A compelling book about living and dying

“It’s a fragile thing, this life we lead. If I think too much, I can get overwhelmed by the grace by which we live our lives with death over our shoulder”

When death becomes air, by Paul Kalanithi has been on my list for a while, and now that I’ve had the chance to read it I’ve been so touched by it.

Paul is so incredibly eloquent and thoughtful, and such an insightful writer. Reading his words felt like an experience; I got to feel what it’s like to go through life as someone like him: a neurosurgeon that lives life rationally, but who also has the heart of a writer. He balances both sides with admirable ability. An overachiever all his life, and in his sixth year of a neurosurgery residency at Stanford, he was was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 36. As he underwent treatment and his health condition got worse, he made finishing his book his mission, sharing his reflections on life, death, medicine and purpose.

The way he processes his thoughts and analyzes illness, his legacy, his dreams, and how the life he fought so hard for was suddenly taking an unexpected turn, changing his future and his present forever, is both beautiful and heartbreaking. He lived his life trying to understand death and after years having to face it so close in his profession, he was the one going through it.

Reading his book taught me to look at life and death from a different perspective. We live our lives refusing to think or talk about it, but Paul encourages the reader to try and find meaning in it while living a meaningful life. And life’s virtue has something to do with the depth of the relationships we form.

There are many passages in the book that are worth sharing, but I’m going to finish this off with one that got me thinking for a while. I often wonder what is our purpose in life, and is it really about the pursue of happiness? Paul and his wife, Lucy – who is also a doctor – have a different way to look at it. After his diagnose they started discussing about the possibility of having a child, and if that was a wise decision:

“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”

“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

Life shouldn’t be about avoiding suffering. I never really thought about that before reading the book. For as long as I can remember, life has been all about the pursuit of happiness and chasing after dreams. But then, what an oddly liberating thought, life shouldn’t be about avoiding suffering. Maybe life is also about embracing the pain in our lives, instead of hiding from it. It’s rushing straight toward it and allowing our pain to become our power. Maybe it’s a little bit of both.

“even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”

A compelling book about living and dying

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