Figuring Out What’s Most Important

In his best-selling posthumous memoir When Breath Becomes Air, 37-year old neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi reflected on how his battle with lung cancer led him on a search for priorities and values.

When a terminal diagnosis gave him a year or two at the most to live, he talked with his doctor about work options. She said ‘Many people, once diagnosed, quit work entirely–others focus on it heavily. Either way is okay.’

9780812988406_p0_v2_s192x300He wondered what aspirations he should let go of during his final days.   ‘Well, I can’t tell you that, ‘she replied, ‘I can only say that you can get back to surgery if you want, but you have to figure out what’s most important to you.’

Dr. Kalanithi remembered her ‘oft repeated refrain’ to ‘find his values.’ He wanted to leave behind a record of his quest to find his values and answer the question, ‘what’s most important to you.’

Perhaps it takes mortality at any age, but especially an untimely passing, to bring these questions to mind.   Life is brief at best.   No one can do everything.   And as he came to believe, when the end of life nears, values are all that matter.

Kalanithi narrowed his values down to bonding with family, healing his marriage, having a child, and returning to faith.   When he changed from doctor to patient he realized, that ‘it was the pastoral role I sought.’   Neurosurgery was a means to an end. Care and compassion were most important to him.


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3 Responses to Figuring Out What’s Most Important


    I often wonder why we must get near the end before values emerge as important.

  2. Bob Sloan says:

    Excellent reminder of what is most important in life!

  3. Tom Rose says:

    What is most important is sticking to your convictions and doing what you think is right despite most people saying you are wrong or crazy, etc. On the Seder plate this year we added an orange for nonJews, gays, others who don’t fit and we each took a slice and passed it around, We also added a beet which symbolizes the blood of those who have been murdered etc like MLK, and we added a radish which has the same Latin root as the word radical so what we can get to the root of what is important in our lives and convictions.

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