Browse Category: Social Commentary

Being Mortal

Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was a central reason I became a doctor. But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be.

We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same:

What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?

What are your fears and what are your hopes?

What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make?

And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?

– Atul Gawande in “Being Mortal,” 2014, Metropolitan Books

The fact that we are mortal is a piece of knowledge that the majority of us do not and possibly cannot face squarely. In our families, we do not have the discussions about how we will handle aging, dying, or coping with terminal illness and suffering. Most of us do not have a plan. Most of us do not know if our parents or siblings have plans or if they’ve even given it serious thought.

Without a plan, survival becomes the course by default for most people. The main thought is what can be done to cure, heal, reverse course. For the elderly, survival usually means committing them to nursing homes where they are safe from harm and their care is regimented by the institution’s staff and procedures.

All too often these routes diminish a person’s quality of life. One’s self-direction is often taken away from them. It is traded off for the sake of keeping them safe. As Atul Gawande describes it, their freedom to write their own story is taken from them.

Some ideas I garnered from Mr. Gawande’s book are:

  1. Before serious illness comes we should have plans or at least ideas of how we want to live out our days, how much may want to suffer or not, what the trade-offs of quality of life for treatment to extend life would be. We should consider the questions he asks above. We should talk with our loved ones about what matters to us.
  2. During serious illness or debilitation, Gawande’s questions should be thought through again, the answers shared with our families, our values re-evaluated.
  3. We should see the value in every phase of life, even the phases of illness, suffering, old age, debilitation. We should give dignity to others in every phase of life.
  4. The best way to give dignity to others is to help them maintain their self-direction to the best of their abilities at all phases of life.
  5. All of the above is important for each of us individually and as a society of human beings, all of us being mortal.

I highly recommend the book “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande. My brief thoughts, written because I feel moved immediately after finishing the book, do not do justice to the quality of this work. It is worth your time to read it and consider the matters Gawande raises.

I’m Dying

The dang baby got me sick.

I’m sick.

We’re all sick.

The baby started it.

I don’t even feel well enough to write about it. Like every other man when he gets a cold: I am dying.

While I’m whining over here on the couch, knocking on death’s door, I recommend you read my wife’s thoroughly satisfying account of this sickness from her point of view. Click here to read: “It’s Not Like I’m Dying or Anything”. Women really are much better at handling colds. My woman sure is.

Je suis Charlie


Remembering the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre:

Frédéric Boisseau, Franck Brinsolaro, Jean Cabut, Elsa Cayat, Stéphane Charbonnier, Philippe Honoré, Bernard Maris, Ahmed Merabet, Mustapha Ourrad, Michel Renaud, Bernard Verlhac (Tignous), Georges Wolinski.

I urge you to read Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression by Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier).

Criticizing a religion is not racist.

Criticizing religious zealots and terrorists is not racist.

Islam itself is not a problem.

People who want to silence others are the problem.

People who want to kill others in the name of a religion are the problem, be that religion Islam or Christianity or Judaism or vegetarianism.

(The above drawing is my response to an attack at an exhibit featuring cartoons of Muhammed. More information can be found at this Wikipedia page.)

Between Storms

The next storm is rolling in
The next storm is rolling in

It was a crazy day with storms rolling through one after another. They started mid-morning. I had thrown up my hands by then and said, “There go my running plans! They’re calling for storms all day and night now!” It rained HARD at that point. Streams of muddy water were rushing down the shoulders of our road. My plans were washed away.

However, the sun came out a few hours later. It was warm and windy, enough to dry the roads and sidewalks. I looked at the sky and thought, Maybe I can get a 30 minute run in before the next storm. There was no hope of going off to the trails for a few hours. Running in rain is fine. But getting caught out in a thunderstorm isn’t cool. So I drove over to a nearby park. There’s a lake with a paved walkway that’s 1.2 miles long. There’s shelter there if needed. I would be satisfied with three laps around that lake.

While out there I thought, There’s got to be a metaphor for life in this attempt to run between storms. It’s kind of like “make hay while the sun shines.” Or “God only gives us what we’re strong enough to handle.” Well, maybe not that one. Storms happen regardless of whether we’re strong enough or even prepared to survive them. A storm can be devastatingly destructive. But do we make the best of the times between the storms, the lulls, the calms? Do we get our miles in while the sun shines? Sometimes storms come fast and furious. There may not be much time to even catch our breath in between.

Here are some things to do in between the storms of life:

  • Learn from the storms. What did we learn about our strengths and weaknesses during a storm? What did we learn about those around us? What did we learn about life itself?
  • Prepare for the next storm. We might not know what the next storm will be or when it will arrive. But we can be prepared. We can listen for the sound of distant thunder. We can seek shelter: we can pray, we can think, we can be proactive. We can have stores of provisions in waiting to sustain us through the next storm.
  • Avoid the next storm. Sometimes we come to realize that we put ourselves in harm’s way too often. As we get wiser we can avoid some storms by simply making better choices, living a more honest life, being kinder to others, or being more aware of the harm others intend us. It’s foolish to go out into the woods for a run when we hear the thunder coming. We can avoid that storm.
  • Put in your miles while you can! It’s hard to make progress when the urgency of a storm is occupying all our resources. Get stuff done in between storms! Use your strengths! Be creative! Be constructive! Gain ground while the ground is dry! Make the gosh dang hay while the sun shines!
  • Enjoy the calm. Be at peace. Get some rest. Think. Meditate. Contemplate. Have some fun. Feel good. Even if it’s just for 5 minutes.