Tuesday, February 16, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air: Where Shall Meaning Be Found?

We all know we're going to die, it's just a matter of when. So when that "when" becomes more sure or sooner than we'd thought — when it's not some nebulous future time we'd rather not think about — why then is it harder to find meaning for life? After all, nothing has changed — death is still inevitable. But that question of finding meaning in the face of sure death is the central question of When Breath Becomes Air, the devastating, but must-read book by Paul Kalanithi, and his wife, Lucy.

You know the story, Paul, a brilliant neurosurgeon is diagnosed at age 36 with terminal lung cancer. And this book is struggle to come to terms, to put his life in order, to leave a legacy (this book, but also a daughter), and to try to puzzle out what it all means.

It's as much an intellectual memoir as it is one about his life, his education, his residency, and his struggle to be a good doctor. Kalanithi is a fascinating man — curious and engaged with the world, a deep reader (he has a Master's in literature!), and with a profound respect for people. One of the best sections of the book is Kalanithi's argument, even a scientist and intellectual, not to dismiss the metaphysical — whatever that means to you, God, love, other "things" not possible to be proven by science.

I know many readers will shy away from this because it's difficult. It certainly is difficult — simply put, it's 220 of the saddest pages I've ever read (especially the 20 pages of epilogue written by his wife Lucy after he's died). But I'd encourage you to read it despite that. It's a perspective-changing, life-affirming book (ironic, I know, for a memoir about death). I'd also encourage you to read what novelist Ron Currie, Jr., wrote about the book on Facebook. It's a perfect encapsulation of why it's important to read this book, as well.

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