Monday, January 25, 2016

Being Mortal

I am indeed enjoying this book, Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, and learning a lot from it. I'm glad that doctors may begin to think differently about how they handle death as part of their medical practice, and I am also pondering how we, as humans, handle our own aging and the aging and death of our loved ones. I know I am mortal, but do I truly, madly, deeply know it?

I love it when I read something that applies not just to its stated topic but rings true in other ways, Here, Gawande lays out a common metaphor. "Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins." Too often the sick person has to be a warrior in the battle against a disease, and surrender is seen as weak, as a shameful thing, a giving up. But Gawande is honest about death always winning, and some illnesses and injuries are fatal. Why not be reasonable about that?

He expands the death metaphor this way:

And in a war that you cannot win, you don't want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don't want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender it when it can't, someone who understands that the damage is greatest if all you do is battle to the bitter end.

I love Robert E, Lee! (I wrote a poem about him once.*) So the other way I love this battle metaphor has to do with conflict itself. There are people I don't want to fight with because they are this kind of general. What's the point of winning the "battle" or argument if both opponents are metaphorically annihilated and, not metaphorically but really irrevocably harmed or changed by the fight? There are some battles I cannot win, not because I am wrong and my opponent is right but because 1) there is no resolution to this particular conflict and 2) my opponent is a General Custer.

In that kind of conflict, I can still honor the argument and live a life based on my own observations, principles, and beliefs without engaging in a hopeless battle unto obliteration-of-relationship. Indeed, "the damage is greatest if all you do is battle to the bitter end." It's sometimes tempting to engage, so not to appear "weak" or lacking in principles, but it's a temptation I must resist! Thanks, Gawande, for your insights on death, on conflict, and on life. And for alerting me to this guy,** who's in Being Mortal and The Washington Post. A doctor/thespian. On a Random Coinciday.

*Called "Making Love to General Robert E. Lee," published in Poems & Plays

**Dr. Bill Thomas


Collagemama said...

January is difficult for me. Both my parents died in this month. One died with Custer, the other with Lee. I hope I will know when it is a good day to die like the Lakota.

Kathleen said...

My love to you, in January and beyond. You are wise, so I imagine you will know that day when it comes.

Marcoantonio Arellano said...

Kathleen, once again gracias for introducing such wonderful and impactful reading material.

Kathleen said...

It is a lovely book, so clear! The clarity of style helps with the complexity of the issues. It also flows, ending, very appropriately, in a river.

Basel A said...

Great insights you bring out in this book that I read when it first came out and was very impressed with it, but you bring out aspects that I did not even consider. I guess I may have to read it again..

Kathleen said...

Good, Basel, because I want to get you together with the doctor who loaned this to me and hear what the two of you have to say about it!