[journals] 5/22 Reflections on “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi


[journals] 5/22 Reflections on “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

A friend recommended me the title at a party some time ago. I bought it on Amazon and it came in a cardboard sleeve within a few days. I finished it tonight and it was quite emotionally difficult.

A young man studies hard for 30 years and finally from the Stanford neurobiology program. He has just finished his last year of residency and is set to become the youngest neurosurgeon, and the youngest Stanford professor. He has worked all his Life to get to this point. This is where he finally gets to live his dream. But a few weeks later, he gets a routine blood test back and finds out that he has a rare cancer. Further testing reveals that he has only six months to live.

As I read, sharp pangs of agony struck my heart. The unfairness of it all. The feeling is like that of holding one’s breath. The lack of oxygen elicits a dull heavy scream from somewhere deep inside of you.

To be clear, death in itself is a mere fact, an emotionless physiological phenomenon. It is the resulting severance of human relationships that actually causes the very real and deep kind of pain.

Death is scary. I sat at my table trying to collect my thoughts and compose a few brief sentences that would capture my feelings about it. I was looking for someway to find the silver lining, an elegant turn of thought that would reveal the hidden beauty behind death.

 But I could not find one. Despairing, I thought and I thought.

It slowly occurred to me.

One way to come to terms with the despair of death is to consider yet another, even more despairing fact of life. This may seem like a strange way to go about finding meaning in Death. I am essentially saying, “let’s find meaning in death by thinking about something even more disturbing.” But my aim is to show that we endure an even greater tragedy every day, and so death too we can endure.

As much as death is a contradiction, the way we live our lives is even more so. If death is so painful, then you would expect us to celebrate Life all the more. Yet we often trudge through the daily, forgetting to cherish the small blessing that each morning brings anew. This is an equally, if not greater contradiction than the fact of Death. I despairingly obsess over one contradiction in this moment, while peacefully living and breathing the other regularly.

So we have before us two contradictions. We are terrified of death, yet also so insensitive to Life.

The fact that we can live with the latter, perhaps is evidence enough that we can also live with the prior.

But beyond this semi evasive solution, I think we can resolve both through a deep understanding of life and death’s symbiosis. It’s a truism but so relevant- it is only in knowing death that we can know life. Without its inevitability, there would be no beauty or joy to life. Perception is only possible in contrast. 

And so the conundrum is solved. Instead of attempting to resolve the problem of Death, we allow it to grow larger. We allow ourselves to think about it more. We let it be one of the forces of Life that flows quietly through our veins unimpeded, because only in keeping it so close, are we are capable of experience a vitality that is otherwise unknowable.

On this quiet night, some pain and sadness jolted me as I sat quietly in my living room flipping page after page. My immediate reaction was to try to push it all away, both while reading and as I typed this note. But I’ve sat here for a bit, and now I sit calmly in the feeling. There is nothing to fight. I embrace the despair. I sit with it. This too, I know, is just another part of Life.