A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme or GBM for short. In layman’s terms, it’s brain cancer. Incurable. Terminal. Horrible.
Ever since the diagnosis, I have been trying to process the news. It’s not me that has to face death square in the eyes, but suffice to say I have felt rather lost. Several friends of mine recommended a book that published at the beginning of 2016 titled, When Breath Became Air. They insisted it would be inspirational but it would also deliver a sense of empathy. “Read it Dan,” they implored. “It might help you understand what one goes through when saddled with a terminal, incurable illness.”
The book is authored by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon. Magnificently multi-talented, Kalanithi possesses degrees in English literature, human biology, and history and philosophy of science and medicine from Stanford and Cambridge universities before he graduated from Yale School of Medicine. Kalanithi is as brilliant a student of life as he is a surgeon as he is a writer. He is the full package.
But the present tense is now unforgivably the past.
Rather sadly, When Breath Becomes Air was published posthumously. Kalanithi died in March 2015, aged 37, after being diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic lung cancer. While When Breath Becomes Air is an autobiography, it is a book that sketches Kalanithi’s life arc from birth to death forcing you not only to think about your own mortality, it urges you to self-analyze how you are living your life.
It is as powerful a read as I have ever come across.
It is the first book I’ve ever read where I openly wept. Draped with vivid imagery, pulsating and heartbreaking life situations, alongside prose on par with Frost, Eliot and Angelou, the book is not only a bestseller, it is an incredible and useful tool to help you develop, define and decide your personal and professional purpose. (These two factors of purpose are what I detail in my latest tome.)
During the first half of the book, Kalanithi describes the various purpose obstacles he had to endure, define and enact before being diagnosed with cancer. Be a writer or a doctor? Be a surgeon or a specialist? Treat patients like a number or a human? Stay married or contemplate the unthinkable?
Throughout the first half of the book as we get to know how Kalanithi thinks and acts in life, it was as though he was insisting we ask the question: “All of us live, but do we truly respect our life? And why don’t we honor death?” Kalanithi not only details his life story, he sucks you into a parallel conversation with yourself: “What exactly am I doing with my life? Am I living a good life?”
He concludes Part I of the book with the following:
Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.
As the cancer diagnosis begins Part II, Kalanithi walks you literally to death’s door.
I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.
It is this second half of the book where you would be hard pressed not to cry. Partly it is because of what Kalanithi is going through in the lead up to his own death. Doubly so, however, as you read the prose and begin to self-examine your own life you may lapse into an existential crisis. Not only is your life in the cross hairs of cathartic exploration as you flip the pages, your mind wanders from thinking about Kalanithi’s predicament to your own life.
Am I doing all I can to be a good person? How do I want people to think of me now and after I leave this earth.
That ‘friend’ of mine crept into my purview several times throughout the second half of the book. My friends were right. It has helped.
In summary, When Breath Becomes Air opened something inside of my heart and in my head. There is indeed an inevitability of death, an act we must embrace and respect whether it’s happening to us or someone else.
Nevertheless, it is one thing to define a life of purpose but it is another to truly live each day knowing it just may be our last. One really never knows if life’s hour glass may prematurely break causing the sand to spill to the ground. In the end, will your life be one that you are proud of? Will it be one that others talk about—when you’re gone—as meaningful and purposeful?
How will you answer those questions as death inevitably rings your door?
I strongly feel this book ought to be required reading for anyone thinking about or indeed leading people. There is far more to life than profit, power, penalties and performance reviews.
Kalanithi is survived by his wife, Lucy, and their daughter, Elizabeth Acadia. You can read more about the book and Lucy’s work over here.