In When Breath Becomes Air, recently posthumously published, Paul Kalanithi acknowledges the irony of his devastating cancer in his thirties; Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon unbelievably gifted in a multitude of ways, had striven to understand mortality before his diagnosis, to parse what dying meant.
Is it true that our lives circle back? As Joseph Campbell wrote, the greatest challenges we face are those we would never willingly encounter.
Kalanithi must have been an extraordinary man in many ways, but particularly in the exquisitely graceful way he never diminished or belittled individual suffering while also acknowledging that suffering is an integral and unavoidable aspect of living a human life. The book is suffused with a pursuit to understand our world and yet marvel at its infinite mysteries.
In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.
Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air