In 1994, Sherwin Nuland (1930–2014) — a remarkable surgeon and Yale clinical professor who in his nearly four decades of practice cared, truly cared, for more than 10,000 patients — received the National Book Award for his humanistic masterwork How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, 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 , addressing the art of aliveness — that spectacular resilience of which the human body and mind are capable — with equal wisdom and warmth.
Shortly after Nuland’s death in the spring of 2014, Krista Tippett — host of the public radio show On Being — shared her talk with Nuland, recorded several years earlier. One particular passage both illuminates the heart of Nuland’s legacy and articulates beautifully an essential, elemental truth — the same one at which Tolstoy and Gandhi arrived — that we, both as individuals and as a civilization, so easily let ourselves forget:
“Do you know what I learned from writing [How We Die], if I learned nothing else? 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…
To illustrate the inextricable connectedness of these 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.”
When you recognize that pain — and 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.
And out of that comes every form of love.