Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Rating: 10 / 10  – the best nonfiction book I’ve read in a while.

I started this book last evening and it left me in tears. Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi writes about coming to terms with death and being diagnosed with lung cancer. His journey swings to and from extreme ends of a pendulum – from doctor to patient, from English major to neurosurgeon, from living a life so full of promise and potential to never knowing how much more time you have left to finish the work you were supposed to do or how many more nights you have to cuddle with your wife and newborn daughter.

As a neurosurgeon, he knows better than to question, “Why me?”. In the 0.0012% chance of it happening to someone in their 30s and a non-smoker, he knew he was still part of the group of “Why not me?”. He faced death straight on, making plans for his wife and daughter’s future, trying to go back to surgery and helping as many patients as he could, writing this book as his final call out to mother earth, as if to shout back into this painful existence as if to say, use whatever you have left of me to make life a little more bearable for everyone else.

What makes life worth living? Happiness or suffering?

Paul Kalanithi was a deep thinker who questioned the meaning of life and morality rigorously.

He demonstrates the high stakes of being a neurosurgeon, where millimetres of error could mean life or death, or forever change in a young boy’s personality from angel to monster. Is it better to live through a defibrillator, never being able to think or communicate the same way as your previous self, or to have nature take it’s course and letting your loved ones find closure? Should we feel anger at those who neglect those who become incognisant of the past and their loved ones? Would we do the same if we were in the same situation? He comes to his own conclusions over the course of the book, sometimes different from what they were in the beginning, and while reading you can empathise why.

Perhaps the part of the book where the most tears rolled down my cheeks was reading about his courage in not avoiding suffering. When he and Lucy (his wife) were deciding whether to have a child or not, something they had planned to do but was increasingly precarious to do given the consequences of his cancer.

Lucy asks, “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” To which he replies, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”

He accurately describes the suffering that comes with great joy. When you experience love for someone so much that it makes it that much harder to say goodbye. Lucy and Paul didn’t avoid the suffering that comes with love and happiness  – and such is our struggle with life in general. What is the point of existence if it is all meaningless? Why try to put yourself out there when you will probably be forgotten in a thousand years? Why try to save ourselves when death comes to all of us? The answer is that you don’t avoid it, you come to terms with it, you cry, you hug your family, you pray, hope the best for it and count yourself lucky that you could even feel such joy. Such is the complexity and range of human experience.

Thank you for inspiring so many of us, Paul.