On a chilly night in late 2016, I was coming back from my university library at Illinois State University. On my way out, I picked up a book titled When Breath Becomes Air. Published posthumously in early 2016, When Breath Becomes Air was written by a neuroscientist named Paul Kalanithi, a 36-year-old resident in neurosurgery at Stanford University. Just months away from completing his training, Paul was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. He was a gifted scientist whose research on gene therapy won him his field’s highest research award. Adding to his impressive resume, he earned two degrees in English literature from Stanford University and gave serious consideration to pursing writing as a full-time career. He also held a Master of Arts in the History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine from University of Cambridge.
Much like anything else in his short life, Paul’s writing is brilliant to say the least. As you would see in When Breath Becomes Air, Paul spent his whole brief life searching for meaning in one way or another—through books, writing, medicine, surgery, and science. This short book, therefore, has so many layers of meaning and insights on life and death, patient and doctor, son and father, work and family, faith and reason. There is no shortage of insights in When Breath Becomes Air. Each reader can extrapolate their own set of insights from this reading. Following are some insights I found captivating.
Learning to be comfortable with uncertainties: The most important lesson in Paul’s story is that our future is uncertain. For years, Paul was preparing for a life he was never to live. The decade long medical training was about to end and he was to be a professor of neurosurgery. And once the training was done, he thought he could finally become the husband he promised to be. But, out of nowhere came cancer and Paul had to start living his life instead of postponing it. No part of this journey was easy for him. Future, as we see, is very uncertain. One must learn to be uncomfortable with such uncertainties. We rarely have an exact picture of the path ahead, so we must accept what arises with determined courage.
Compassion and humility: Much of what motivated Paul to pursue neurosurgery was the opportunity to forge relationships with people who were suffering and give him the chance to explore what life offers in meaning and scope. His relentless pursuit of human connection with his patients shows what makes life meaningful: the ability to feel another’s pain (and joy). Everyone fights their own battle. But, what differentiates human beings from any other animal is our ability to feel empathy. Nothing else could remind us of the importance of compassion and humility than facing our own mortality.
There is no small act: The world now is full of so many big problems. From the world-wide refugee crisis to climate change, the problems are too big for us to unravel. As a result, we rightly think that our individual acts do not matter in the grand scheme of things. Nevertheless, that is precisely what makes our individual small acts so significant. Our small kind act can mean the world to someone without us knowing. One may not need power or money to practice this kindness. We are capable of doing it from whichever position we are in. At the end of the book, Paul leaves a message for his daughter who he is not sure will remember him: “When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been and done and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing” (p. 199).
Faced with his own mortality just when he was on the verge of making big contributions to the world with his mind and hands, Paul reflected on what it means to lead a meaningful life. He wrote about the process of him transforming from doctor to patient, the struggles he had in his family, the power to talk about death and face it, all these and many others are contoured in such a thoughtful manner. When Breath Becomes Air is not an easy read. It is intense. It is tear-jerking. It is also a necessary read.