Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

“What makes a virtuous and meaningful life?” A question that lingers in all of our minds at some junction of our individual journeys. Such a profound question, yet no simple answer. But, how do I align myself, my thoughts and my experiences to better solve this mystery?

The question I posed above is one that author and neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi wrestled with throughout his memoir – When Breath Becomes Air. Normally, I don’t read memoir’s and autobiographies because I thought to myself, “how could I ever relate to the author and their unique experiences?” Recently, a close friend of mine taught me that you should never have a closed mindset when it comes to your choices in life. Whats the harm in adding diversity and flavor to your routine by choosing alternatives. Instead of  embracing one genre, one way of living, one solution – why can’t their be a plethora of options? Options are what make life fun, because you can go any which way your heart desires in that particular moment.

Looking back now, I’m extremely grateful that I made a conscious decision to explore a different section of my bookstore that one afternoon. Had I not, I would’ve missed out on the wisdom and vulnerability that Kalanithi chose to share with us all . This book took me on a beautiful journey. Highs and lows. Sorrow and joy. Life and death. Kalanithi illustrates his journey from being a successful neurosurgeon that treated patients to becoming a patient facing his own mortality. He was a wayfinder along the tumultuous seas. His life split in two. Similar to the two hemispheres of our brain. In good health… post-cancer diagnosis… and beyond the restraints of time.

Friends, I share with you this month a book that taught me to live in the present moment. A concept I struggle with on a daily basis, but am working so tirelessly to accept.

This is… When Breath Becomes Air

“Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.”

As a society we place so much importance on self-identity. Our deepest desires to paint narratives of a fun and fulfilled lifestyle end up becoming our biggest failures. We spend countless hours showing the world an image of ourselves that is “perfect,” in our eyes. But, you and I both know that life isn’t a walk in the flower fields. Where there are roses, there are also thorns. How we decide to face those thorns in a desert of adversity is what defines our character, and most importantly builds our courage.

Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at the tender age of thirty-six. The  path he walked to becoming a renowned neurosurgeon and academic slid out of his hands like a fistful of sand. His aspirations, responsibilities and strength were becoming an essential piece of who he used to be, rather than who he was now.

“My life had been building on potential, potential that would now go unrealized. I had planned to do so much, and I had come so close. I was physically debilitated, my imagined future and my personal identity collapsed, and I faced the same existential quandaries my patients faced. The lung cancer diagnosis was confirmed. My carefully planned and hard-won future no longer existed. Death, so familiar to me in my work, was now paying a personal visit.”

The occurrence of tragic events was something all to familiar to Kalanithi. The parallels he draws from the unique cases of his patients and weaves them so seamlessly into his own tale is beautiful, relatable and pure. As a reader, I was able to relate so closely to the notion of building potential and the fear that this potential may be wasted, unrealized or inacted upon. As a recent grad, I face similar concerns about a hazy future. A diverged road. A fork spliting my choices into two avenues. Which one is the better choice? What if I make a mistake? All of these future-oriented questions never mattered, but why do I place so much importance on them? What about right now? This day, hour, minute, second? What makes your life meaninful in this instance?

Have you asked yourself this question recently?

225 pages, two distinct parts, one universal message. When Breath Becomes Air was a book that allowed me to examine my own life through a different lens. For someone who has always been future-oriented, craving the next high of success, wanting to make myself proud of what I have the ability to accomplish, I learned that these desires don’t mean a thing if I don’t tune myself to the present moment. Live in the now, act in the now.

Friends, if you’ve been in a rut recently with whatever it is that you are going through, I highly recommend you give this memoir a read. Let Kalanithi’s message touch you and provide you the clarity you’re searching for.

My favorite line from the book…

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” 

Thank you for joining me on this blog post. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below. I’m curious, in your opinion, what makes life meaningful? What are things you value which help you live a purposeful existence? Let’s chat!

With love,

Ashna

XOXO ❤