“Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering. Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving. Describing life otherwise was like painting a tiger without stripes. After so many years of living with death, I’d come to understand that the easiest death wasn’t necessarily the best.”
To read this book is to spend precious time with 36 year old neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi as he wrote of his life in the last months of it. His wife Lucy write in the Epilogue: “This was the life he was given and this is what he made of it. When Breath Becomes Air is complete just as it is.”
Paul had an undergraduate and graduate degree in English Literature which is reflected in the beautiful prose of his memoir. He masters the art of the compelling turn of phrase, rendering concepts so beautifully and so memorably.
In considering a choice of summer jobs in college between a primate lab and working at a summer camp, he ponders: “If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?” He was clearly a deep thinker all of his life.
His choice to go into medicine was a surprise that came to him in graduate school, despite the fact that both his father and brother are physicians. In retrospect, his choice of neurosurgery was a perfect marriage of his life of the mind with the biology of the mind. It was something that evolved through his graduate studies and final thesis.
Paul came to understand deeply the implications of his work as a neurosurgeon. “People often ask if it is a calling, and my answer is always yes. You can’t see it as a job, because if it’s a job, it’s one of the worst jobs there is.”Read More