When Breath Becomes Air is about facing death. The book describes the experience of its author, Paul Kalanathi, a chief neurosurgical resident who learns right before he's about to graduate and start a successful career that he has lung cancer. He grapples with losing everything he spent his life working toward and how he can find meaning in life when he doesn't know if he'll die in a month or a decade. Having pursued medicine to better understand life through regular exposure to death, he ends up confronting death himself in his transformation from doctor to patient. Published unfinished, the book is a beautiful account of one man's exploration of meaning as he faces death.
Life is short. We hear the saying so often that it barely registers: we perhaps think about it for a few seconds and then go on with our day. But every now and then, the wisdom behind the words unveils itself in a way that forces us to examine our lives.
Two years ago, I learned that my friend from high school was going to die. Shalin and I hadn’t kept in touch after high school, but I always thought fondly of him because he was one of those guys who left you feeling better after every interaction due to his endless reservoir of positivity and jokes. While training for the Peace Corps, he found out that he had terminal cancer and was later told that he would have six to nine months to live. He lived the rest of his life beautifully and died at age 22. I thought about Shalin a lot during that period because I couldn’t shake off the feeling that it just as easily could have been me being diagnosed with cancer. I regularly asked myself what I would do if I found out that I only had six months to live and how I would live my life differently.
And so it is with this book. With Shalin, it was his similarity in age and background that gave me new appreciation for how short and precious life is. With this book, it's entering Paul's mind and grappling with death alongside him that makes you look at your own life with new clarity and perspective. When you embrace the premise of having only a short time to live, it seems nearly impossible to feel bothered or upset by the situations that seemed so troublesome a moment ago; instead, you see trivialities as they are and begin to cherish every moment and person as they are. The great challenge is maintaining that perspective and appreciation when you don’t have a doctor telling you you're going to die soon. This book serves as an effective reminder of the importance of committing to that challenge, as difficult as it may be.