“When Breath Becomes Air” is one of the most profound books I’ve read on mortality. It’s written by the late American neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi, who penned it just before he passed away from terminal lung cancer last year at the age of 37.
Technically, we’re all dying the moment we are born, the moment we leave the protection of our mother’s womb. But we only ever acknowledge death when it collides with us in hospital corridors, breaking news bulletins, or very fleetingly when a funeral hearse passes by. Real, meaningful dialogue around death is still in its infancy.
Kalanithi’s book was a reminder for me of just how puny we are, almost like those dusts specks illuminated by sunlight. And of the fact that no matter how great we think we are, how important our presence is on this earth, or how many years we spend pruning our lives to reach the pinnacles of our careers, we’re all hurtling towards the same final destiny. All things, good or bad, come to and end eventually. How we live and how we come to that end, however it might come about, is up to us.
The following passage had particular resonance:
“I began to realise 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 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.”