The Importance of Identity Contingencies

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Understanding oneself is one of the most basic things that every individual, regardless of his or her position in life, struggles to find meaning from. This is no exception to the author of “When Breath Becomes Air”, going by the name Paul Kalanithi. Having grown up and enjoyed some of his lifetime in a healthy manner, he is stricken by various complication at the early ages of his life, having just married with one kid. Having studied literature at the first stages of his learning in the university, he later reverts to medicine where it seems like his passion falls. He pursues a medical course where he trains to be the current generation neurosurgeon, possessing a greater level of knowledge in this field. Therefore, this paper aims at critically discussing Kalanithi’s memoir and also explains what it actually illustrates about the matter of identity contingencies.


            Kalanithi, even in the early years of his life, develops the passion to explore the world basing on the scientific way. This forces him to abandon his literature degree he attains from Stanford University and follows his passion to take the way of medicine, where he then focuses on the field of neurosurgery (Kalanithi, Verghese and Malhota 28). He struggles to find out the meaning of life, not just in a theoretical way, but he personally wants to experience it witness what it really means. Despite he having many issues running across his mind each and every time, and in every step he takes in his life, he makes it a secret and tries as mush to contain it within himself, so that he does not attract the attention of the people, both from his family and even friends from the outer environment.

            However, the intense of the illness moves higher, forcing him to abandon some of his normal day to day activities hence making his life to deteriorate. Instead of affecting his writing capability and lower it as well, his case becomes a very different one because the direction makes him more stable in his work, meaning that he gathers more intellectual strength that makes him increase his perfectness in writing (Kalanithi, Verghese and Malhota 37). It is at this point that he seems to get the full understanding of life because he moves from one place to another trying to find out how the other cancer patients live up their lives.

            Nevertheless, his suspicions about life increase when he completes the diagnosis and realizes that, life no longer has anything special to offer to him. He takes the action of diagnosing his own body, because he already possesses the skills it takes for him to perform and put into practice his neurosurgery knowledge. He further argues that, although the diagnosis has confirmed his state of body, as having severely affected by the cancer cells, he knew even before that his death would just occur someday.

            With the cancer cells become so vibrant in his body, he assures himself that he must die, even if he did not possess the idea in his mind earlier, although the time of dying was yet to be known. He struggles to do extensive research so as to try out and determine the time that is remaining for him to be in the world, together with his family and even friends (Kalanithi, Verghese and Malhota 59). Having known who he is in this world or having realized his identity in the society, he starts making plans about his future, although he remains uncertain on the time that nature will provide him with to continue seeing the happenings and wonders of this world.

            He falls from his level of being a professional doctor, a qualified neurosurgeon, into a patient severely affected by a dangerous disease called cancer. During his struggle with the illness, where he gets into taking drugs that tend to reduce the effect it imposes to patients, he decides and assumes that he has a long way to go, meaning that he will still live for a longer time (Kalanithi, Verghese and Malhota 72). It is at this point in time that he decides to write his book named “When Breath Becomes Air”, which gives a more detailed explanation about his future, which he assumes that he is going to live.

            However, the question that we should all be asking ourselves is that, what does this memoir illustrate about identity contingencies?  In in the last book he writes in his life, most probably describing himself and his future, he has a greater ambition to make extraordinary achievements in the future life. So, the memoir shows very many things about the identity contingencies, the future he is not going to live, despite the greater plans he makes for it. The book tends to explain how and individual can live and on the other side how he can die.

            The memoir, more evidently exposed by this book, shows that every individual, learning from Kalanithi’s example, who is at the brink of his life will always assume that life will still be longer hence putting down strategies to pursue later on  (Kalanithi, Verghese and Malhota 87). Kalanithi, although knowing and having evidence that the stage of cancer in his body would not allow him to live for long, gives himself hope and decides to make arrangements for his future life.

            Another thing that this memoir tries to show about identity contingencies is that, individuals who find themselves in such situations tend to share their pain with others. When an individual realizes that he is going to die sooner, like the case of Kalanithi, he will try to show the people around him about how bright his future, although unattainable, would be. This is just in an attempt to share the feelings and pressure brought upon by death hence making the individual assume that he will just surpass the mortality and attain his future. This is exactly what Kalanithi does in this book, because he tries to share painful insights brought about by the idea that death was on his face, but then eases the pressure by focusing on his unattainable future.

            Another aspect that Kalanithi’s memoir tries to illustrate about the identity contingencies is that, it increases the thinking capability or rather the creativity within an individual. When a person tends to grow uncertain about his future but still holds into it that he will live to see it, the individuals especially the writers of books and poets will tend to bring out the best of them (Kalanithi, Verghese and Malhota 92). They will try to the extent of their capability to give out something special about them because going by the beliefs and assumptions, they are going to live for long but following the facts, they will be nowhere to be seen in the near future. As also with Kalanithi, having the fact that he will die soon, he assumes that he will live to see the later years of his life on earth and decides to write one of the most inspiring stories of his life, which despite referring to his own life, focuses widely of the lives of other people together with what nature brings in place.

            The next thing that this memoir attempts to show about identity contingencies is that the latter pose a challenge to other individuals who are at least certain about their future, although death does not come calling for one to get an assurance that he was going to die. However, with an individual that is nearing death talking about how his future would be and the things perceives to achieve, other people can learn from these utterances or rather pieces of writing, so that they can start making their lives more interesting currently than waiting for the later years of their lives. Also, identity contingencies give other people more encouragement because of the hope that is always entailed in them. Regarding the case of Kalanithi, his preparations about what he intends to take or rather perform in the future works to give encouragement to many people around him, including his wife, the friends he has and even the surrounding community, not forgetting the readers of book.


            Life can be very interesting at times, where individual enjoys his times in one instance and abruptly, unexpected changes occur tending to paralyze all activities that an individual performs. However, just like Kalanithi does, individuals should not live their lives at stake now that they know their death is nearing but instead try to fill themselves with hope that they will make it in the future even if it seems uncertain.

Work Cited

Kalanithi, Paul, Abraham Verghese, and Sunil Malhotra. When breath becomes air.

Books On Tape Incorporated, 2016.

December 12, 2023

Life Literature



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Literature Review

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