Book & Life: When Breath Becomes Air

To say that Paul Kalanithi is accomplished is a clear understatement.  He graduated from Stanford with a double major in English and biology, then he proceeded to attain his graduate degree in English. When finished, he felt the need to do something more and studied and applied for med school. While waiting for admission, he obtained another degree, studying history, at the University of Cambridge.  Then he received the news that he got accepted to Yale for med school. Instead of “settling” like his peers in dermatology or radiology, which are very competitive in themselves, he chose neurosurgery, the toughest of all fields, and received many awards for his research and accomplishments. Having achieved so much, it seemed like such a waste that he passed away during his last year of residency.  Residency for neurosurgery is at least seven years, and to have died at the very end–ugh, how devastating. He also had an 8-months-old daughter, which was the most heartbreaking part for me. His short narrative ended with a letter to his daughter. [My heart…]

I cannot compare myself to him in accomplishments, but I can relate to him at a human level (even though he seems superhuman): how he knew of all his symptoms and initially got them checked, then they were dismissed without having done any thorough scans because he was young and there were many plausible and harmless causes for his ailments. Then pain persisted and grew worse, in which he had the fear of it being something serious, but his better judgement was brushed aside by what seemed like his state of denial or placing priority on his commitments and objectives. After several ups and downs in his health, he finally sought answers for his ailments when it became absolutely debilitating. He waited and endured too long, and those ailments turned out to be stage IV lung cancer–a rare cancer for anybody under 40. The fears and devastation, along with a similar diagnosis, were all too real as I read his narrative.

His recollection of his past and description of residency was reflective but somewhat ordinary. He didn’t seem like he suffered much in his life, so there wasn’t much substance or character in his stories. He did consistently allude to his life’s goal for finding meaning, trying to find how the mind/brain works in all its intricacies: psychologically, philosophically, physically. And he was certainly knowledgeable with factual details in many fields and references to other writers, but his writing itself was nothing extraordinary as I expected much from a Stanford grad who majored in English, who was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for this autobiography. Maybe I was expecting it to be more poetic like a swan song? Aside from the writing itself, I also felt like his desire to find meaning and purpose in life very… superficial, which was why I felt the book wasn’t as great as others have deemed it to be. However, I must acknowledge that he did find meaning in his life in his own way, and I respect that he lived his life to his fullest. Though I may differ with him in his purpose in life, he sought after something more profound than what most people do not dare try to grasp. He knew he was going to die, but instead of dying, he lived–his inspiration rooted from Samuel Beckett’s words: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Going through a similar situation as him, his book haunted me with the realness of deterioration and death. While receiving treatment, he had a brief moment of feeling like he was getting better, immersing himself back to his old life in residency and surgery hours. Then his health came crashing down all of a sudden, and all too soon, he was on his deathbed. It still churns my stomach. He lived his life not fearing death, but rather, accepting that he was going to die. Despite knowing his shortened timeline, he continued his daily business and also wrote this book. What I cannot do, that he was able to do, is accept my death. Death may be a probability, but I simply cannot accept it like he did. Not that I am in denial or think death is the final end; of course not, but because… I have Christ. Whether or not I live or die, I have Christ, and for that reason I cannot accept an ending. If I live, He is my healer and Savior; if I die, He is still my healer and Savior. Because I have Christ, I have hope, and I can live with hope. I pray, I plea, I beg, I cry, I shout, I breathe: Lord, if You are willing, you can make me clean. May Your will be done. 

No matter what happens, I aspire to live with meaning, and my purpose centered around the gospel. My life may not be covered with achievements like Paul Kalanithi, but I want to make my small ordinary actions meaningful.

In the end, may my life be pleasing to Him.

2 thoughts on “Book & Life: When Breath Becomes Air”

  1. Hi Jeanee,

    I watched the movie “What If” recently and remembered you had posted about it back in the day… so I dug up your blog to find that entry and discovered you’ve been writing again! I was going to avoid commenting but I appreciated reading this latest post and wanted to let you know. I bought Kalanithi’s book when it first came out but have been having a hard time finishing it, partly because of the heavy nature of its content but also because I think I was similarly underwhelmed by the writing. Even so, I appreciate your refocusing of life’s purpose in terms of Christ and am encouraged by your response to your circumstances (however minimally I am able to perceive it on this blog).

    I find it amazing (and likely a God thing) how certain songs pop into your life at certain times, and this is one I’ve been listening to a lot lately that your words made me think of again – hope you are blessed by it:

    Praying for you,

    Ki W.

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