Paul Kalanithi’s Wisdom: Relationships and Meaning

In one recent ADDNashville meeting, I read a passage from Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016). Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon at Stanford who had advanced degrees in English literature and philosophy, wrote his book after his cancer diagnosis. 

If you are like me, a visual processor, you may need to see the passage in print. I had to read it several times, and let it sit in my brain for a while to fully digest it. The passage is worth repeating here:

“I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion. A word meant something only between people, and life’s meaning, its virtue, had something to do with the depth of the relationships we form. It was the relational aspect of humans–i.e., “human relationality”–that undergirded meaning.” 

What relevance does this have for those of us with ADHD? Someone in our group wisely asked this question. Since we are prone to communication challenges, those very challenges may have a negative impact on our relationships. If a word has something to do with relationship and meaning, and our speech is impulsive, or we get lost in our stories and appear detached from the listener, or we get distracted as listener and misread the speaker’s intention, or we speak unclearly and our words are misunderstood, then our relationships may suffer. 

This is why I wrote the third chapter in Living Well with ADHD: “Attentive Listening and Mindful Speaking.” We need to develop and sharpen our communication skills in order to have that depth of relationship with others, what Paul Kalanithi says “undergirds meaning.” We need to learn and practice mindful listening and speaking if we wish not to miss out on the real substance of life.

Kalanithi was very much alive until his last day. His words, and his example of how to live to the end, are priceless gifts that he gave to his family and his readers. He was 36 years old when his life ended. “You can’t ever reach perfection,” he said, “but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” 

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