Dr. Paul Kalanathi was a successful neurosurgeon when, at the age of 35, he learned he had metastatic lung cancer. As he made the transformation from doctor to patient, he recorded his thoughts and feelings about what the journey through health care toward death meant for him. His book, When Breath Becomes Air, is receiving critical acclaim.
One of his insights concerns the inadequacy of science to aid in spiritual growth as death approaches. He writes, “science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.” His list echoes that of William Faulkner, who in his 1950 Nobel acceptance speech spoke of the writer’s duty to write about the “old verities and truths of the heart … love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”
As death approaches (and it will, for us all), we will find solace in the humanities. For those who aspire to care for the sick and dying, acquaint yourself with these most human truths that are explored by artists in their work.