Book Review: “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When an English major turned neurosurgeon quotes from The Waste Land liberally and with comprehension (The Waste Land, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and The Hollow Men are my three favorite T. S. Eliot poems, with The Hollow Men being the closest to my soul) and I see my own connection that seeks deeper understanding that has grown from literature (mind) to neuroscience (the brain), I am immediately drawn more intimately into his story.

When Breath Becomes Air is the story of journey and it is beautifully and profoundly written. It’s Paul Kalanithi’s journey to discover the meaning of life. And of death.

At 35, just as his neurosurgery residency was ending and the world of infinite possibilities for a stellar neurosurgeon lay before him, Kalanithi was diagnosed with aggressive, fatal cancer that had already taken root in his body.

Although Kalanithi didn’t know how much time he had left, his desire was to write this book describing his journey and the lessons he learned before he died. He did not finish it, but his wife fills in the rest of the story.

The lessons are many, but the one that struck me most was Kalanithi’s realization that all the stuff he – and we humans, in general, are pursuing – had been pursuing was, as he quoted Solomon in one my favorite books of the Bible, just chasing the wind.

The day Kalanithi received his diagnosis, he realized none of his “stuff” dreams would be realized. That was shocking at first, but as he made peace with the realization, he began to understand that none of that mattered in the meaning of life, but instead who he was (his character) and what he had done to love, to serve, to show mercy, to help others. All others.

Watching Kalanithi make this shift in understanding is remarkable and I think it underscores the kind of man he was.

With this shift also came an understanding – and an acceptance – of his own death. He’d learned how to live and now he was learning how to die.

An excellent book that I would highly recommend. Some tissues should be nearby as you reach the end of Paul Kalanithi’s story. You will need them.

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