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 making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live.
When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanathi's transformation from a medical student in search of what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity - the brain - and finally into a patient and a new father.
Finally finished this book that I had started eons ago. It had nothing to do with the writing though - I thoroughly enjoyed the clear, concise yet gripping way the author narrated his thoughts and emotions. Even in the bleakest parts of the book, I liked that he presented his thoughts in a very factual manner, dissecting his reactions, and never over-dramatising it with emotive or melancholic phrasing.
I had been initially interested in this book for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was an account of a person coming to terms with mortality, something that I had been fascinated with since my youth. As a child, I was one who was exposed to it at an extremely young age, with all my grandparents passing away between the time I was one and three years old. I find it odd when people tell me now that children don't understand the concept of death, because I definitely remembering myself understanding fully what it meant - that a person has come to the end of his physical lifespan on earth, and his physical being no longer functions. His heart no longer beats, and his consciousness thus ends, so he ceases to be. It terrified me no end, and brought me so much sadness as a two-year-old losing her grandfather, one of the key figures in my life at the time. To this day I still feel the grief. As I got older, I am no longer afraid of death, but it does remind me that our time on this earth is finite. This helps to shape how I make a lot of decisions in life, in managing my choices such that I don't spend time on unnecessary angst and worry, while maximising time in being a constructive being who treasures the relationships that matter. Reading a personal account of someone who had to face imminent death at an age that seems far too young for a life with so much promise, was also a stark reminder of that.
I was also quite fascinated by his profession as an aspiring neurosurgeon. I've never been inclined towards a career in medicine - while I was not fearful of blood, I do cringe inwardly at the sight of it so the thought of cutting people up and doing things to their organs and bones, even if it's to help them, was never something that appealed to me. My initial perception of neurosurgery was only that it involves operating with the brain, which must be the most daunting specialisation I've ever known. I couldn't imagine ever bearing that sort of a responsibility not only on a person's survival, but how they might be to think, move and behave. Reading about his inspiration and motivation to go into this field has been most enlightening, and I have even greater respect for neurosurgeons than I had before.
The words in this book which left the deepest impression, was his take on truth. This was something that I've often thought about, had been on my mind in recent months especially with certain events, where I realised that the power of perception, combined with the amount of information one gets exposed to, in shaping a person's understanding and view of an event or situation. It is such an important thing to bear in mind: that your truth may not be someone else's truth, and will never be the whole and absolute truth. We would all do well to bear that in mind when casting judgments on anyone and anything we encounter.
"Struggle toward the capital-T Truth, but recognise that the task is impossible - or that if a correct answer is possible, verification certainly is impossible.
In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can only see a part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them."
When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi