Books I hope you read: When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

Whether we like it or not, and whether we are aware of it or not, when we decide to become doctors we choose to ask the problem of death into our lives more bodily, more substantially, than most people. Paul Kalanithi took that to the extreme when he decided to become a neurosurgeon, and he wrestled with the problem of death – helping to guide patients across the landscape of health and disease which brings us so close to it – just as he wrestled with the problem of human meaning by choosing to become a physician after studying literature. His openness and vulnerability in discussing these problems in his book reflects not just a remarkable wisdom but also a rare and clear-eyed bravery, especially as the problem of death became personal for him.

Dr. Kalanithi talks in several places about the struggle at humanity’s very basis, and then he reinforces this foundational idea throughout the book when he talks about his own struggle. This constant striving really is essential to being human, and it reflects the conflict between life and death that we are all perpetually trapped within, and which he himself must face more readily than most of us ever will.

Living life means a constant balance between grasping and acceptance. We all must find our values – find the right way to spend our lives reaching while facing the knowledge that eventually, at some unknown time, everything we’ve reached will be taken away. Accepting death but knowing that the answer isn’t to stop the struggle – that’s life’s great challenge.

And Dr. Kalanithi faced it, and demonstrated it, beautifully. He takes the reader on our own, heartbreaking version of it. We get to know him, we grow to admire and appreciate him and his life, and this all the time knowing that his days are limited. I think knowing that Dr. Kalanithi died before he could see his book finished, but also having this version in my hands here in front of me, played out that never-ending challenge like Sesame Street teaches you how to tie your shoes.

This book was, ultimately and fundamentally, enough. I wish that Paul Kalanithi could have lived years and years longer to have written many more words for us, and I also accept that he didn’t. I am so grateful to him for baring himself open, for helping me figure out what it means to be a doctor, and for teaching me this really important lesson.