If we go by Montaigne, Cicero had written that “to study philosophy is to learn to die.” If I go by Paul Kalanithi’s work, it is when you confront mortality that you discover your own philosophy. I have never read death this close, and I am finding it difficult to get words that would accurately describe my reaction to it, so I will restrict myself to the streams of narratives I followed in this book.
The first has less to do with Paul, and more to do with his trade. In his case, it isn’t a trade, it is a calling. However, this book has also given me perspectives which ensure that I would not judge those doctors who consider it a profession, and nothing more. Just to be clear, I am not referring to the monsters which the modern hospital corporations are, but the individual doctors who might appear callous or unfeeling in their interactions with us. Through his description of what the typical doctor goes through when he chooses the profession, Paul shows that doctors are humans too. Maybe we forget that, when we expect empathy and understanding. I can only barely begin to understand now what it means to have the responsibility of a life in your hands. A mistake is not about targets not being achieved or losing a job, a mistake is a life lost, or even worse. How can a person deal with that on a regular basis? And yes, some people can’t!
Paul’s narrative, I felt, had a layering of sorts, through which he guided the reader into the life of a doctor, his patients and their ailments. At least some initial parts of the book are vivid in terms of descriptions of patients, conditions and treatment. A physical perspective. There is then the mental acknowledgment of a disease and a rational course of action that is to be followed. Many judgment calls here, and these are not easy for the doctor, or the patients or their relatives. There is then the emotion. Hope, for instance, is such a crucial yet dangerous thing. And then, the part where medicine and philosophy meet for a yet unfinished conversation – mortality. Through the book, I could discern the author giving us his perspectives on each.
And finally Paul as a patient. Brave, heroic, “frail but not weak”, and unrelenting in his quest to find meaning even when his life gets hit by a reset button. Wisdom through a life well lived.