Monday, August 01, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

A good and worthy book, and I LOVE the title.

The premise is simple, brilliant neurosurgeon about to embark on his career contracts lung cancer (he never smoked, as if that makes a difference) he fights, he dies. It is a good and worthy read, but while exposure to this particular work might be of special use to some, it is well worth it to read  Ecclesiastes 1 and just ponder a bit even if you ARE going to read the book:

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher,
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
3What advantage does man have in all his work
Which he does under the sun?
4A generation goes and a generation comes,
But the earth remains forever.
5Also, the sun rises and the sun sets;
And hastening to its place it rises there again.
6Blowing toward the south,
Then turning toward the north,
The wind continues swirling along;
And on its circular courses the wind returns.
7All the rivers flow into the sea,
Yet the sea is not full.
To the place where the rivers flow,
There they flow again.
8All things are wearisome;
Man is not able to tell it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor is the ear filled with hearing.
9That which has been is that which will be,
And that which has been done is that which will be done.
So there is nothing new under the sun.
10Is there anything of which one might say,
“See this, it is new”?
Already it has existed for ages
Which were before us.
11There is no remembrance of earlier things;
And also of the later things which will occur,
There will be for them no remembrance
Among those who will come later still ... 
Remember, this is Solomon writing this -- the wisest man that ever lived.

Page 167 begins Paul's (the author) discussion of his Christian faith, and this passage especially hit me:
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.
The Biblical definition of "vanity" is anything apart from God -- which is MEANINGLESS! Human life and wisdom is "vanity" ... which apart from our relationship to God (which is ETERNAL) is meaningless. Consider the words of Solomon and replace "vanity" with MECHANISM. If we have no spirit, then ALL is mere mechanism, but if we do have spirit, then we are spiritual beings having a mechanical (physical) experience which is VERY short!

Science is all about mechanism and mechanism only. In programming, I can write a program in any programming language,  a wealth of styles, run it on at least hundreds of operating system / hardware combinations. etc. What counts is "the algorithm" which started in my head and was "expressed" in the program, then "reified" (made real) by the interaction of the compilers, interpreters, operating system, and under it all, the hardware.

I agree with Paul (the author) when he says "Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create with each other and the world, and is never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them ... " 

Being the sort of person I am, I realize that it is definitely by the Grace of God that my wife is 3+ weeks into recovery rather than 3+ weeks into the grave. My model has always been that I would precede her in death ... it seems "fair", she is younger, and lord knows that I need her MUCH more than she needs me! 

But I know that is not Truth -- that is a wish, which is as ephemeral as the passing of a gravity wave. 

The author was willing to admit that even two very much in love and committed people had problems in their marriage .. prologue, page 9 ... "But I'm worried we want different things from our relationship. I feel like we are connected halfway. I don't want to learn about your worries by accident". 

"Half way"? Pretty damned good for a relationship. One human brain is the single most complicated thing we know about in the universe -- at least trillions of connections, and mostly we are completely clueless of how it operates. Two brains? And for believers, "spirits", "love",  and connections to the infinite? Perhaps .0001 % "connected" is all even the closest can hope for in the life in which we breath. 

I fear I did not give the book high enough praise. READ IT, there are a myriad of things that make it worthwhile to read -- you get to know a brilliant neurosurgeon on a fairly deep level and understand a TINY bit of what it takes to walk that road. 

In the end though, Plato, Caesar, Augustine, DaVinci, Luther, Einstein -- pick your favorite. Only ONE life and death really matters eternally -- Jesus! ALL of us DEARLY want to be "special" -- The author talked of his expertise, the fact that he had not caused a leak of spinal fluid in a year, and some surgeon trying to help him did. I sometimes feel pride in my writing, or my maybe "imposing presence" in some cases. The author was WAY more special than I will EVER be, and  ALL of our works which we so very much want to be "special" are "filthy rags" --- BUT, in the power of Christ, we are all infinitely loved! (sadly, not all of us accept that love)

My kitties love me, which makes me feel good day to day. More importantly, I realize the greatest theological truth in history -- "Jesus loves me, this I know!" Next to eternity, the length of our lives here is definitely "vanity" -- we have a lot of very dear wishes, but they are not truth, they are vanity. 

So, when my breath becomes air, I'm ready. 

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