstein, Courtesy of Steidl/ Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

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5 replies on “Embracing our Mortality to LIVE MAKE GROW

  1. I’d somehow missed reading Kalanithi’s piece for the NYTimes the first time around, and I’m grateful to you for posting the link. When I received my own diagnosis of breast cancer last summer, statistics were the first thing I heard, and that in 80% of cases like mine it’s nothing. A biopsy confirmed that it wasn’t nothing, and I found that once you cross the line, that 20% feels more like 100%. My treatment was successful, though I won’t know if I was cured until I die of something other than cancer, no comfort in statistics here. In the meantime, it’s brought me abruptly face to face with, as Kalanithi’s oncologist put it, finding what matters most.

  2. Statistics do not tell how an individual will do; they are averages and often misleading. Faced with such a difficult situation it seems there is only one thing to do: LIVE, and find what matters most, an often radical shift. Thank you for being part of Improvised Life, Diary of a Tomato!

  3. i love that ‘plant a tree’- quote , naturally : ) and it just reminded me i did .
    it also reminds me that we all (usually ) do not know when we are going to die . we just take the next day (moment) for granted . and it’s beautiful, too . ‘Accept’ death and it will come, even while you still live.
    i guess it’s is the harshness of the words , like a death sentence , like a cut.
    May i say i experienced it the other way round, where it was said ‘a few more months’ and he was gone in two weeks . Though the end of suffering , it was a cut, too .
    one can also plant a tree for someone , if they could not do that in time .
    i hope it grows , i see the flowers and the fruit . a reminder that life never ends .
    and sometimes we are reborn in our lifetime .

    ok, enough from me .

  4. The photograph courtesy of Steidl. Sikkema/Jenkins is the work of Mitch Epstein.
    This is unfortunate omission.

  5. Thanks for your email. Since we took the photo from a previous post we wrote about Mitch Epstein, we inadvertently left the photographer’s name off the actual photo. We’ve tried to correct the credit but find your notes confusing. Our understanding that the photo is courtesy of both Steidl and Sikkema/Jenkins. We would appreicate a clarification.

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