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Book review and revelation: When Breath Becomes Air

Cover and back jacket of When Breath Becomes Air

Last Thursday, I received in the mail When Breath Becomes Air. By Saturday, I had finished it from cover to cover.

I read everything, including the paragraph at the very end about the typeface and its creator (a monotype face called Bell). I read the jacket blurbs, I re-read the foreword by Abraham Verghese (Cutting for Stone) and the epilogue by Lucy Kalanithi.

I haven't stopped re-reading the final paragraph, which can be found in various places online, including this beautifully engaging essay on the Stanford Medicine magazine website:

There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

It hasn't failed to bring me to tears yet. It always will. In Abraham Verghese's foreword, he says, "Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like. [...] Listen to Paul. In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back."

Here's what I heard myself respond:

- Oh, the world is a hard place that asks us to evaluate ourselves, to constantly see if we measure up. To what? There are some of us who will always find ourselves wanting, always measure with an outsize scale. And others who will do the opposite.

But it's finding our right place, accepting our ledger just as it is, that finally allows us to both rest and grow.

- Human relations form the bedrock of meaning in life, Paul writes. And so the sheer joy of loving someone unconditionally, the way best friends or spouses or parents might love, provides a meaning that soars past words. The pinnacle of human relation -- limitless love, boundless love -- casts life in a new light. Its love that offers a new meaning to life, one in which death and life mingle in joy, one in which you are not gone, only "less ordered."

- Joy that does not hunger for more but rests, satisfied, is the truest joy there is. I find it all the time, all around. I consider the lilies, which neither toil nor spin, but simply are who they are. I consider my children, and my work, and my spouse, and find small troubles and frustrations and follies, but when I stop to observe-- not judge or compare but only to observe-- I find this easy joy, this moment.


This whole book invites a conversation within. It's one I will return to again and again, with pleasure and curiosity and grief and joy.


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