When Breath Becomes Air

I need to start cataloguing my good reads because I so frequently forget the great books I’ve read. So first up:

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

When Breath Becomes Air. I’d been meaning to read this book since it came out. It is the, for lack of a better phrase, life philosophy of the author, Dr. Paul Kalanithi. At the end of his residency, Dr. Kalanithi, a successful and dedicated neurosurgeon, began suffering inexplicable and brutal physical ailments. Knocking it off to fatigue and bajillion hour days, he quietly began wondering if it was something more serious. Later diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, and still a very young man with already so many accomplishments, the book traces his grieving process for the end of his own life.

Yet, this book does not intend to be a tearjerker. Rather, Kalanithi discusses his impending death with a thoughtfulness and an introspection full of grace and honesty. It is not meant to emphasize his death, but his reformulation of life. Stepping outside the grueling humdrum to recognize and be present for those fleeting, yet vital, moments of comfort, joy and vibrancy.

I related so much to the author, who, like me, came from an immigrant Indian family, with similar expectations and cultural values. Like me, he also majored in English, while doing pre-med. And even more unique, he had the same affinity for transcendental literature as I do. I suppose that language of self-improvement, the struggle of progress, and the ideal of peace and presence spoke strongly to me at this juncture of my life. The book doesn’t proclaim the cliché “seize the day,” rather Kalanithi shows you how to do live life fully and explore your passions, even in the face of death. Death, within his narrative, does not loom as a terrifying, all encompassing enigma. Instead, Kalanithi treats death as an almost soft and peaceful inevitability, a nuanced understanding, perhaps gleaned from his experience as a doctor.

When Breath Becomes Air is still heartbreaking, but in a hopeful and earnest way. It had informed the way I live my life and where I place my energy. I felt privileged to have Kalinithi’s perspective, especially in terms of his self-awareness and courage.

 

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