When Breath Becomes Air

This book was chosen by a steering committee at my university and I volunteered to be a book discussion facilitator for it. I’m always looking for opportunities to interact with other people and be able to discuss books, particularly since reading is an independent activity. Book clubs and book discussion groups are always helpful to get different perspectives and aid in the synthesis of the book.

For this book discussion we started by asking everyone to describe the book in one word. Most people said something along the lines of “emotional”, “cathartic”, “hopeful”, etc. I was the only one who seemed to have a more cynical opinion of the book, and answered the question by saying “disappointing”.

I said the book was disappointing mainly because I have read many books of this nature and this novel did not bring anything new to the table. It is not to say that the book was not enjoyable, or that the ideas were not interesting, but in the grand spectrum of books written by doctors, this was not the best one. However, I do appreciate and respect Paul Kalanithi, and I think it was important that he actualize his potential as an author before his passing.

There were several snippets of the book that I did extremely enjoy, particularly when he explains his thought process on what to do about his diagnosis and how that would affect his life:

“My life had been building potential, potential that would now go unrealized. I had planned to do so much, and I had come so close. I’ve spent almost a third of my life preparing for it. I had mapped out this whole forty-year career for myself—the first twenty as a surgeon-scientist, the last twenty as a writer. But now that I am likely well into my last twenty years, I don’t know which career I should be pursuing. If I had some sense of how much time I have left, it’d be easier. If I had two years, I’d write. If I had ten, I’d get back to surgery and science. If only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?”

This section resonated with me because for a lot of us in higher education this is what it feels like. We go to school, and we get trained for years and years. We build up our potential but are not yet actualizing it; we are building potential energy and none of it is turning into kinetic energy.

Paul, in making this statement, made me reflect a lot on my own life and of this conundrum. What can I do, as of now, to actualize some of my potential? Cancer, or other life-threatening conditions, should not be what pushes us to ask these questions. We should always be considering what we can do now, because you truly never know how much time you have left. That is kind of the beautiful and sinister thing about life in modern times. Most of us will easily live to old age, thanks to modern technologies in medicine and decreases in infectious diseases. However, this is a luxury that not all of us will have and only time will tell who makes it through. We need to face our mortality on a more regular basis. Only to ensure that we are accomplishing the things we want to accomplish every day.

The last part of the quote that I highlighted above, “What was I supposed to do with that day?”,  reminds me that we should always strive to live in the present. We get too caught up in the past or in the future, and forget about all the things there are to experience NOW.  Very reminiscent of this panel I attended with the topic: “The evolution of scientific research over the last half century”. One of the researchers on the panel mentioned how important it is to enjoy the journey. When building all this potential, never forget that it is an active process and not passive.

“Good books often answer questions you didn’t even know you wanted to ask”
― Will Schwalbe

 

 

 

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