More Meaningful Than Brain Surgery

Andrew Valdez
5 min readNov 17, 2023

Here’s something that hurts my brain; how can life be so complicated and yet so simple all at once? I can’t stop thinking about this. How could two opposites hold the same weight of truth? And if life is about finding some sort of meaning, is that meaning simple in nature? Or is it complicated to the point where you spend your whole life striving just to reach a state of meaning? One suggests meaning is a given and through existence alone, you are fulfilling your life’s purpose. The other suggests that you create the meaning. In other words, it’s what you do with your existence that derives meaning. So which is it?

It occurred to me recently that my philosophy on, “what makes a meaningful life?”, has flip flopped between these two seemingly contrary perspectives. What it really comes down to is the situation. When I am speaking to a friend who is emotionally struggling, I want to console them. I want them to accept that by simply the beat of their heart, their life is meaningful enough. They are prize of life.

And then there are the conversations I have with myself. As the saying goes, pressure makes diamonds. Well if that’s the case, I should have quite a few precious stones somewhere in my body. I just hope it’s not in the last place I want to check…

Each day I wake up and I feel like I’m at the bottom of a hill. I know it will be there, because I made it yesterday and yesterday’s hill the day before that. To climb it, I have to fulfill tasks that are important to me. Tasks getting me, hopefully, closer to my goals. As the day goes on, I ascend further up the hill and when day is done, I look back on the progress I made. If I’m near the top, I’m satisfied. Life is full of meaning, the sun is shining, birds are chirping, all soldiers set down their guns, the climate isn’t doomed, and all the world rejoices. But if I fall short, emptiness. Nothing but rain clouds showering world’s smallest violin. Life still has meaning, I just failed to earn it that day.

How could I tell my friends one thing and myself something entirely different? Surely meaning must be effortless or require effort. It had been over a week since I fell down this well and still the questions persisted. Every event of my life was like words on script leading me towards answering this question. That was until I stumbled across a book.

In a Barnes & Noble in Newburgh, New York, I picked up a copy of When Breath Becomes Air. I read the back and was immediately hooked. So I did what any bookworm would do; checked to see if the library had it. To my broke boy delight, they had a copy and I soon began reading the story of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon nearing the peak of his own professional hill only to be struck with life altering news. He has cancer. Terminal cancer to be more precise. Like a boat taken off course by a gust of wind changes, Dr. Kalanithi’s meaningful life changed forever.

For most of his life, Paul’s meaning was derived from his profession. Helping patients fulfilled him. Even as his body began to deteriorate, he continued to strive to operate again. But eventually, he had to accept meaning wasn’t in the operating room anymore. He then tried to find meaning in his love of writing and he did find it there. Paul was a fantastic writer with an even better story. As a reader, I was enamored with his words and even more inspired by how he was able to just keep going. Each page was better than the last and then, just like that, it’s over. Paul passes on.

But just before Paul has to put down the pen, he leaves us with one final paragraph. A glimpse at where he found the most meaning in his life. As his fingers touched his keyboard for the final time, no doubt aware his time was nearly up, Paul wrote to his infant daughter. To her he shares that one day she’ll have her own hills to climb. As she ascends that them, inevitably taking inventory of her life, Paul asks her to do one thing, to remember what she cannot. To recall their time together as father and daughter. Paul asks her to remember and never diminish the value of her life, nor the time she shared with her dying father. Because for him, those were the most meaningful moments of his life.

If you have ever been around a baby, then you know how little value they bring in the first months of their life. For the short time Paul spent with his daughter, their relationship was mostly him taking care of her. Changing diapers, soothing cries, making her giggle. Trying to absorb as many moments of fatherhood that he could. Moments which she won’t ever recall. And yet for Paul, those few months with his daughter contained more meaning than the entirety of his medical career. Meaning, for Paul, was as effortless as the coo of his baby girl.

What I learned from Dr. Paul Kalanithi is that life’s meaning is as simple as the next inhale and as complex as operating on the human brain. Meaning is something given and earned. So if you’re like me, dejected by your own self imposed standards, remember the breath that fills your lungs. Unearned, freely given, effortless significant. By doing so you will begin to embrace paradox of meaning. Living each day like it’s your last. As you struggle up that hill, you’ll remember that although meaning may be awaiting you at the top, there’s also meaning in each step you take towards it. And as we all inevitably reach our summit, death will be there waiting, not to strike fear in your heart but to great you as a friend would. Arms open wide, congratulating you on a life full of meaning.