8 Lessons on Living from Paul Kalanithi’s Book on Dying
Paul Kalanithi, a 37 year old Stanford neurosurgeon, passed away last year from his battle from lung cancer, which is rare to develop at such a young age, especially in a non-smoker. Prior to his death, he penned a transformational book, When Breath Becomes Air, to share his courageous journey from neurosurgeon in training to cancer patient trying to come to terms with his own mortality.
His breath-taking and courageous book is filled with hope and his search for meaning. In the final months before his death, Dr. Kalanithi leaves us a gift, When Breath Becomes Air, to remind us how to live.
Here are 8 life lessons from his book, When Breath Becomes Air:
1) When it feels like your path in life is fire-bombed, you have to learn to work around it.
Being diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer at the age of 36 was a life shattering event but Dr. Kalanithi still found a way to move forward despite the diagnosis. He continued to work and pursue his calling in neurosurgery until he no longer could. He continued to spend time with his wife and loved ones. He also had a child with his wife, Lucy, during this period in his life and wrote a book to help us each deal with our own mortality.
2) Figure out what’s important to you.
Dr. Kalanithi could only do so much with his limited time to live. Although he knew his prognosis wasn’t good, he didn’t know how much time he had left.
When he didn’t know what career he should be pursuing, his doctor couldn’t tell him what to do. “I can only say that you can get back to surgery if you want, but you have to figure out what’s most important to you,” she suggests. Much of this book is Dr. Kalanithi’s realization of what was important to him in life and pursuing that in his remaining days.
He cared about practicing medicine and writing so he spent the remainder of his life practicing medicine until he physically couldn’t. He spent his free time writing about his journey. His stunning essay in the New York Times reasonated with many and inspired him to write this book.
While you may not be on your deathbed and have the luxury of life and time, Dr. Kalanithi will inspire you to get clear on what’s important to you, find out what your values are and live your life according to what makes life worth living to you.
3) Life isn’t about avoiding suffering.
Dr. Kalanithi and his wife, Lucy, considered having a child after his diagnosis. They discussed how a newborn could be a distraction from the time that they had together and that saying goodbye to a child would make his death more painful.
Despite the impending pain of goodbyes, the couple pursued their dream of having a child as they realized that life was not about avoiding suffering. The easiest death wasn’t necessarily the best, he reasoned.
“We decided to have a child. We would carry on living, instead of dying,” he wrote.
4) “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
It was literature which inspired and helped Dr. Kalanithi come back to life during the remaining time of his life. When his future seemed uncertain and when death obscured his every action, he thought that he couldn’t go on.
It was Samuel Beckett’s words that he learned to lean on during these difficult times: I’ll go on.
“I got out of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
5) Live your life, even when facing death.
Even after his diagnosis, Dr. Kalanithi returned to the operating room as a neurosurgeon. Why? “Because I could. Because that’s who I was. Because I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”
Life can be more difficult and different, but knowing that death is impending, doesn’t mean you have to stop living your life. You can make the most out of your life with the time you have.
6) Pursue your calling.
Neurosurgery was a tough and demanding field. It would have been physically demanding on his body yet Dr. Kalanithi returned to the operating room. Although some discouraged him from returning to this taxing work and spending time with his family, he returned to practice.
“I was making the decision to do this work because this work, to me, was a sacred thing.”
You too have many choices in your day-to-day life. Instead of opting for easy, do what you were put here to do. Pursue your calling and pursue what you find sacred in life.
7) Tomorrow would be a better day.
When he did return to neurosurgery, Dr. Kalanithi found his work to be physically challenging. On the first day back, he felt lightness and faint so stepped away from the surgery to lie down.
He left for the day, throwing his dirty scrubs in the laundry, and put on his regular street clothes.
“On the way out, I grabbed a stack of clean scrubs. Tomorrow, I told myself, would be a better day.”
And, with each passing day with surgery, it was. He remembered his old techniques and returned to a full schedule of operations within just a few weeks.
8) Look for the (capital T) Truth but know that the task is impossible.
In the remaining months of life, Dr. Kalanithi explored religion, God and his search for the Truth. He realized that the scientific method he had relied upon in his career were the product of human hands, “and thus cannot reach some permanent truth.”
Science can explain matter and energy but, “it also makes scientific knowledge inapplicable to the existential, visceral nature of human life, which is unique and subjective and unpredictable.”
As he struggled with these bigger questions in life, he concluded that while the search is worthwhile and necessary, the task in finding Truth is impossible. He concludes that each of us can only see a part of the picture.
“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete,” he writes.