Considering Our Breaths

2011-07-01 17.40.41

“the physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”

“The main message of Jesus, I believed, is that mercy trumps justice every time. Not only that, but maybe the basic message of original sin isn’t “feel guilty all the time.” Maybe it is more along these lines: “We all have a notion of what it means to be good, and we can’t live up to it all the time.”

– Paul Kalanithi (from When Breath Becomes Air)

So far I have gone through the recently published book, When Breath Becomes Air ,  three times. The book is the first hand account of Stanford Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi as he is diagnosed with, battles, and later dies from, EGFR+ lung cancer. So much more than a narrative or account, the book brings sees the intertwining of a great literary mind and an outstanding member of the medical field in one of the most demanding venues. More interesting than just what he went into was why he went into it. To study the questions of the life, the essence of what it means to be human, to understand the processes that make us who we are, and to discover meaning, Paul investigated first literature with graduate degrees at Stanford and Cambridge before deciding to attend medical school and specialized training as a neurosurgeon. Diagnosed with cancer midway through his training as a surgeon, the critical questions he had been contemplating in the abstract became material and imminent.

While modern life makes it easy for us to distract ourselves from the important questions of life, examples such as Paul bring us back to contemplate what is important, to remember that life and health hang in delicate balance, and to consider the strengths and limitations of our loftiest endeavors. Among other themes, one consistent thread throughout is the ceaseless, constant pursuit of perfection coupled to the understanding that grace and mercy are necessities- that we will never be good enough. Grace and mercy from God, grace and mercy for ourselves, grace and mercy for those around us are required.  But in the midst of this, while we are given the gift of life, a life for which we will give an account, that we strive not just for good, but perfect.

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