I thought I would write about this book while it’s still fresh in my mind; I don’t think I will ever forget what the book means to me, its “centre” will always be with me; I don’t think I will ever forget the current that passed through me as I read the last paragraph. But it’s still good to write. This after all, was one of the lessons of the book.
Paul Kalanithi’s life was cut short by cancer at the age of 37. He was a father, a husband, a son, a brother, a neurosurgeon – neuroscientist, a philosopher, and a writer in all these capacities. You can see all these ‘selves’ sparkling beautifully in the book. He began “when Breath Becomes Air” when he was already quite ill, so as his wife, Lucy Kalanithi, put it in her deeply touching epilogue, there are many other ‘selves’ we don’t get to see in the book. This is a book written by a person who knew his death was near at hand.
Throughout, you can see him juggling these multiple selves, and towards the end of his life, this struggle became more acute. A philosopher once said that philosophy “is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term”. To apply this to Paul’s story would be to caricature it, but I think there might be some truth to doing so, nevertheless. He lived his life like a philosopher (people use this term for themselves too easily these days): he was exceptionally conscious to the moral force of each and every act of his; painfully aware of the moral consequence and meaning of everything he did. He wished to perfect himself, indeed, being a neurosurgeon, he saw this as a moral requirement. To understand what he had to do, he spoke to patients about life , about who they were, who they wanted to be, and what made their life meaningful. As a neurosurgeon, he was acutely aware of the fact that the fine balance of identity that people had constructed of themselves, the lives that they had authored, lay, quite literally, in his hands. A reflection of this fact he experienced deep in his breast, for his own sake.
As a philosopher of science (which, by the way, he formally studied at Cambridge), he understood the realm at which science operates and ought to operate: we use scientific theories to manipulate the world; to reduce the physical complexity of the external world to simple, manipulable units. But that’s about it. If we see the world only through its lens, we would miss the point about love; a doctor would look at each patient as a problem to be dealt with, to be solved, to then move on. This is a mistake he never made.