“You do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14).

“Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom.” Psalm 90:12 (NLT)

Often it is difficult to keep a perspective of just how short life can be. We are reminded of this when a loved one gets ill or during their passing at a funeral. I believe that keeping a healthy perspective on the brevity of life should compel followers of Jesus to live with eternity in mind. For me the question of “what makes a life worth living” becomes “what can we do that has an eternal impact?”

I have been challenging myself to read some biographies and memoirs. I just finished When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.


For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, a profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis who attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?


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.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.'” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes…

“Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end.”

“Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state.”

“We all inhabit different selves in space and time.”

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

“the inextricability of life and death, and the ability to cope, to find meaning despite this, because of this.”


This is a book I could see myself reading again at a different season of life as well. There was much I appreciated about it and enjoyed. Although the book does get somewhat descriptive about a few medical procedures etc and I do not do well with that sort of thing, other than that it was excellent. First of all, it challenges the readers perspective on what is important in life. Far too often people just live life but with little purpose or intentionality. The writer of Psalm 90 was convinced that if we learn to number our days we will grow in wisdom. We lose perspective and assume we have more time and fall into patterns and routines that lack meaning and purpose. Life just happens to us passively, not intentionally. When faced with death the author was able to live with a kind of intentionality and focus that many lack.

Another thing that impacted me about this book is the authors writing style and love for learning from a variety of sources. I love to learn but can still challenge myself in different ways. Also I enjoyed the insight into the life of  a doctor that was as honest as Karanithi was. The challenge of viewing patients as just a chart, another case, etc verses a patient, a human, or someone of importance and significance. I loved the epilogue written in Lucy’s voice (Paul’s wife) which helps to further integrate into the story and life and go on an empathatic experience. There is much a reader can gain from reading this book and I definitely recommend it to others. Challenge your perspectives of life and death along with pain and suffering! Embrace the brevity of life and wrestle through the question “what makes a life worth living” for yourself!

Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like. See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way. But above all, see what it is to still live, to profoundly influence the lives of others after you are gone, by your words. 

The title of book comes from a Poem Caelica 83 by Brookfe Fulk Greville

Caelica 83: You that seek what life is in death
You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.
New names unknown, old names gone:
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
            Reader! then make time, while you be,
            But steps to your eternity.