Tag Archives: meaning-of-life

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

when breath becomes air graphic poem

blue quotation-marksAt age thirty-six, I had reached the mountaintop; I could see the Promised Land… I could see a nice catamaran on the [Mediterranean Sea]. I could see the tension in my back unwinding as my work schedule eased and life became more manageable. I could finally becoming the husband I’d promised to be…

I flipped through [my] CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious… The future I imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving evaporated.Paul Kalanithi

Paul Sudhir Arul Kalanithi grew up in Kingman, Arizona. After graduating  from Stanford University in 2000 with a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature and a B.A. in Human Biology, he found himself caught between the worlds of literature and science; neither a perfect fit for him in his quest to discover the answer to the overwhelming question – what makes life worth living?  What is a meaningful life?

After deliberation, he set a goal to attend medical school, but not before he explored more fully the nature of thought and consciousness; how man makes decisions, defines consciousness, and rationalizes his existence. After attending the University of Cambridge where he earned a Masters of Philosophy in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine, he turned to Yale University of Medicine where he graduated cum laude in 2007. Armed with years of theoretical education, he now focused on practical experience and hands-on patient care.  He returned to Stanford University to begin his residency training and ultimately fine-tuning his focus onto the field of neurology. In his sixth-year of a seven-year training program to become neurosurgeon, Paul learns he has stage-four lung cancer.

Now cresting at the top of his field, having struggled with the long duty hours, strains on his personal life, he feels he has a good grip on his personal identity. He will soon become a doctor, counselor and adviser to his patients. He has stumbled and made mistakes along the way to understanding that he must fully understand his patients as a whole to offer the best care.

And now he stands facing his own mortality. He knows he will never have that long sought after career as a neurosurgeon. He has become the patient. His world has come to a full-stop. “Who am I now?”, he asks.

In the end, he became the writer; an early life goal. A man determined to leave a lasting legacy. A man opening his whole life to the world in hopes that in revealing himself, others will learn to face their own mortality and fears; to live life fully, unafraid and ready when the end arrives. Paul, according to his wife, wrote feverishly, determined to lay bare his faults and strengths, his terrors and joys, and finally his acceptance and willingness to face death straight on in his own terms.

It is a hard book to read. The squeamish might want to skip through his cadaver training. And he is strongest when he openly discusses his weaknesses, his lack of empathy for his patients, and the moment he realizes what he has become and makes the change for the better. At times I felt like a voyeur as he shared painful moments in his marital life with his wife, Lucy. Paul’s terminal diagnosis impacted his family’s present and future.

Sadly, Paul never got to finish his book. Some reviewers have found the book rather cold and at times impersonal. It must be remembered that the book was compiled from his copious notes and essays. He undoubtedly would have edited the material had he the chance to do so making it sound less like a doctor’s chart dictation and more fully exposing the full range of his personality.

Lucy Kalanithi’s epilogue is riveting and more fully exposes the “whole” Paul. Lucy’s sharing of Paul’s final hours had me in tears.

Readers personally struggling with terminal illness and looking for ways to make decisions about their own care or caregivers seeking inspiration and help on behalf of a loved one are encouraged to view Paul’s videos and interviews online. In the end, you will never forget Paul; he did make a difference. He let us view the meaning of life as he lived it.

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Looking For Alaska

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# 1 Challenged Book In 2015

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Looking For Alaska

Author | John Green
Dutton Bks | 2005
Hardcover: 256 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-245660-1

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Genre: Fiction/Interpersonal Relations
Audience: High School

PRESS RELEASE – 2005

Before.
Miles “Pudge” Halter is done with his safe life at home. His whole life has been one big non-event, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave “the Great Perhaps” even more (Francois Rabelais, poet). He heads off to the sometimes crazy and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young. She is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart. Then. . . .
After. Nothing is ever the same.

Challenge History
Looking for Alaska, first published in 2005, was John Green’s debut young adult novel. The American Library Association awarded the book the  Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature in 2006. Visit the link Awards and Challenges for more information about this book and book challenges in general.

The first challenge to the book occurred in 2008 when the book was used as course material in an 11th-grade English class in a high school near Buffalo, N.Y. Some parents challenged its usage in class because of its liberal portrayal of students drinking, smoking, using explicit language and having sex. The school board ultimately voted to keep the book in the school curriculum

Following the phenomenal success of John Green’s A Fault In Our Stars in 2012, Looking for Alaska received a second look by many and soon appeared on the NYT children’s paperback bestseller list at #10.

