S&H sits down with Dr. W. Lee Warren to talk science, faith, and writing.
W. Lee Warren, MD, is a brain surgeon, inventor, Iraq War veteran, and writer. His book, No Place to Hide, was named to the 2015 U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff’s Recommended Reading List. Dr. Warren has appeared on The 700 Club, the CBS Evening News, and his writings have been featured in Guideposts magazine. He plays the guitar and loves to make connections between faith, science, and the realities of life. Dr. Warren lives in Wyoming with his wife, Lisa. We discuss his book I've Seen the End of You: A Neurosurgeon's Look at Faith, Doubt, and the Things We Think We Know.
S&H: You’ve been through a lot of intense and upsetting experiences in your life. Does writing help you process? Does it heal any places/spaces in you?
W. Lee Warren: Writing definitely helps me process my life. When I came home from the war, I didn’t talk much about all the hard things I’d seen, and it started to bubble up into my life in nightmares and PTSD symptoms. My wife Lisa pointed out that if I wrote them down, I could work through them better, and my first book came from that experience.
Now, writing is my laboratory, my mental operating room, where I can investigate, study, learn from, and articulate the things life is trying to teach me.
When you think back to the beginning of your career has being a doctor made you more spiritual, less spiritual, or are you equally spiritual to those early days?
Definitely more spiritual. No doubt about it. There’s a phrase in the Intelligent Design argument for creation called irreducible complexity. Basically, it means that the deeper science allows us to look into life, the more complex it becomes. In other words, no matter how far you break it down, you keep running into intricate features and systems that, looked at rationally, have to point toward design and away from randomness. Whether it’s cell biology or quantum physics, you never get to some building-block level where you could say to yourself, “Oh, I can see how this could have randomly happened.”
On top of that, as a surgeon, I’ve seen enough things that simply cannot be attributed to anything we did medically or understood in a scientific context—call them miracles, answered prayers, whatever—to know that science cannot provide all the answers to life.
You are a busy doctor, author, parent, spouse, podcaster. What kind of self-care do you practice to manage stress that may arise? Do you run or meditate, for example?
Honestly, I had a lot of balance issues in my earlier life. I’ve tended toward workaholism (that sound you hear is Lisa and our kids nodding their heads!) that I think was based on feeling like I needed to prove myself. But in recent years, God’s been tugging on me to find space and time to listen more. Lisa’s been a great example, and I’ve found a lot of healing in physical fitness; running and using the Peloton bike have transformed my life and improved my mental state exponentially. I listen to worship music, pray, and listen to audiobooks while I work out every day, and I’ve found amazing inspiration and stress relief there.
Do you have a favorite Psalm, and, if so, which one?
If you forced me to pick one (I read Psalms and Proverbs almost every day), I’d go to 34. It’s amazing in the Voice translation (which is a recent favorite of ours), but I always gravitate back to the ESV.
Thirty-four has several famous lines, like verse 1, I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth, and verse 8, Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
But my favorite part about it is that it’s full of little bites of hope, like verse 18. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit, which in the Voice reads “When someone is hurting or brokenhearted, the Eternal moves in close and revives him in his pain.”
Also, don’t miss verse 6: This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.
Did losing your son, Mitch, change how you deal with patients?
Absolutely. I’ve become more empathetic since I went from observing other people’s troubles to walking with others during their troubles as a fellow sufferer. I learned, to my surprise, that disease and accidents aren’t actually the worst things that can happen to people: hopelessness is. When we learned how to have hope again, I realized that was the best prescription I could ever write for another person.
These days, do you see yourself first and foremost as a doctor who also writes, or a writer who is also a doctor?
It’s funny you ask that. Just last week in my newsletter (I write an email letter every Sunday to people all over the world), I finally found the best way to put it.
I wrote, “I practice neurosurgery to help relieve pain and save lives. And from my practice, I learn lessons I can write about to help offer hope and inspiration to people whatever they're going through.”
Lisa helped me see that people are drawn to my writing because I’m a neurosurgeon; I’m not the guy who’s going to write a novel about a man and his teacup poodle who inadvertently save the world from nuclear war. My books are hard-fought, born from things I experience and learn from in the context of my work as a physician. I don’t think I could ever separate them.
But it’s not lost on me that I can only help a few hundred people a year with my hands in surgery. Having a platform and opportunity to mine my first career for lessons I can write for millions of other people—my literary “patients”—is a great blessing and an honor. But the writing follows the medicine. That’s why I put the “MD” on my byline. There would be no W. Lee Warren, author, if I wasn’t a doctor. It’s where I found my voice.
Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
It is a holy place. It’s where I learn to really hear what God is trying to tell me through all the things that happen in my life, my practice, and the world around me. It’s saved me in many ways, because I can calm myself and get still really only in worship, prayer, and writing.
God taught me about grace and redemption through scripture and through writers like Max Lucado and Philip Yancey, and about love through Lisa. But he taught me how to work out my own salvation (Philippians 2:12) and how to really connect my faith to my life through writing.
Read an excerpt from I've Seen the End of You.