55+ Best When Breath Becomes Air Quotes: Exclusive Selection

When Breath Becomes Air is a non-fiction autobiographical book written by American Neurosurgeon Dr. Paul Kalanithi. It is a memoir about his life and illness, battling stage IV metastatic lung cancer. It was posthumously published by Random House on January 12, 2016. Profoundly inspirational When Breath Becomes Air quotes will challenge the way you think, and make your life worth living.

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Famous When Breath Becomes Air Quotes

If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining? — When Breath Becomes Air

Shouldn’t terminal illness, then, be the perfect gift to that young man who had wanted to understand death? — When Breath Becomes Air

Well, I guess I learned one thing: if I’m ever feeling down about my work, I can always talk to a neurosurgeon to cheer myself up. — When Breath Becomes Air

You would think that the first time you cut up a dead person, you’d feel a bit funny about it. Strangely, though, everything feels normal. The bright lights, stainless steel tables, and bow-tied professors lead an air of propriety. Even so, the first cut, running from the nape of the neck down to the small of the back, is unforgettable. — When Breath Becomes Air

Time for me is now double-edged: every day brings me further from the low of my last relapse but closer to the next recurrence – and, eventually, death. Perhaps later than I think, but certainly sooner than I desire. There are, I imagine, two responses to that realization. The most obvious might be an impulse to frantic activity: to ‘live life to its fullest,’ to travel, to dine, to achieve a host of neglected ambitions. Part of the cruelty of cancer, though, is not only that it limits your time; it also limits your energy, vastly reducing the amount you can squeeze into a day. It is a tired hare who now races. And even if I had the energy, I prefer a more tortoiselike approach. I plod, I ponder. Some days, I simply persist. — When Breath Becomes Air

I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living. — When Breath Becomes Air

I was awake again, alert to the world, but withered. — When Breath Becomes Air

The problem, however, eventually became evident: 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. That’s not to say that if you believe in meaning, you must also believe in God. It is to say, though, that if you believe that science provides no basis for God, then you are almost obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn’t have any. In other words, existential claims have no weight; all knowledge is scientific knowledge. — When Breath Becomes Air

Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving. — When Breath Becomes Air

Any part of me that identified with being handsome was slowly being erased—though, in fairness, I was happy to be uglier and alive. — When Breath Becomes Air

Then I remembered: my Diet Coke, my ice cream sandwich…and the sweltering heat of the trauma bay. With one of the ER residents covering for me, I slipped back in, ghostlike, to save the ice cream sandwich in front of the corpse of the son I could not. Thirty minutes in the freezer resuscitated the sandwich. Pretty tasty, I thought, picking chocolate chips out of my teeth as the family said its last goodbyes. — When Breath Becomes Air

For amid that unique suffering invoked by severe brain damage, the suffering often felt more by families than by patients, it is not merely the physicians who do not see the full significance. The families who gather around their beloved—their beloved whose sheared heads contained battered brains—do not usually recognize the full… — When Breath Becomes Air

