When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air is a poignant memoir by a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi. I think everyone here would enjoy this profound little book. (Especially Dr. @jpm!)

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

Raised in a Christian home where prayer and Scripture reading were a regular part of family life, Dr. Kalanithi strayed from faith after college and settled into atheism. He embraced a scientific worldview that would grant a complete metaphysics without religion.

But, as he explains, “to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning–to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in.”

Paul died on March 9, 2015 as a Christian believer, surrounded by his family. He struggled to finish his book as his condition deteriorated. His wife wrote the epilogue.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Dr. Kalanithi.


Thanks for the recommendation. Will put it on the list!


When I first heard about this book, “When Breath Becomes Air”, I was very inspired to learn more about the writer, the family and the situation.

And then, eventually, I came to understand the grim meaning of the book’s title - - which made me profoundly sad, more sad than I really expected to be (since I intentionally sought out more reviews on the book).

I decided to honor Dr. Kalanithi’s bravery, and that of his wife and family, by putting a quote from the book on my Facebook page:

SIDE NOTE: the snow covered building on my Facebook page is the full-sized Parthenon in Nashville TN, I believe sometime in November 2015. I was on the last plane to get out of the airport that day. Inside is a statue of Athena, 4 stories tall (!), garbed in pure gold - - and the biggest snake of wisdom and immortality you could ever imagine. Not even Athens has this treasure.

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Reminds me of how some have calculated each breath we breathe has a half million molecules that passed through Jesus’ lungs, have not seen the calculation for the water he drank…


@praveens should see this too. For some reason, Indian believers are well received in this moment, even among secular scientists and academics.

Why is that?


You know, I was just out walking and thinking that I should have tagged you on this also!

Here is a NY Times article, How Long have I Got Left?, written by Dr. Kalanithi back in 2014, when his cancer was in remission. You might have to register with the Times to read it, but that will give you a few articles per month free.

@beaglelady I read this book about a year ago on Audible while driving to a conference. I sobbed at the ending, so much so that I almost had to pull over because I couldn’t see the road. A profound little book.

The whole section surrounding your quote above is very interesting, as it centers on how he reconciled science with Christian faith. On several occasions I’ve thought about asking for reprint permission for the section, but the permissions process with large publishers is a real bear :bear:. Maybe this thread will give me another kick in the pants to try again.

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I got this book for Christmas last year – definitely a good read. I did get the impression at one point that he wasn’t quite comfortable with calling himself a Christian, but I liked a lot of the questions he asked.


What gave you that impression?

I don’t remember exactly where… maybe it was more that he didn’t limit his spirituality to Christianity, or didn’t want to be considered exclusively Christian. But I can’t find the quote so I may just be imagining it. Either way, I really liked his passage on the limitations of science. It reminded me of the Antoine de Saint-Exupery quote, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

I hope you do try again to get the permissions. I believe that we should post more material from people of color anyway.


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