Remarkable surgeon & Yale clinical professor, Sherwin Nuland (1930–2014) devoted nearly four decades of his life to his practice& care. He truly cared, for more than 10,000 patients then received the National Book Award for his humanistic masterwork How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter (public library) & was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that year.
It is one of the most existentially elevating books & an inquiry as much into how we exit this life as into how we fill its living moments with meaning, integrity and, ultimately, happiness.
Four years later, Nuland followed up with How We Live (public library), addressing the art of being alive — that spectacular resilience of which the human body & mind are capable — with equal wisdom & warmth.
Nuland’s death in the spring of 2014 was marked by the host of the sublime public radio show On Being, Krista Tippett. An enchantress of the human spirit through the communion of conversation — she shared her talk with Nuland, recorded several years earlier. The entire episode is fantastic. One particular passage illuminates & exposes the heart of Nuland’s legacy & elogently articulates an elemental, essential truth — the same one at which Tolstoy & Gandhi arrived — we as individuals & as a civilization, both, so easily let ourselves forget:
“The more personal you are willing to be and the more intimate you are willing to be about the details of your own life, the more universal you are… And when I say universal, I don’t mean universal only within our culture…” >>listen<<
“When you recognize that pain — & response to pain — is a universal thing, it helps explain so many things about others, just as it explains so much about yourself. It teaches you forbearance. It teaches you a moderation in your responses to other people’s behavior. It teaches you a sort of understanding. It essentially tells you what everybody needs. You know what everybody needs? You want to put it in a single word?
Everybody needs to be understood & out of that comes every form of love.
If someone truly feels that you understand them, an awful lot of neurotic behavior just disappears — disappears on your part, disappears on their part.
So if you’re talking about what motivates this world to continue existing as a community, you’ve got to talk about love… And my argument is it comes out of your biology because on some level we understand all of this. We put it into religious forms. It’s almost like an excuse to deny our biology. We put it into pithy, sententious aphorisms, but it’s really coming out of our deepest physiological nature.”
Illustrating the inextricable connectedness of deeper human truths, Nuland turns to a maxim that scholars attribute to the first-century Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.” The phrase, the spirit of which Lucinda Williams echoed by her sublime paean to compassion, appears in the epitaph of Nuland’s excellent memoir of his father, Lost in America.