I finished reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande early in October. Having set it aside for a few days, my next task is to read it again and record my initial, somewhat random, thoughts and questions from each chapter. These will provide a starting point to organize and expand on my ideas and reflections about the book. Below are my takeaways from the Introduction.
This is a book about the modern experience of mortality–about what it’s like to be creatures who age and die, how medicine has changed the experience and how it hasn’t, where our ideas about how to deal with our finitude have got the reality wrong.
Death/disability can claim any one of us at any time. Life is uncertain, yet we like to proceed as though we’re in control of our lives. In some respects that’s understandable; fully facing the uncertainty of life and the world, living within a state of fear, could lead to paralysis and inability to function. There are people who experience this sort of paralysis due to anxiety and other situations; this is generally viewed as an illness or shortcoming to be avoided.
I wonder if this is why we can get so angry at people who threaten our control/certainty. Children, family members, and other drivers contribute to a sense of chaos, of uncertainty or lack of control. One of the lessons to learn from letting go of anger or pain is also letting go of expectations. We expect other drivers to drive the way we would, but they are ultimately not us, so they won’t.
Even though we can’t truly control what other people will do, unfulfilled expectations can lead to hurt, frustration, anxiety, anger. That is the heart of Niebhur’s serenity prayer:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Other people, thwarted expectations, can show us the limits of our control and the imminence of chaos in the world/our lives. (Why do we hate chaos so much?)
I think this ultimately lies at the heart of victim blaming. As a matter of self-defense to assure ourselves that such-and-such a bad thing can’t/won’t happen to us, we find reasons for such a bad thing to happen to another person. Because of where they were, when they did a thing, how they did a thing, they were at root the cause of their own misfortune. And it stands to reason that since I would not put myself into such a situation, this sort of misfortune can’t/won’t befall me.
What do we really fear? Death or dying? Ending or debility? Some or all of both? When and how do we welcome death as an answer to dying or debility?
And what terrible privilege and responsibility it could be to oversee another person’s death. (pg. 8 “…for this person I was responsible for.”)
To read: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy; How We Die by Sherwin Nuland