Making the Most of Life

We often talk about what it means to “truly live” or even more simply what it means to be considered “living.” This idea was one of the main points of the Terri Schiavo case and this idea came back to me in the form of a conversation.

A few weeks back, I was talking to one of my best friends about a book she had recently read called When Breath Becomes Air. The book is an autobiography written by Paul Kalanithi. Kalanithi was an outstanding medical student at Stanford who was in the residency stage in his path to becoming a neurosurgeon and all was well in his life. Then one day, his life came crashing down as he was diagnosed with terminal Stage 4 lung cancer. My friend explained to me that Kalanithi wrote the book to not only tell his story but more importantly to discuss how to think of and approach life when diagnosed as terminally ill. Kalanithi talked about how he truly “lived”when he realized he was dying. Although I haven’t read the book (yet), I did a good amount of research and surfing behind Paul’s story to get a better idea of his vision of life.

As the news of the death of Stephen Hawking shook the world, I came across an article on the web, and a particular line caught my attention. “Those who live in the shadow of death often live the most” was the opening line of one of the paragraphs. Although the article was about Stephen Hawking and his life, I immediately thought back to the conversation with my friend about Paul Kalanithi. This is the idea that he so very well embodied in his memoir, and I would like to share a few thoughts on how he did so.

It is obviously a far stretch to claim Paul took his situation “in stride”, but the way he talked about how to approach death with grace makes the reader reconsider what it means to be fully alive. Paul often talked about his experiences in residency, and repeatedly brought up that he didn’t want to be a doctor to “help save lives” as the cliché goes. For Paul, the biggest goal was to help people understand death and illness. Helping save someone’s life wasn’t worth it to Paul if it meant that patient was now bound to a life that he would not find worth living (being severely handicapped, for example). This was a bigger failure to Paul than the patient dying. We often set an ultimatum for those that are ill. We think they must be saved at all costs because in our minds; death is the worst possible scenario.

Kalanithi claims life isn’t about avoiding suffering, because everyone will die. There is not point in worrying about death, because as long as you aren’t dead, you are still living. I will definitely have a much better idea about Paul’s message when I get around to reading the book soon, but the article that I came across reminded me of the conversation with my friend and even further, the Terri Schiavo case. There is of course no one right way to approach death. But Kalanithi’s message is certainly one that can potentially alleviate stress and make this adventure that we call life a little more pleasant.


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

3 responses to “Making the Most of Life

  1. Hi Vraj! This was a really interesting post. I’ve been wanting to read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi for a while, but I put it on the back burner and kind of forgot about it. I heard it was a really good book; however, I only knew general details about how he went from treating patients to becoming a patient himself. One thing I learned from your post was why Kalanithi wanted to become a doctor. When you ask most pre-med students why they want to go into medicine, the explanations are generally variations of wanting to help people. I never once considered it from the perspective of facilitating the understanding of death in the face of sickness like Paul Kalanithi did.

    In our society today, I feel like we are extremely focused on the future. We’re always worried about the next step and, as a result, we often forget to stop and enjoy life. It’s only when we’re faced with the possibility of death we consider what we’ve accomplished so far and the things we have left to do. His perspective on how to approach death was eye-opening and it’s a reminder that while it may be easy to get caught up in the ebb and flow of our “busy lives,” we should occasionally take time to ask ourselves if we have truly lived.

  2. Just recently, a close friend of mine also brought up Paul Kalanithi’s memoir. She raved about When Breath Becomes Air and was looking forward to continue delving into this sub-genre by reading Nina Riggs’ The Bright Hour. Riggs, who died a year after Kalanithi, recounted her losing battle with breast cancer in her best-selling memoir.
    While on her death bed, Nina Riggs established communication with Paul’s wife, Lucy, after reading her late husband’s book. The relationship between Nina and Lucy eventually evolved into one between Lucy and Nina’s widower, John.
    John initially looked towards Lucy for support in how to deal with this tragic and unthinkable circumstance. However, their relationship developed into something more. John and Lucy are now romantically involved and living together.
    I find their desire to ‘make the most of life,’ as you said, and find love after a tragic loss inspiring. I also think that this relationship is an excellent demonstration of the powerful bonding power grief can have, whether it is on a community level, or two complete strangers as is the case in this example.
    I highly recommend reading either memoir, or learning more about John and Lucy’s relationship here:

  3. You’ve sold me on this book! I definitely want to check this out because of your comment of contrasting Kalanithi’s view of why he wants to be a doctor: “helping people understand death and illness”, and the cliché “help save lives”. It is an interesting comment that I’ve never thought about before. If you’re a doctor and your goal is to save lives then you’re setting yourself up for failure because people die. However, I question how much power a doctor should have in deciding between death or a severe handicap for a patient. I completely agree that at some point, death is better than being alive and not having a fulfilling life like Terri Schiavo but I question Kalanithi’s view when you state that “he would not find worth living”. I don’t think it should be up to him to decide. It should not be up to anyone other than the patient to decide whether their life is worth living if they have a certain handicap.

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