I first heard about this book on A Cup of Jo, the lifestyle blog by Joanna Goddard. The author, Paul Kalanithi, is – was – her brother-in-law. At thirty-six, he’d earned degrees in English literature, biology, philosophy, and medicine, and had almost finished his neurosurgery residency at Stanford. At thirty-seven, he died of lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is part memoir, part meditation on facing death, and completely worth reading.
The book starts to pull you in around the tenth page, when Kalanithi reveals that during his undergraduate years, he was “driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: what makes human life meaningful?” The irony (hopefully I’m using that word right, I never know) took my breath away as I read more and more of Paul’s story. He majored in both biology and English literature in an effort to understand both our deepest desires and the brain that gives rise to them, then went to medical school in order to face life-and-death questions in practice. To “keep following the question of what makes life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” In his diagnosis of a terminal illness at a young age, Kalanithi’s been given a tragic, golden opportunity to answer his question.
A drug with a list of side effects nearly as grim as cancer gives Paul about one good year, but it stops working and he has to turn to chemotherapy. After several more months, his health rapidly declines, and Kalanithi enters the hospital where he used to work for the last time. He never details his findings on what makes life meaningful – he didn’t have time. But I think he’d been living the answer all along.
As his sophomore year at Stanford comes to an end, Kalanithi finds himself choosing between an internship at a prestigious primate research center and a job as a prep cook at a summer camp for Stanford alumni and their families. He considers the two options – between studying meaning and experiencing it, in his words – and chooses the camp seemingly without a thought as to whether the internship might look better on a resume or future job application. He focuses purely on what he thinks will do more to satisfy his curiosity about the meaning of life. By pursuing what matters most to us with energy and thoughtfulness, our lives are made worthwhile.