How a book taught me the difference between passively taking in a life-sustaining breath and purposefully drawing in life-fulfilling air.
During my last trip to Portland, I read the book When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.
Here is the Amazon review,
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.
Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.
Honestly, need I say any more about this book? If that didn’t move you to run and pick up this book, I don’t know what will. In this memoir, Kalanithi discusses how a diagnosis of lung cancer changed his perception of life. Suddenly, the ability to breath easily was stripped from him, and Kalanithi realized that, as each breath could be his last, he had to make them count.
Although I was reading the story of a stranger’s life, I related to this book on many levels. Let me break them down, one-by-one:
On a very singular level, I relate to Kalanithi as a neurosurgeon, not because I am one (well, maybe my year at UC Davis studying neurobiology would count for something), but because of the interactions I have had with neurosurgeons through my dad. A neurosurgeon has changed my life, and the life of my father, by successfully preforming Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) surgery on both of my father’s brain hemispheres. DBS has given my father such a better quality of life by utilizing a steady stream of electrical currents to stimulate muscle movements.
Having seen the patient side of DBS twice, I was excited to get a peak into the neurosurgeon’s side, an insight that Kalanithi provided as he touches upon preforming DBS surgery in his memoir. Honestly, I am so glad I read this book after my dad’s surgeries. Kalanithi made it extremely clear how little sleep neurosurgeons get. Going into my dad’s surgery I felt reassured seeing our doctor chipper and ready. If I had known that, in actuality, he was probably running off about 6 hours of sleep after a 22-hour shift the day before, it probably would have taken some strong medication to calm me down!
A Fellow Writer:
Another connection to Kalanithi that I drew was our mutual love of writing. Like Kalanithi, I never would have predicted a career in writing for myself, but I do see writing as part of my future. Like Kalanithi, I believe I have something to say, and would someday like to write a memoir myself, talking through my experiences as the daughter of a man living with Parkinson’s Disease.
What inspires be about Kalanithi is that he never confined himself to just one track: he became a leading neurosurgeon and an acclaimed memoirist. He made time for his writing, even while working intensely as a doctor and battling cancer, and was able to put into captivating words all that he learned through his disease. Since discovering my passion for writing, I know that it is something I will pursue throughout my life, I’m just unsure of in what capacity and to what extent.
The Drive to Succeed:
Kalanithi’s desire to succeed and learn is all too evident in his book. After graduating from Stanford with B.A. and M.A. in English literature and a B.A. in human biology, he took to England to earn a Master’s of Philosophy in the history and philosophy of science and medicine from Cambridge. As that still wasn’t enough for him, Kalanithi returned to the academic world to attend the Yale School of Medicine, where he earned his M.D. and was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha national medical honor society. Kalanithi began his residency in neurological surgery at Stanford, where he also completed his postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience. At Stanford, Kalanithi received the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for resident research.
Kalanithi is an over-achiever to say the least. Without feeling the pressure of time or money, Kalanithi set out to achieve all that he put his mind to. Although I don’t see such an academia-intense future for myself (starting my MBA studies this Fall should be enough for me), I do want to follow Kalanithi’s lead and believe that if I have the dedication and drive necessary, I too can accomplish anything I put my mind to.
A Fellow Philosopher:
Kalanithi talks much about “finding your values” in When Breath Becomes Air. Throughout his time, Kalanithi has contemplated and studied much of life, specifically trying to discover what makes living meaningful. I have devoted the last six months of my life doing just this, spending my days trying to unearth the deeper meaning of my happiness.
Like Kalanithi, I realize that there is no clear formula for happiness, instead understanding that the route to a fulfilled and happy life is often more like a maze, with new and diverging paths appearing during the most unlikely times.
This book was utterly amazing and is well worth the six hours it will take you to read it. I highly recommend setting aside some time to open yourself fully to it. Let Kalanithi show you how his loosing battle with lung cancer taught him how a simple breath can become a breath of fresh air.
If you have read this book, what did you think of it? Let us know below.
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