Following is my March column, that appears in this weekend’s print edition of The Catholic Post.
While listening to a radio story recently reporting the “death rate” for those who exercise was reduced by some very high percentage, I actually laughed out loud—what could the reporter possibly mean?
Even I, an avid runner, am unconvinced. Everyone, whether the person perfects couch-potato status or completes Ironman triathlons, is going to die. We are all called to be good stewards of life, but there is no way to reduce the 100 percent death rate among humans.
It may seem like a downer, but memento mori —basically, “remember you are going to die”— is not something to fear, but something to embrace, especially during this season of Lent. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we are told as we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday.
Many people today— with good reason—are concerned about, and even fear, the dying process and what can be highly-medicalized end-of-life care. An excellent new book, Atal Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, offers much food for thought to understanding the way we die in our current culture, and what we should change about it.
Gawande is a surgeon who’s written several popular books, including the acclaimed The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right that posited how airline checklists could be successfully applied to health care and other fields, with great success.
In Being Mortal, Gawande uses stories, statistics, and history, to get at why and how we die in the 21st century. It is both fascinating and a little frightening. He shares stories of his own patients and family members, and of how he, as a physician, has gotten it right and wrong with patients and loved ones about their end-of-life journeys, not just from a medical, but a human perspective.
He shares what he has learned from others in medicine, bioethics, hospice, and philosophy, and offers not so much a how-to, but a blueprint for people to begin discussions about how they’d like to live at the end of life.
Gawande is not Catholic, but in many ways Being Mortal is a deeply Catholic (and catholic) book. He is a gifted writer, and reflects on the nature of dying and of living well, chiefly through the concept of ars moriendi, or “the art of dying.” (Ars moriendi was first popularized in a series of books about dying well written by late medieval Catholic monks.) Gawande applies this beautifully when he stresses, over and over again, the interconnectedness of human life:
“Our lives are inherently dependent upon others and subject to forces and circumstances well beyond our control. Having more freedom seems better than having less. But to what end? The amount of freedom you have in your life is not the measure of the worth of your life. Just as safety is an empty and even self-defeating goal to live for, so ultimately is autonomy.”
Being Mortal is not a perfect book, nor is it fully Catholic—Gawande implies a qualified support of doctors writing prescriptions to terminally ill patients, but he calls that “not a measure of success… it is a measure of failure.” His support of this is so uncharacteristic, since the vast majority of the book is respectful and life-affirming on the value of living and dying well, compatible with a Catholic vision of the truth and infinite worth of human lives.
For a more explicitly Catholic perspective on death and dying, consider Susan Windley-Daoust’s Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment and Dying.
Windley-Daoust, a professor at St. Mary’s University in Wenona, Minnesota, has written a careful and wide-ranging analysis of how St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” relates to birth (she writes of childbirth, “it is charged with the Holy Spirit”), those who encounter or experience disability, and those in a dying process. She, too, shares how the Catholic vision of ars moriendi can shape a spiritually healthy and integrated life.
Yes, it’s theology, but very accessible to mere mortal readers (like me!). She shares stories and practical applications about how we live our faith through our bodies.
Clearly, Being Mortal and Theology of the Body, Extended were not written together, but they can be read as companion books. Both books reflect, from somewhat different, but complementary, approaches, on the immense value of human life and human connection, even and especially in our most vulnerable moments.
Read both books this Lent, and start some great discussions with your loved ones about memento mori.