Literature provided a rich account of human meaning; the brain, then, was the machinery that somehow enabled it. I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. I studied literature and philosophy to understand what makes life meaningful, studied neuroscience and worked in an fMRI lab to understand how the brain could give rise to an organism capable of finding meaning in the world. I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion. A word meant something only between people, and life’s meaning, its virtue, had something to do with the depth of the relationships we form. It was the relational aspect of humans—i.e., ‘human relationality’—that undergirded meaning. Yet somehow, this process existed in brains and bodies, subject to their own physiologic imperatives, prone to breaking and failing. There must be a way, I thought, that the language of life as experienced—of passion, of hunger, of love—bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts, and heartbeats. My thesis—‘Whitman and the Medicalization of Personality’—was well-received, but it was unorthodox, including as much history of psychiatry and neuroscience as literary criticism. It didn’t quite fit in an English department. I didn’t quite fit in an English department. Some of my closest friends from college were headed to New York City to pursue a life in the arts—some in comedy, others in journalism and television—and I briefly considered joining them and starting anew. But I couldn’t quite let go of the question: Where did biology, morality, literature, and philosophy intersect? [Going to Medical School] would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay. I found myself increasingly often arguing that direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them. Words began to feel as weightless as the breath that carried them. Stepping back, I realized that I was merely confirming what I already knew: I wanted that direct experience. It was only in practicing medicine that I could pursue a serious biological philosophy. Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action. While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves. At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living. Neurosurgery seemed to present the most challenging and direct confrontation with meaning, identity, and death. I had started in this career, in part, to pursue death: to grasp it, uncloak it, and see it eye-to-eye, unblinking. Neurosurgery attracted me as much for its intertwining of brain and consciousness as for its intertwining of life and death. I had thought that a life spent in the space between the two would grant me not merely a stage for compassionate action but an elevation of my own being: getting as far away from petty materialism, from self-important trivia, getting right there, to the heart of the matter, to truly life-and-death decisions and struggles…surely a kind of transcendence would be found there. — When Breath Becomes Air

When Paul emailed his best friend in May to inform him that he had terminal cancer, he wrote, The good news is I’ve already outlived two Brontës, Keats, and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything. — When Breath Becomes Air

In anatomy lab, we objectified the dead, literally reducing them to organs, tissues, nerves, muscles. On that first day, you simply could not deny the humanity of the corpse. But by the time you’d skinned the limbs, sliced through inconvenient muscles, pulled out the lungs, cut open the heart, and removed a lobe of the liver, it was hard to recognize this pile of tissue as human. Anatomy lab, in the end, becomes less a violation of the sacred and more something that interferes with happy hour, and that realization discomfits. In our rare reflective moments, we were all silently apologizing to our cadavers, not because we sensed the transgression but because we did not. — When Breath Becomes Air

Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living. — When Breath Becomes Air

If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining? — When Breath Becomes Air

The days are long, but the years are short. — When Breath Becomes Air

The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight. — When Breath Becomes Air

You on call this weekend, Doc? Nope. And possibly never againGot any more cases today? Nope. And possibly never againShit, well, I guess that means this is a happy ending! Work’s done. I like happy endings, don’t you, Doc? Yeah. Yeah, I like happy endings. — When Breath Becomes Air

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live. — When Breath Becomes Air

All of medicine, not just cadaver dissection, trespasses into sacred spheres. Doctors invade the body in every way imaginable. They see people at their most vulnerable, their most scared, their most private. — When Breath Becomes Air

As a resident, my highest ideal was not saving lives — everyone dies eventually — but guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness. — When Breath Becomes Air

We often sneaked out at night to, for example, sing American Pie beneath the window of the captain of the cheerleading team. (Her father was a local minister and so, we reasoned, less likely to shoot). After I was caught returning at dawn from one such late-night escapade, my worried mother thoroughly interrogated me regarding every drug teenagers take, never suspecting that the most intoxicating thing I’d experienced, by far, was the volume of romantic poetry she’d handed me the previous week. — When Breath Becomes Air

Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue. — When Breath Becomes Air

One night on the sofa in my apartment, while studying the reams of wavy lines that make up EKGs, she puzzled over, then correctly identified, a fatal arrhythmia. All at once, it dawned on her and she began to cry: wherever this practice EKG had come from, the patient had not survived. The squiggly lines on that page were more than just lines; they were ventricular fibrillation deteriorating to asystole, and they could bring you to tears. — When Breath Becomes Air

Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action. — When Breath Becomes Air

Death, so familiar to me in my work, was now paying a personal visit. Here we were, finally face-to-face, and yet nothing about it seemed recognizable. Standing at the crossroads where I should have been able to see and follow the footprints of the countless patients I had treated over the years, I saw instead only a blank, a harsh, vacant, gleaming white desert, as if a sandstorm had erased all trace of familiarity. — When Breath Becomes Air

