There came a moment when reading “When Breathe Becomes Air” (66 weeks now on the NY Times best seller list) that I put the book aside to reflect. It wasn’t just that it is a heartbreaking memoir of a physician who received a diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer and died at age 37. I knew the ending before I started.
I was struck by why Paul Kalanithi became a neurosurgeon. It was, he wrote: ‘to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.’
And then the sentence that gave me pause –
‘Had I been more religious in my youth, I might have become a pastor, for it was the pastoral role I’d sought.’
He anticipated a ‘pastoral role,’ to ‘forge relationships with the suffering,’ doing more than simply treating physical problems. He sought for compassionate relationships with his patients.
For over a year now since I first read the book I’ve been wondering: do most parish pastors, priests, and rabbis understand the ‘pastoral role’ this way?
Or are they expected to pay more attention to metrics of attendance, membership and money, than forging ‘relationships with the suffering.’ As rewarding as it may be, congregational leadership can be a painstaking, frustrating job unless motivated by a calling to stand with those who suffer.
Dr Paul Kalanithi knew that that at the end of life, if not sooner, we all will endure suffering and will need a ‘pastoral figure.’
He wrote his brief memoir knowing that he did not have long to live. Shortly before the end he lamented:
‘One chapter of my life seemed to have ended: perhaps the whole book was closing. Instead of being the pastoral figure aiding in life transition, I found myself the sheep, lost and confused. Severe illness wasn’t life-altering, it was life-shattering.’
Fortunately, the doctor during his final days became the ‘pastoral figure’ he needed and wanted to be.
I think he wrote so that any of us may be that for someone, sometime.