MOVING FROM “AT” TO “WITH”

We recently explored Paul Kalanithi’s best-selling book, When Breath Becomes Air, in Ray Barfield and Richard Payne’s popular Duke Divinity course, “The Healing Arts: Illness, Suffering, and the Witness of the Church.”

The quality of Kalanithi’s book, simply as a work of art, is remarkable. It is eloquent, concise, and expansive – branching out from Browne to Bunyan (It even employs an elegant design and typeface). It is a rare text – beautiful and moving in an age when “beautiful” and “moving” usually mean “pretty” and “entertaining.” No, this book’s beauty moves.

Though Kalanithi is endlessly quotable, I want to draw attention to these three sentences,

“But in residency, something else was gradually unfolding. In the midst of this endless barrage of head injuries, I began to suspect that being so close to the fiery light of such moments only blinded me to their nature, like trying to learn astronomy by staring directly at the sun. I was not yet with patients in their pivotal moments, I was merely at those pivotal moments.”[1]

In C. S. Lewis’ popular essay “Meditation in a Toolshed,” he explores the difference between looking “at” something versus looking “along” it. Imagine looking at a sunray cutting across the darkness of an empty toolshed. We may see dust dancing along its beam – some golds and yellows illuminating the dark – but if we look along the beam, everything changes. Suddenly we step into a field of blinding light, behold the greens and blues of outside trees and sky, and – of course – glimpse the sun, brilliant and shining. “Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.”[2]

How do we begin to look along our patients, rather than at them? For those who have been quite sick or suffered extended time in the hospital, I suspect they know this transformation better than anyone. They’ve been looked at and can now look along. Indeed, Kalanithi’s story is an ascent from looking “at” to looking “along,” from being “at” to being “with.” As the realities surrounding his lung cancer unfold, Paul steps into the sunbeam.

To move from “at” to “with” is to step into suffering’s beam. It is changing how we see our neighbor. For healthcare professionals, it is changing how we see our patients. For when we look “along” rather than “at,” we see not only ourselves – mirrored in our universal sentence to “sickness, sorrow, pain, and death”[3] – but also God. To look along our suffering neighbor is to stand in the fiery light of the true and brighter Son, as His suffering is refracted through the imago Dei being we behold. To look along that beam with our fellow human beings is to behold the same light. By staring along the Son, we move from being at, to being with. We stop trying to learn by staring directly at, and learn by looking intently with.

[1] Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air (New York: Random House, 2016), 81.
[2] C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in The Timeless Writings of C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, MI: Inspirational Press, 1970), 442-444 .
[3] Samuel Stennett, “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks,” Christopher Miner Music, 1997, online at Indelible Grace Hymn Book http://hymnbook.igracemusic.com/hymns/on-jordans-stormy-banks

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John Brewer Eberly, Jr. is a TMC Fellow with interests in the philosophy of beauty, philosophical theology, and medical humanities. He is also a rising fourth-year medical student at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine and plans to apply for OB/GYN residency. He lives in Durham, NC with his wife, Dendy.