Updated on February 16, 2017
When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi
If you have time to scroll through your Facebook feed and shake your head in disbelief, you have time to read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. And even if you don’t have time for social media and have your plate full with other pressing matters, read this book, I urge you. Unless, like millions of people before me, you have already read it.
For a book about a brilliant young neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer, it dwells less on death and more on life. The meaning of life, in all its fragility and complexity. Many before him have struggled with the concept, but few have been more eloquent. Apart from graduating cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine in 2007, he also has a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature, a B.A. in Human Biology from Stanford University, and a M.Phil in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine from the University of Cambridge. In the limited time allotted to him, he even received the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for research.
On ambition, this is what he had to say – “Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after the wind, indeed.”
On the power of language – “I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion.”
There are many passages in the book that stand out, many poignant lines, and a rare insight into the world of neurosurgery. I leave you with a few more lines from his book, hoping it will ease your daily strife.
“Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”
“Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving. Describing life otherwise was like painting a tiger without stripes.“