What gives life meaning? This is the main question asked by Paul Kalanithi in his bestselling memoir, When Breath Becomes Air. It is a question that most of us do not like to think about. When we are immersed in the chaos of our day to day lives, responsibilities, social relationships and deadlines, coming face to face with our own mortality cuts through the blur with alarming clarity.
This is exactly what happened to Kalanithi. Aged thirty-seven, with a brilliant academic career behind him and on the verge of completing his training as a neurosurgeon, he receives the devastating news that he has lung cancer. Overnight he is transformed from a doctor to a patient and he wrestles with the question of what makes life worth living as his ambitions and achievements are wrenched away. As he and his family navigate through their grief and the unfamiliar terrain of the dying, Kalanithi reflects on the nature of life.
Kalanithi wrestles with the question of what makes life worth living as his ambitions and achievements are wrenched away.
I read When Breath Becomes Air in nearly one sitting and I was blown away. Kalanithi’s candid yet artistic prose, peppered with medical terminology, conveys his life beautifully. We are taken on a journey from the nostalgic memories of his childhood in Arizona to his final days in the hospital bed. He raises the importance of the moral responsibility of the doctor and catalogues the highs and lows of this intensive yet very rewarding profession. A voracious reader who was endlessly curious, he attempts to understand what his life means when it is cut short with profound empathy.
The epilogue, written by his wife Lucy, describes his final days. The raw and emotional portrayal of his pain and their family’s grief is not an easy read, but a compelling one. The death of a loved one is a reminder to us all of how precious and fragile life is.
The death of a loved one is a reminder to us all of how precious and fragile life is.
Kalanithi died in 2015, but his words live on. Whether you are under the stress of essay deadlines, or feeling overwhelmed with upcoming exams, reading a book like this is a humbling experience will remind you of what really matters in your life. There is no better teacher of life than death, and we should remember that every day that we are alive is precious, amazing, and it matters.
Image Credits: Header (Mohammed Tawsif Salam/Wikimedia Commons)