When Breath Becomes Air Book Review

Friday, July 10, 2020
Photo by Artem Sapegin on Unsplash


Biography and Autobiography is not a genre which I find attractive typically. When I picked up the book When Breath Becomes Air,  by Paul Kalanithi, after it was recommended in a Facebook book group, I found myself initially disappointed to see that it was an autobiographical book. However, it was fairly short, and I decided to give it a try. Within a few pages, I was hooked. The writing was interesting and the tone was one of a calm friend, explaining his world to me. I wanted to know this person.
 
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What interested me first was his casual dedication to excellence. The importance of a top-notch ivy league education to his family and the lengths his mother went to in order to ensure he was properly educated to be a competitive applicant to the top schools was fascinating. Honestly, it was a whole new mindset for me. All my life has been focused on reminding myself it was not a race-life was about experiences-prestige doesn't equal meaning. Suddenly, this person is earnestly talking about the importance of striving, and it was just--fascinating. My working class worldview couldn't help but be shook up a little. I found myself wondering how the mindset of his family and his friends was so different from mine. Are they just naturally more intelligent and thus striving towards excellence in their field is the only way of life they can fathom? Is it snobbery and keeping up with the Joneses-a life filled with achievements for bragging rights? Is it to build up a strong financial future so they can spend more time later working on wants rather than needs. I don't know. I was completely intrigued. My whole life was built around consoling myself that it is okay not to get what I desire because that isn't where meaning was to found anyway. To have someone so easily speak of achieving major accomplishments as if they were base expectations for life was just incredible.

The book itself is a heartbreaker. You will feel the wide open expanse of time as Paul briefly describes his childhood and feel the time cave in as he discusses his struggle with lung cancer. Paul struggled towards finding meaning and throughout the book, I found myself slightly unsatisfied. I kept waiting for that aha moment of illumination, when understanding of the purpose of life would shine on me, but it never came. His discussion of his childhood religion, and his belief that mercy trumps justice, left me feeling a bit in the dark. Of course, mercy trumps justice. Isn't that Jesus' point? Mercy and grace-giving people more than they deserve- are hopes we all cling to desperately as we feel life slipping away. But...why? Am I a sociopath in that I don't feel tremendously guilty about things? I feel bad when I hurt someone's feelings, particularly if it was intentional, but I don't writhe in my bed at night worrying about coming hell fires or even karmic vengeance. We are all just babies learning. My mother converted to Catholicism the year before she died. I struggle to understand this conversion. What had she done that was so bad she felt the need for someone to tell her God's grace was waiting. God's grace is all around us. God's grace is within us. We don't need Father Joe to tell us this-but maybe some do. Maybe some need that external validation that God loves them and will be merciful in light of their failings. It's a mindset I just don't struggle with. I've spent my share-precious few- less than two hands-of nights on the floor wrestling with the darkness and God's seeming absence. I've known what it is like not to feel another human's tender touch (besides my kids) for years, and finally broke down, staring at the carpet fibers as waves of darkness crashed over me. I've cried out in silent tears to God about the loneliness and despair of a world in which I just couldn't see or feel God's presence at all. But then, the loving arms of sleep would pull me in,  and in the morning I would rise once more.

But perhaps I am lucky. Perhaps my brain chemistry is just so that optimism is bound to peek around the corner even in the midst of the darkest thoughts.

And I started to feel that dark futility after I finished the book. For a brief moment, no matter how interesting and entertaining the book was, I wondered where Paul was. I wondered where the people I have lost are now. Are they there? Do they exist? My mom is deep within my cells-I am made of her. But Caleb? I can't feel him in my cells. I can't feel him around me. Is it because he takes me and goes out somewhere else? Does he feel me within him? If anyone has disappeared and ceased, it is him. And the darkness of death fell over me for just a moment or two. What happens when we die? Not the stories of old books, not the desires our heads have created, but what really, really happens? Is there this whole other existence, elsewhere? Is that the fairy tale we have created to make the days happier? Does the truth even matter? And then I pulled the sunshine out again. I will choose that which makes my soul sing. 

And the book was good.




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