Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi.
I just finished reading When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi and I thought I would write a book review on it.
I’ve never done a book review before but I decided to start doing at least one in a month so I will learn to do it better and better each time 😉
Now that I think about it, my vision of it is less like a typical book review and more like a lessons-learned from the book kind of thing. I read Brainpickings a lot so it might be derived from that…anyway, we’ll see how it goes! But don’t even dare compare me to Maria Popova’s structure and writing…just don’t!
To be honest, I didn’t want to read this book at first because of all the hype it got, I assumed it would be another teen-ish, cliched book but I was wrong!
When I heard that it was an autobiography ( and I LOVE those) I got too curious about it and started reading it and instantly got hooked by the depth insights it comprehends from the start. Plus the writing is pretty neat, thoughtful and well structured.
The book is heavy in medical technicities so it's a must for all medical students, because not only does it discuss the scientific and professional side of things but he also sheds light on the patient-doctor relationship in a deep and humane manner and I don't think that's something taught in med school despite its importance!
The book is written by a Neurosurgeon who gets cancer (you know this from the start) and what I liked is that the book is not dramatic despite it being about death and being diagnosed with cancer. It is less about the event of death in itself and whether the treatments will work or not but it’s more about that transition towards death.
From leading a normal life with the eventuality of death only at the back of your head to a life where that eventuality is in the foreground of everything you do. And the book is composed of exactly 2 parts, the before and the after.
Paul captures this when he writes:
“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”
In the first part, the emphasis is on Paul’s career and how it turned from a college degree choice to a calling, a sacred vocation.
On Monday I published an article on the topic of finding what it is that will define your career choices and I mentioned Paul’s story as an example so here’s an expert from that piece (and you can read all of it here):
In the book When Breath Becomes Air, Paul KALANITHI's Essence was the line between life and death and what makes human's life meaningful.
He says: « “A few years later, I hadn’t thought much more about a career but had nearly completed degrees in English literature and human biology. I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. Meaning, while a slippery concept, seemed inextricable from human relationships and moral values. ”
At first, he considered Literature and Philosophy as the tools to approach that essence and while pursuing that, he discovered Neurosurgery and fell in love with it as he constated that it threatens either the loss or the spoiling of one's identity and therefore it reshapes the meaningfulness of their life.
So he decided to change his tool and get into med school and become a Neurosurgeon to get closer to that very line between life and death, between a meaningful life and identity.
And he did get to that with being flexible with the tools and staying faithful to the Essence.
- As his choice of a career was based on this fundemantal question «What makes human life meaningful? » , it allowed him to be highly connected to his role as a neurosurgeon of assisting patients in that transition and therefore he saw his occupation less like a job and more as a sacred calling.
“Being with patients in these moments certainly had its emotional cost, but it also had its rewards. I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life—and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul—was obvious in its sacredness.”
What his calling taught him about meaningful life.
Then he moved on to discuss in detail what his work and his cancer have taught him about living a meaningful life and defining one’s identity.
He constated how illness (especially cerebral) threatens our identity as we might face the dilemma of either losing our ability to breathe or losing our ability to speak and this very choice questions our entire identity that we spent a lifetime building and defining.
What defines one’s identity?
I also liked how at some point during the treatment, Paul longed to be who he used to be. We usually are concerned about becoming who we want to be, who is usually the projection of our best selves in the future.
And now we see how illness and death puts that in consideration and we only wanna gain our selves back, gain our identity and the little things that constitute us and ones with which we recognize ourselves and get recognized.
“ Lucy said she loved my skin just the same, acne and all, but while I knew that our identities derive not just from the brain, I was living its embodied nature. The man who loved hiking, camping, and running, who expressed his love through gigantic hugs, who threw his giggling niece high in the air—that was a man I no longer was. At best, I could aim to be him again.”
What makes us valid?
He also talks about becoming invalid because he now lost the ability to practice neurosurgery which has been his identity for a while now and how he’s been so delve into it that he forgot what he is without it, he has been so satisfyingly occupied with it that he didn’t spend much time requestionning what else is important to him and what else does he value and what else constitutes him.
Striving and struggle add meaning to our life.
Under the same shadow of a meaningful life, Paul comes to the conclusion that suffering and striving are the main components of a meaningful life.
He faces this when entertaining the thought of having a child with his wife as he’s on the verge of death and how the child would be a valuable addition to his and his wife’s lives despite being aware that the goodbye with his child will make leaving more painful than it already was.
Science and meaning.
By the end of the book, he gets a bit more spiritual and discusses the line between science and meaning and the shortcomings of science in the face of meaningful concepts like love, hope, and even God.
"Yet the paradox is that scientific methodology is the product of human hands and thus cannot reach some permanent truth. We build scientific theories to organize and manipulate the world, to reduce phenomena into manageable units. Science is based on reproducibility and manufactured objectivity. As strong as that makes its ability to generate claims about matter and energy, it also makes scientific knowledge inapplicable to the existential, visceral nature of human life, which is unique and subjective and unpredictable. Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.”
The religious striving.
The last idea from the book that caught my attention was this Christian belief that Paul captures here:
I realised how it is similar to the islamic approach to being good and avoiding sin.
God doesn’t expect us to be angels nor to be perfect all the time, the only thing He expects from us is that striving to be and do good and to behave by His words and instructions. Indeed, His favorite people are those who sin and have repent as the automatic action that follows that shortcoming of theirs.
I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life—and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul—was obvious in its sacredness.
And that’s, in brief, the main ideas that caught my attention and made me pause and reflect a little all throughout the book which I highly recommend for anyone facing career choices and striving to add meaning to their life.
This turned from a book review to a book summary…. sorry not sorry!