Sherwin Nuland Knows What Everybody Needs

I haven’t read Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter, but everyone […]

David Zahl / 10.9.15

I haven’t read Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter, but everyone I know who’s done a stint in a hospital–doctor, nurse, chaplain, volunteer–tells me it’s a ubiquitous find in the ICU. Descriptions of its contents tend to emphasize the word “humanistic”, so I suppose I chalked its popularity up to Nuland having channelled secularist feelings about death in a smart, accessible way, i.e. without being a complete downer. Anyway, the other day someone forwarded me an excerpt of an interview he did with Krista Tippett back in 2009 (I think–Nuland died in 2014), and while some anti-religious sentiment definitely creeps into their discussion, a few of Nuland’s observations are too rich and relevant not to share. It certainly accounts for the response that every preacher (and writer) hopes for, namely “Have you been tapping my phone? Were you under the bed last night?”, not to mention the relieved looks on the faces of those uttering the words, ht JD:

9780679742449Do 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… And when I say universal, I don’t mean universal only within our culture. You know, there’s a lot of balderdash thrown around — “You don’t understand people who live in Sri Lanka and their response to the tsunami because you just don’t know that culture.”

Well, there’s an element of that — but, to me, cultural differences are a kind of patina over the deepest psychosexual feelings that we have, that all human beings share…

There is a book that I wrote called Lost in America, and there is a quotation in that book. It’s the epigraph of that book, and it’s attributed to Philo. Nobody who’s a Philo expert has been able to find it for me, and I certainly can’t find it. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.” [ed. note: actual quote is “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”] Well, that’s the philosopher’s stone.

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.

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.


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