Smile Your Last Breath Away: A Conversation with Author James D. Kiesewetter

Smile Your Last Breath Away: A Conversation with Author James D. Kiesewetter

1. What led you to write Smile Your Last Breath Away?

At 18 years old, I lost a close friend of mine and the realization that I could die at any time became difficult to deal with. I was afraid of dying and it took years to navigate out of this. Specifically, it took years to find the questions I would ask myself on my death bed looking back on my life, if I have the chance to do that. It took a couple more years to find the answers to those questions, and then a few more to figure out how I could live every day for those answers.

The timing of our death is unknown. It may be abrupt or we may slowly fade away, the latter giving us time to ponder how we’ve lived our lives. I imagine it’s difficult to be content on one’s deathbed, reflecting on everything, and even more difficult to be content during the journey of life to that point. If we don’t have time to contemplate our life before we die and want to smile our last breath away, we will have to live a life where everything we do is enough for our last breath to be only a smile away—and if we live like this, we won’t fear death precisely because we are always capable of smiling our last breath away.

It slowly became clear to me that if I was able to live every day for the ‘right’ things, then my last breath would always only be a smile away. I didn’t have to worry if I was living for the right things anymore or be afraid of when death was coming because I’d have been the person I want to be and living for the right things all along.

This all led me to write this book. It's a collection of perspectives that helped me navigate out of the never-ending worry of being lost while taking my last breath. This book started as a place for me to explain everything I'd learned on my journey, but I learned more in the process of writing it than I had ever before. I think Life is full of contradictions like this—like how my life started when I came to terms with its end.

2. What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

The main goal of this book is, through the discourse that is the conversation between the sage and pupil of this novel, that readers discover their own answer to the central question: How would you live to be capable of smiling your last breath away in your final moment before death?

The broad answer to this question, I believe, is meaning. But how does one live a meaningful life? What is a meaningful life? Is it even possible for life to have meaning? Without meaning, one could be afraid to die at every moment, like I was. It was the fear of dying without any meaning in my life, in who I was, or whom I was trying to become—and that death could end my pursuit at any time. This is not new and I think what's more bizarre is that humans have been dealing with this for at least thousands of years.

In fact, a year after starting the seemingly insurmountable task of writing down what I had learned on my journey, I stumbled upon Meditations, Marcus Aurelius’ misleadingly titled personal journal, written while he was Emperor of Rome. Aurelius makes both deliberate and tangential attempts to answer the following questions: 

Why are we here? 

How should we live our lives? 

How can we ensure that we do what is right? 

How can we protect ourselves against the stresses and pressures of daily life? 

How should we deal with pain and misfortune? 

How can we live with the knowledge that someday we will no longer exist? 

I find it humbling and comforting to know that 2,000 years ago, a man, an emperor of one of the largest empires our world has seen, pondered the same questions as I did in this book. It made these questions seem more human and my pursuit more interesting. What would think? What are my answers? Later, these questions led me to another: What did learn that others could use in their search?

As with any idea, the beauty for me is in the perspective that someone attaches to it. It’s in asking vastly different people the same question, hearing their answers, and seeing how, from a certain angle, the same idea can look completely different. It’s in changing the way you live not because of the idea itself but because of how you see it and subsequently use it—just like we can turn our hand into a wolf or a butterfly with the help of a dark room, a wall, and light shone from the right place. In many ways, this book is the same: the ideas are the hand and the perspectives are the source of light, turning a familiar idea into a novel pleasure—or at least a tool for building one. 

With everything that has changed about the world since 161 CE (when Marcus Aurelius’ reign began), why, over 2,000 years later, was I contemplating the same questions as he did? He was searching for meaning. So was I. He was trying to come to terms with death. So was I. So is everyone, I think.

If we don’t have time to contemplate our life before we die and want to smile our last breath away, we will have to live a life where everything we do is enough for our last breath to be only a smile away—and if we live like this, we won’t fear death precisely because we are always capable of smiling our last breath away. This book is a journey to explore what that looks like—to understand what goes on in the mind of someone who feels that way. 

This book cannot tell you what a meaningful life is. That answer lies within you, and you must choose for yourself. When death comes, only you can judge the quality of your answers to the questions you have asked yourself. 

My main goal is to arm you with perspectives so you can go into the world to find and create meaning for yourself. That’s why this book is a conversation between a sage and a pupil: you will go on the journey with them as I did. You will not be told the answers; you will be given the lens to see and encouraged to search for them. 

I hope that with the perspectives in this book, you can go into the world, create your own meaning, and always be in a place to smile your last breath away.

3. Why are you excited for the launch event?

This is a difficult thing to write about, as I think most things are because often we are forced to use 2-dimensional words to explain the complexities of the human experience. This book represents the tenants and perspectives that are the foundation on which everything sits in my life. In a way, this book is tangible proof of the journey I went on for the last 8 years. I overcame something that was incredibly difficult for me, and something I think is at the heart of our life —dealing with knowing we will die one day. I'm not saying I found the answer, I just found some that work for me.

A hundred years from now, when someone we don't know walks by our tombstone and sees our name and the two dates, they won't really know we existed. Although unlikely, anyone could've just put a tombstone there. They could've made up a fake name, is there anyone even under the ground? In reality, the proof that we exist is in the stories that are told about us after we die. Our proof that we ever walked this Earth is that we had an impact on people, and we die when they stop telling stories about us. We die when there are no longer memories of us.

In the same way that those memories are proof that we existed, this book feels like proof that I went on the journey I did and overcame what I did. This book is proof of the foundation of my life. I feel like I've been working on this book since the day I became old enough to contemplate my transience. Although, I don't think I'm able to completely capture this with words — I'm most excited for the book launch because I'm excited to share what I've been working on and thinking about for so long. I'm excited to share things that were helpful in my journey and that may be helpful in others' journeys to find meaning in life, and if the perspectives aren't helpful, at least we'll all share perspectives. In the end that's most important to me, because after all, how are we supposed to have any perspective on what goes on in our heads if we don't know what goes on in others?

See you in two weeks. 

'Til Our Last Breath, 

James Kiesewetter

 

Click here for more information on James’ book Smile Your Last Breath Away
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Smile Your Last Breath Away: A Conversation with Author James D. Kiesewetter
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