When Breath Becomes Air: A Lesson on Suffering


Qasim Choudhary, USA

In his poignant memoir When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi a bright young neurosurgeon on the cusp of completing decades of training, is faced with a devastating revelation. Terminal cancer.

Paul Kalanithi entered his final year of training as a neurosurgical student. As he stared at the CT scan images, the situation devastated him. Innumerable tumors lined his lungs, the spine and liver not faring well either.  But this wasn’t just any scan: It was his own. From wearing the customary authoritative white coat and scrubs, a patient’s gown now restrained Paul. At that moment, the future he imagined and the culmination of decades of striving evaporated.

Reading through this sombre yet inspirational book, it was incredible to see Paul’s positive outlook on life despite being at death’s door. But there was one powerful confession Paul makes that got me thinking.  ‘Life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.‘ [1]

Such a stark statement holds true for anyone who aspires to greatness in their respective field.  For instance, professional athletes undergo rigorous training and endure hours of suffering in pursuit of reaching their peak physical condition. Students pursuing higher education will take great pains in their studies. In fact, the Fifth Caliph and Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) recently mentioned that a good Russian student studies almost 12-13 hours a day. [2] Hence, It is after unremitting, incessant and persistent striving, that one can achieve the object of one’s quest. [3] As the Holy Qur’an succinctly states, ‘And that man will have nothing but what he strives for.‘ [4]

If such toiling and effort are necessary to achieve worldly objectives, does the same rule apply for spiritual progression? When embarking on the spiritual journey, what role do hardships and tribulations play? Should one welcome adversity or fear it?

Welcoming Adversity

The Promised Messiah (as) pens a beautiful couplet that sheds light on this subject. He writes,

تلخی کی زندگی کو کرو صدق سے قبول

تا تم پہ ہو ملائکہ عرش کا نزول

‘Accept a life that is arduous with sincerity

So that the angels from the high heavens descend upon you.‘ [5]

At first glance, it seems absurd to willingly put yourself outside of your comfort zone. Avoiding pain and playing it safe appear to be the smarter choice. But imagine if a professional athlete limited themselves to practice once a week. Or a person who desires nearness to God decides to skip tahajjud [voluntary pre-dawn prayers] and fajr [prayer offered right before dawn] because they are too early. Rather than progress, such a person would regress in achieving their ultimate goal. As John C. Maxwell aptly puts it, ‘If we are growing we are always going to be outside our comfort zone.’

Likewise, the Promised Messiah (as) states, ‘Allah the Exalted does not like those who flock to comfort and flee from hardship.‘ [6]

The Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) is a prime example of someone who shouldered such afflictions as are unparalleled in the history of the world. Upon being asked who is most severely tested, he replied, ‘The Prophets.‘ [7] It may seem curious that those who are nearest to God undergo the most hardship. If we too desire spiritual enlightenment, it is incumbent upon us to shed indolent and timid dispositions. The Holy Prophet (sa), the paragon of spirituality, did not rest even a single day in his life. [8]  A telling example for those who wish to fortify their spiritual endeavours.

Hardships and Spirituality

Whether it be worldly objectives or spiritual aspirations, we will incur varying obstacles and discomforts. The beauty in spiritual hardships, however, is their transience. As the Promised Messiah (as) expounds, ‘The fact is that the pleasure of God Almighty, which is the cause of true happiness, cannot be attained until one bears temporary hardships. God cannot be deceived. Blessed are those who do not care for suffering sustained to acquire the pleasure of Allah. For the light of eternal bliss and everlasting comfort is granted to a believer after this temporary hardship.‘ [9]


Striving Towards God

Spiritual growth demands that a person strives and exerts an effort towards God Almighty. God reassures man, however, by promising that his efforts in the spiritual realm will not go in vain. As the Holy Qur’an states, ‘As for those who strive in Our path – We will surely guide them in Our ways.‘ [10]

Similarly, the Promised Messiah (as) beautifully expounds that, ‘If we feel sympathy upon witnessing the effort and conditions of students who spend day and night preparing for worldly examinations, how can Allah the Exalted, who is boundless and infinite in His mercy and compassion, waste the effort of a person who strives towards Him? Of course not. Never would He do so. Allah the Exalted does not allow anyone’s effort to go in vain.‘ [11] In this regard God Almighty states, ‘Surely, Allah suffers not the reward of those who do good to be lost.‘ [12]

People of all fields make immense efforts and labour day and night for the sake of uncertain and insecure objectives. A farmer sows a seed not knowing whether it will bear any fruits. Students devote themselves to books unsure if they will pass their exams. An employee will deprive himself of every comfort, hoping that perhaps he will impress his employer. There is suffering in every path, but we must remember, that the path on which man can never fail is the path of God. [13]

The following excerpt of the Promised Messiah (as) profoundly encapsulates this subject. He writes, ‘Everything in the world progresses in stages. Spiritual advancement is no different and nothing can happen without struggle; and that struggle too must be in the way of God.‘ [14]

The sooner we see the beauty in suffering, the sooner we will realise its cruciality in self development and growth. For tireless effort is a necessity of life otherwise one remains static and lifeless. As God Almighty states, ‘We have surely created man to toil and struggle.‘ [15]

About the Author: Qasim Choudhary is a graduate from the Ahmadiyya Institute of Languages and Theology in Canada, and serves as an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the United States of America.


[1] When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi, pg. 147, New York, Random House, 2016 (eBook)

[2] Al-Hakam, 8th October, 2021

[3] Five Volume Commentary, p. 3027

[4] The Holy Qur’an, 53:40

[5] Barahin-e-Ahmadiyya Part V, pg.26, Islam International Publications Ltd., 2018 (Eng. Translation)

[6] Malfuzat, Vol.1, p. 26 (Eng. Translation)

[7] Ibn Majah, Kitab Al-Fitn

[8] Malfuzat, Vol.1, p. 26 (Eng. Translation)

[9] Malfuzat, Vol.1, p.73 (Eng. Translation)

[10] The Holy Qur’an, 29:70

[11] Malfuzat, Vol.1, p. 141 (Eng. Translation)

[12] The Holy Qur’an, 9:120

[13] Malfuzat, Vol.1, p. 142 (Eng. Translation)

[14] Malfuzat Vol.2, p. 224 (Eng. Translation)

[15] The Holy Qur’an, 90:5

[16] The Holy Qur’an, 2:234