When Life becomes Lead

Why we must read “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

“If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?”
― Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

There’s a part of me that feels bad to be reviewing this book. It is not just another book, but a sacrosanct memoir of a dying man; a man who strived to uphold to his belief in moral perfection till the end. His quest for the meaning in life, what makes human life worth living compelled me to think about the meaning of my own life.

The book begins with his childhood in Kingman, Arizona where he was initiated into literature by his mother. As a youth embarking on a life full of potential, he turns out to be the crème de la crème of intellectuals, pursuing degrees in literature, biology, philosophy of science and medicine and finally foraying into medicine at Yale, becoming a neurosurgeon-neuroscientist.

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”
― Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

His entire journey of life could be summed up in stages that he himself uncovers one revelation at a time. He begins his journey by examining death and human character through literature, then unsatisfied at the passivity of literature he jumps into the forefront of action as a neurosurgeon battling death and identity for his patients. He finds meaning in the gruelling hours of his resident life by guiding his patients and their families through the trough of illness, often encountering death and accepting it. The cycle reaches its penultimate stage when he finds himself at the receiving end of the table, suddenly becoming a patient himself. He was diagnosed with Stage IV terminal lung cancer. His dilemmas about the choices in his career, that he had so meticulously planned for, become the crux of all human desires. He at once, becomes himself and all the human beings who ever faced their mortality in uncertain prognosis.

But the ultimate stage, where the cycle of life completes is not his own death, but the birth of his daughter; in her he finds joy and comfort in his dying days. His message to his daughter as quoted by him,

“That message is simple: 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.”
― Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

I have read many articles where they call Paul a man who died before his time, a surgeon on the verge of culminating the true potential of his career. But to say so will be demeaning his life, because he achieved what he had set for, to learn and understand death and the meaning of a life that is so transient in this universe, and he fulfilled his desire to write about it through this book. This memoir feels like life itself, terminated abruptly, yet complete and meaningful in the pages that it lived.

I am grateful that he wrote this book, because it is the only way I could have known him and his ideas.

You can get a copy of this book here -> When Breath Becomes Air

Do tell me if this book changed your perspective on life as much as it did for me.

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