When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air
By Paul Kalanithi

How I connected:

On the surface, the story appears to be about tragedy and unfulfilled promise. My core personhood and less sophisticated (insert egocentric or childish) side feels wedded to this theme. For a large portion of my life (and still on some of my less stellar days), I have always been afraid that at my funeral everyone would say “he had so much potential.” Between the beauty of Dr. Kalanithi’s writing and the complexity of his thought, is an abstract but clear sense of both life’s fire and his person. Faced with the reality of my actual fear, he turns and sees love, peace, and understanding while displaying strength and bravery.

What Surprised Me:

In some ways, the book is actually a love letter. The afterword by his wife had me in tears. They both talk so boldly and honestly of the challenges of their love and marriage, and the absolute admiration and love that exists. This public conversation between them carries so much sadness and pain, but also proves the true joy and complexity of life and love.

Why Read It:

From a medical perspective, Dr.Kalanithi shares his development in competence as a surgeon. His discussion of being a doctor shows how wonderful a surgeon he had already grown into, and will give hints and ideas to anyone working in medicine. The book would likely be helpful for anyone who is dealing with a difficult health diagnosis, or struggling with the aging process. He discusses the complex issues surrounding slowing down and being intentional about how we choose to live our life so that we can experience the most joy. 


"The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out. It felt like someone had taken away my credit card and I was having to learn how to budget. You may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Two months after that, you may want to learn to play the saxophone or devote yourself to the church. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process" (Pg160, Loc1577).
"Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue" (p170, Loc1663".
"Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state" (p198, Loc1937).