I sat, staring at a photo of Lucy and me from medical school, dancing and laughing; it was so sad, those two, planning a life together, unaware, never suspecting their own fragility. — When Breath Becomes Air

The most sacrosanct regions of the cortex are those that control language. Usually located on the left side, they are called Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas; one is for understanding language and the other for producing it. Damage to Broca’s area results in an inability to speak or write, though the patient can easily understand language. Damage to Wernicke’s area results in an inability to understand language; though the patient can still speak, the language she produces is a stream of unconnected words, phrases, and images, a grammar without semantics. If both areas are damaged, the patient becomes an isolate, something central to her humanity stolen forever. After someone suffers a head trauma or a stroke, the destruction of these areas often restrains the surgeon’s impulse to save a life: What kind of life exists without language? To understand my own direct experiences, I would have to translate them back into language. Hemingway described his process in similar terms: acquiring rich experiences, then retreating to cogitate and write about them. — When Breath Becomes Air

As I sat there, I realized that the questions intersecting life, death, and meaning, questions that all people face at some point, usually arise in a medical context. In the actual situations where one encounters these questions, it becomes a necessarily philosophical and biological exercise. Humans are organisms, subject to physical laws, including, alas, the one that says entropy always increases. Diseases are molecules misbehaving; the basic requirement of life is metabolism, and death its cessation. — When Breath Becomes Air

You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving. — When Breath Becomes Air

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. — When Breath Becomes Air

I expected to feel only empty and heartbroken after Paul died. It never occurred to me that you could love someone the same way after he was gone. — When Breath Becomes Air

Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living? — When Breath Becomes Air

My life had been building potential, potential that would now go unrealized. I had planned to do so much, and I had come so close. I’ve spent almost a third of my life preparing for it. I had mapped out this whole forty-year career for myself—the first twenty as a surgeon-scientist, the last twenty as a writer. But now that I am likely well into my last twenty years, I don’t know which career I should be pursuing. If I had some sense of how much time I have left, it’d be easier. If I had two years, I’d write. If I had ten, I’d get back to surgery and science. If only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day? — When Breath Becomes Air

I had a nagging sense that there was still far too much unresolved for me, that I wasn’t done studying. — When Breath Becomes Air

A sigh, and Earth continued to rotate back toward the sun. — When Breath Becomes Air

But how do you know when the tracing looks bad enough? Which is worse, being born too early or waiting too long to deliver? ‘Judgment call.’ What a call to make. In my life, had I ever made a decision harder than choosing between a French dip and a Reuben? How could I ever learn to make, and live with, such judgment calls? — When Breath Becomes Air

I had passed from the subject to the direct object of every sentence of my life. — When Breath Becomes Air

A few weeks in, after a sleepless night, she was assigned to assist in a Whipple, a complex operation that involves rearranging most abdominal organs in an attempt to resect pancreatic cancer, an operation in which a medical student typically stands still—or, at best, retracts—for up to nine hours straight. It’s considered the plum operation to be selected to help with, because of its extreme complexity—only chief residents are allowed to actively participate. But it is grueling, the ultimate test of a general surgeon’s skill. Fifteen minutes after the operation started, I saw Mari in the hallway, crying. The surgeon always begins a Whipple by inserting a small camera through a tiny incision to look for metastases, as widespread cancer renders the operation useless and causes its cancellation. Standing there, waiting in the OR with a nine-hour surgery stretching out before her, Mari had a whisper of a thought: I’m so tired—please God, let there be mets. There were. The patient was sewn back up, the procedure called off. First came relief, then a gnawing, deepening shame. — When Breath Becomes Air

What patients seek is not scientific knowledge that doctors hide but existential authenticity each person must find on her own. Getting too deeply into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability. — When Breath Becomes Air

The pain of failure had led me to understand that technical excellence was a moral requirement. Good intentions were not enough, not when so much depended on my skills, when the difference between tragedy and triumph was defined by one or two millimeters. — When Breath Becomes Air

