This book by Paul Kalanithi was published posthumously, after he passed away from metastatic lung cancer. The book was written as he was dying from the disease and his narrative includes scenes from his early, formative years, as well as his excruciating descent into pain, debilitation and surprisingly, the joys of fatherhood. He was only thirty-five and his death deprived this world of everything else that he might have contributed, had he lived longer. Kalanithi was one of those rare people who really could have been anything he wanted to be when he grew up. Most of us are told this myth while we’re growing up (I can be an NBA player?) and most of us lack the talent (but I can’t dribble without accidentally kicking the ball) and/or lack the prerequisites (I’m only 5’3″ on a good day) and/or lack the discipline to make the dream a reality (Practice? Nah, rather read a book).
At the time of his death, Kalanithi was a highly skilled neurosurgeon and scientist. Prior to deciding to train in medicine, he obtained advanced degrees in the humanities, earning a Masters in English Literature from Standford and a M.Phil in the history and philosophy of science and medicine from Cambridge. Despite all of his achievements, he remained humble, recognizing how weak we are in the face of the overwhelming entropy of the universe. The only solace in losing such a talented and thoughtful person is that he was able to accomplish more in his short thirty-five years than most of us achieve in a lifetime. Still, what a waste.
Throughout the book, the author quotes widely from luminaries who had thought deeply about life, death, and whatever little meaning we can derive from these experiences. But they pontificated from a safe distance. Kalanithi’s words have greater immediacy and pathos because the Grim Reaper was right there at his side, informing the creative process.
I have some small experience in sharing space with the Grim Reaper, so I was struck by Kalanithi’s observation that cancer left one in a state of both knowing and not knowing. In his case, he knew he was terminal, but he had no idea how much time he had left. Because he simultaneously knew and didn’t know, this made decisions about how to spend his remaining time extremely difficult. Cancer, then, is Schrödinger’s disease. Continue reading “Schrödinger’s Disease and the Introvert”