This is not a review but a collection of thoughts that has been passing my mind when I finished reading Paul Kalanithi’s book ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ two days back. I am sure like many of you your eyes were wet and there was a heaviness in your heart when you turned that last page in the book.
I had heard about Paul and his story and the book that he wrote as soon as it got out as it was also shared many a times on my social media feeds. Then why did not I read it before? Just like Paul was in his twenties I live in a world where God has no role in my life. In my forties now after going back and forth for over a decade I am now an Atheist. The introductions to Paul’s book that always came my way had a major thrust on ‘rekindling faith’ and ‘returning to Faith’. To be honest I feel a bit ashamed saying this after I read his book. Not because I am an Atheist but because I feel I was also pushed into a tunnel vision of being selective in my quest for the world and not reading it because of the mention of the words Faith and Religion. Paul’s book is an eye opener not for faith but for my quest into life, science, rationality and the state of ‘Being Human’
At the same time I also feel extremely sad seeing posts in many Christian blogs that project the essence of his book as ‘Accepting Christ’ or ‘move from Atheism to Christianity’ and so on. I think they should read the book just like an Atheist like me read because the matter in the book is much beyond the explanations done at either an Atheistic or religious level.
The Life of a Doctor
My dad was a General Surgeon and I heave heard my mom tell me that during his tiring work in Iran in late seventies there are many a days when he returned home early in the morning after a string of surgeries and telling that he is so tired but what he does is so important. As a youngster I only saw the long schedules and continuous study and learning he had to do and may be that is why I gravitated towards Engineering and even there I often crib about late night calls. Another revelation of how silly I am to blame a few 12 hour days managing projects considering people who have straight 48 hours that directly touch peoples lives.
The idea of Faith
It was very interesting to read Paul’s views on faith and the utmost honesty with which he wrote that after walking away from faith in his twenties he started thinking about Faith and reconnects with the beliefs he was brought up with as a kid when he delves deep into finding the meaning of life. Unlike those who would say this is a triumph of faith, what I saw throughout the book was Paul very clearly indicating that he places his trust on his doctor and medical science to which he had dedicated his life rather than a super power who can change things miraculously. From what I read I found Paul reaching out to his faith not from a religious angle, but from the core need for a human being to find meaning in life. The way he clearly understands that the job of Science is not to give meaning and asking science to do it can be difficult. But also acknowledging that science and the pursuit of science to improve the human life is what gave meaning to his life. And if anyone uses his words as a substantiation of the need for a religion based faith is not understanding Paul and his message completely.
Views as an Atheist
I am an Atheist but over the past year I had taken the step to consider myself a ‘humanist’ much ahead of a definition as an ‘Atheist’. Having spend my time debating with religious folks some fanatics and some non fanatics who very strongly believe in the concept of a creator. I have even felt at times standing in a space debating with people who in spite of having no material fact to prove the existence of a creator end up retreating looking at me as an obnoxious inconsiderate guy who is trying to prove Atheism. But the fact is you need to prove atheism only in the light of a proof for theism. As long as that is not that is not their there needs no proof for Atheism. Meaning of life is in humanism whether you get it from the pursuit of science, dreams or something else.
The humanist key is to delve deeper into the essence of being human. I should say that a neurosurgeon who has delved much deeper into the facets of our brain can understand its working and even acknowledge the vast unknown that lies within it much better than me. And I think that is what Paul depicts in his book.
The Essence of the book
As you read the book, Paul gives us a vivid explanation of his life before and after the diagnosis and how it transform himself from understanding life as a doctor, a husband, a patient, a son, a would be dad and a dad. And you cannot stop thinking how life can be altered in such an event. And when that happens what is of utmost importance is you finding the best meaning that you can give to your life both past and present and the little future as in Paul’s case. Because at the end the only thing that matters is you and how you view this life in a way that it makes you content and complete.
This is also probably the reason why I believe that an atheist can decide to not be a humanist; just like a religious person can. A humanist can decide to be an Atheist, agnostic, Spiritual or Religious. While Atheism, Agnosticism and religious are more the stands people take when discussing the concept of God which has been ingrained in our society as a concept but with no evidence. But across all these stands there is a chord that connects us through the strains of humanistic reasoning and that I feel is the essence of the book.
I dedicate this post to the courage of a person who traversed the path that many of us dread to be in and also wrote about it so we can broaden our view of the world we live in. The book is also an important book against pseudoscience and other marketing being done to rope in gullible people in the light of such diagnosis.
The meaning of life, love, compassion, forgiveness all have a more than ever importance in our world today and where it comes from does not minimize its importance and value. Rest In Peace Paul, you are a brave man and your words and philosophy and thoughts will be with me for a long time to come. Yes and as you said ‘Time’ we all have a concept of it that can change anytime.