The American Library Association received  270+ different titles challenged in 2015 but the most challenged book was Looking for Alaska. The ALA has summarized the challenges as offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group. Other challenges to the book focused on religious objections.

John Green’s Youtube defense of challenges

My Review

First off I was disappointed (tongue-in-cheek) to learn that the story wasn’t about the cold northern state, Alaska; I had hoped. Alaska is a “gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating classmate” (according to the publisher) not an Alaskan musher.

Having gotten over my disappointment, I looked at the bones of the book. Unlike most novels, the book is uniquely arranged in one continuous story-line. No separate chapters.  Breaks in the timeline are spliced into the story by bold headlines – a countdown to some unknown event beginning with one hundred thirty-six days before. This layout did keep me reading page after page always looking for clues, ever aware that something significant is going to happen. A very useful tactic if encouraging a reluctant reader.

My overall impression was positive. I thought the book was age-appropriate for senior high school students. Parents of younger children should probably read the book in advance and make their own decision if their child is mature enough or prepared for some of the themes. The sex scenes and underage drinking reflect the mind of the intended audience as they transition from youth toward adulthood; even if as a parent, you would like to keep your child innocent and close to home. It is my opinion the book could provide a medium through which a parent and child can discuss sensitive topics at a time when it is hard to talk about anything with your child without sulking or surly rebellion.

I particularly liked that Miles’ father, an alumnus of Culver Creek, having been a mischief make himself, advises Miles, “Don’t do anything stupid…No drugs, No drinking, No cigarettes.” While Miles had no initial interest in these activities he was so anxious to belong that he was willing to suspend his better judgement at times.

The heaviest topic, suicide, threads through the story, often disguised as bluster and bravado. Again, with teenage suicides the third-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, the book provides an avenue for discussion about the symptoms and signals of teenage depression.

I was struck by the deliberate absence of parental contact and limited supervision by school staff during the school year; parents and teachers for the most part seemed to speak in the Peanuts cartoon “wah wah wah” voice as background noise. The “Eagle”, Mr. Starnes, dean of students, appears as a nocturnal guard against late night mischief with little interest in the life of students exhibiting social problems.

By and large, one of the best themes of the book was the world religions class. Miles was not raised in a deeply religious setting but he is intrigued by the metaphysical nature of the class. It speaks to why he reads biographies to learn people’s last words and to his reason for attending this school- searching for the Great Perhaps. The topic of death and the meaning of life is central to the story. As Miles “Pudge” Halter absorbs his thoughts about the meaning of life, the reader follows Alaska’s personal torments toward tragedy.

Mr. Hyde posts Simón Bolívar’s last words, often quoted by Alaska, on the chalkboard as a source for class discussion and reflection.

“Damn it. How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?”

The author places each character in a myriad of labyrinths. Each labyrinth, whether Miles’ efforts at developing friendships, Chips disapproval of the wealthy day students, or Alaska’s deep history of family tragedy and sorrow, lends itself to self-reflection and/or shared dialogue.

When the unexpected event happens and “the before” ends and “the after” begins, life is altered for each character. As in life itself, the characters learn how tenuous the future really is and their self-discovery in response to the “event” casts a bright light on friendship, loyalty, trust, love, religion and reality.

Despite the dark overtones, the book has many positive messages.

The world religion class receives their final exam question two months in advance and the characters’ reflections and discussions on the topic are thought provoking.

What is the most important question human beings must answer?
Choose your answer wisely, and then examine how “Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity attempt to answer it.

Pudge’s final exam begins…

Before I got here, I thought for a long time that the way out of the labyrinth was to pretend it doesn’t exist, to build a small, self-sufficient world in the back corner of the endless maze and to pretend that I was not lost, but home. But that only led to a lonely life accompanied by the last words of the already-dead, so I came here looking for the Great Perhaps, for real friends and a more-than-minor life.

And ends with…

Thomas Edison’s last words were: ‘It’s very beautiful over there.’ I don’t know where there is, but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.”

I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking and writing what has turned out to be a lengthy discussion of this “banned book.” If this book has such a lasting impression on me personally, I hope it is helpful and enlightening to others as well.

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