You could see the day’s blue darken halfway across the sky, and to the west, the night remained yet unconquered—pitch-black, stars in full glimmer, the full moon still pinned in the sky. To the east, the full light of day beamed toward you; to the west, night reigned with no hint of surrender. No philosopher can explain the sublime better than this, standing between day and night. It was as if this were the moment God said, ‘Let there be light!’ You could not help but feel your specklike existence against the immensity of the mountain, the earth, the universe, and yet still feel your own two feet on the talus, reaffirming your presence amid the grandeur. — When Breath Becomes Air

Indeed, this is how percent of people select their jobs: pay, work environment, hours. But that’s the point. Putting lifestyle first is how you find a job — not a calling. — When Breath Becomes Air

Death comes for all of us. For us, for our patients: it is our fate as living, breathing, metabolizing organisms. Most lives are lived with passivity toward death — it’s something that happens to you and those around you. — When Breath Becomes Air

Here you are, violating society’s most fundamental taboos (cadaver dissection), and yet formaldehyde is a powerful appetite stimulant, so you also crave a burrito. — When Breath Becomes Air

Not fully captured in these pages are Paul’s sense of humor—he was wickedly funny…But this is the book he wrote; this was his voice during this time; this was his message during this time; this was what he wrote when he needed to write it…Paul was proud of this book, which was a culmination of his love for literature…This was the life he was given, and this is what he made of it. ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ is complete, just as it is. — When Breath Becomes Air

Tears welled up as I sat in the car, turned the key, and slowly pulled out into the street. I drove home, walked through the front door, hung up my white coat, and took off my ID badge. I pulled the battery out of my pager. I peeled off my scrubs and took a long shower. Later that night, I called Victoria and told her I wouldn’t be in on Monday, or possibly ever again, and wouldn’t be setting the OR schedule. ‘You know, I’ve been having this recurring nightmare that this day was coming,’ she said. ‘I don’t know how you did this for so long.’ — When Breath Becomes Air

There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment. — When Breath Becomes Air

Throughout college, my monastic, scholarly study of human meaning would conflict with my urge to forge and strengthen the human relationships that formed that meaning. If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining? — When Breath Becomes Air

Medical training is relentlessly future-oriented, all about delayed gratification; you’re always thinking about what you’ll be doing five years down the line. But now I don’t know what I’ll be doing five years down the line. I may be dead. I may not be. I may be healthy. I may be writing. I don’t know. And so it’s not all that useful to spend time thinking about the future—that is, beyond lunch. — When Breath Becomes Air

Moral duty has weight, things that have weight have gravity, and so the duty to bear mortal responsibility pulled me back into the operating room. — When Breath Becomes Air

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. That’s not to say that if you believe in meaning, you must also believe in God. It is to say, though, that if you believe that science provides no basis for God, then you are almost obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn’t have any. In other words, existential claims have no weight; all knowledge is scientific knowledge. Yet the paradox is that scientific methodology is the product of human hands and thus cannot reach some permanent truth. We build scientific theories to organize and manipulate the world, to reduce phenomena into manageable units. Science is based on reproducibility and manufactured objectivity. As strong as that makes its ability to generate claims about matter and energy, it also makes scientific knowledge inapplicable to the existential, visceral nature of human life, which is unique and subjective and unpredictable. Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue. Between these core passions and scientific theory, there will always be a gap. No system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience. 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. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them. — When Breath Becomes Air

When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool. — When Breath Becomes Air

God, I have read Job, and I don’t understand it, but if this is a test of faith, you now realize my faith is fairly weak, and probably leaving the spicy mustard off the pastrami sandwich would have also tested it? You didn’t have to go nuclear on me, you know? I work my whole life to get to this point, and then you give me cancer. — When Breath Becomes Air

The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out. It felt like someone had taken away my credit card and I was having to learn how to budget. You may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Two months after that, you may want to learn to play the saxophone or devote yourself to the church. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process. — When Breath Becomes Air

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