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When Breath Becomes Air

27 Apr 2016

I heard about When Breath Becomes Air coming out probably because of the New York Times article that the author wrote, but I am not entirely sure. I do not think I read that article, only a snippet about the book. Basically, guy is a doctor, finds out he has cancer, decides to write book while he is dying, now he is dead, here is the book.

I was not sure what this book was going to be about going into it and now I can say it was mostly a reflection on life, death, their interplay, and meaning in general. There was a feeling similar to Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintainence at times which I found to be quite interesting. One thing he said which really struck me was

direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them

In other words, if you sit in academia and think about moral philosophy, you are not really authoritative on the subject because you are living too far removed from death. You lack moral action by restricting yourself to the realm of words. Only from the edge can you really start to understand morality. For the author, this was why he went to medical school and became a surgeon, he believed that he was better able to understand meaning in life by being on the frontline of life-and-death decisions.

My main problem with this book, common among surgeons, is their overwhelming sense of self importance. He literally says that it was his job to choose who gets to live and die and that responsiblity was important to him. Now that is genuinely factual. A trama surgeon can make decisons during operations or not to operate at all that lead to certain outcomes based on what they think is best for someone. Sometimes the doctor thinks that death is preferable to a diminished life or a vegetative state. But, he comes across as if he is somehow more important because he decided to go to a trade school that results in that type of day to day. Just like I do not think all soldiers, policemen, fire fighters, are heros, not all surgeons instruments of divine intervention. You go through life making decisions, one of those is how you spend your time and how you choose to support yourself. One can choose to become a doctor just as one can choose to be a carpenter. As a doctor you choose to help people in a certain way, if that is for you then great, but you should not think of yourself as morally superior because you decided on that career.

Nonetheless, the book itself is quite well written and offers a fair amount of insight into the mind of the terminally ill. It is strange that people tend to only think about life only when concerned with their ultimate demise, as the author points out

The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

You here people trying to get the most out of life only when they realize they do not have much time left. Notions such as "bucket lists" become the way that people try to internalize the fact that they are going to die, will not have enough time to do everything they want, but do not really want to fully grasp that concept. If they just make a list then they can try to do some of those things and not really contemplate death. But if you really face death, you will realize that all those things you think are part of everyday life that are important maybe are not so.

Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned, either way, they belong to the past.

You have ideas of what your life to be, you work towards these goals delaying gratification you think will come when you finally achieve your ambition. But then you get there and realize you did not really enjoy the journey, you do not know what to do next other than make a new goal and try to get their. That next one will make you happy. Then you realize you actually are going to die, even though subconsciously you hoped you would somehow be spared or that it was so far away that it did not matter. You start to realize that if you keep going on this way, you will constantly be living in the past and future until one day your present no longer exists because you are dead. You struggle against that by blinding yourself to the possibility. Most people cannot comprehend this nothingness that awaits us all until it is too late. They try to ignore death by pawning off moral and philosophical questions either to religion or ignorance.

Some people choose life. They choose life by accepting death. Face death not as an enemy but as a guide on the journey you have. What makes life worth living? Why do you not kill yourself and get it over with? Can you honestly look yourself in the mirror and have a good answer for that? A lot of people think they can, only because they lie to themselves so much they cannot tell the difference. This book explores a lot of these themes and will help give you some perspective on the human condition.


Category: book