What is the meaning of life? If you’re told you’re going to die within the next few weeks/months/years, what would your life be like? These are questions I have been grappling with for over a year now due to some personal reasons.
In When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi explores the same questions. Like the blurb promises, I really did learn about life from a dying man. In between the pages of this brilliantly written, moving memoir of a dying, young man I learned more about life than I ever could from anywhere else.
“There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.”
As his wife, Lucy Kalanithi, explains in the epilogue, there’s no “gather all your rose buds” nature to his book. Paul explains how you should always live with integrity and stay true to your values. And his memoir just goes on to prove that he did live with integrity.
The cusp of this book is this: Always stay true to your morals. Ultimately, we are all going to die. We do not know when. But, if you do living right, the when doesn’t matter as much. If you know when you are going to die, it is going to destroy you. But it is up to you to get back on your feet and find your values again.
“The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out. It felt like someone had taken away my credit card and I was having to learn how to budget. You may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Two months after that, you may want to learn to play the saxophone or devote yourself to the church. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.”
This book will teach you not just about living, but also about dying. We all know that we are going to die some day. But we assume, and hope, that this “some day” is several decades away. When you are suddenly told that you have only, say, a year left, how do you react? Do you spend the whole time doing all the things you missed out on doing? Do you surround yourself with only happy people and thoughts in order to better ease this living to not-living transition? The answers to all of this can be found in between the lines of Paul’s wonderfully worded sentences.
“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”
To conclude my review, I’d like to quote lines from 2 different areas of the book. These 2 quotes, I believe, will be your look into what you can expect from this memoir.
“The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”
“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”
Paul Kalanithi was a man I never met. It is this man that I’ve been mourning over the 4 days since I finished reading the book.