Atul Gawande (Metropolitan Books, 2014)
Sara Finkelstein, Manager, 21/64
I follow Atul Gawande’s articles in the New Yorker religiously, and I picked up Being Mortal expecting an insightful, thought-provoking read and I was not disappointed! However, I did not expect a book, which seems to be about death, to have any relevance to my work at 21/64. However, Being Mortal is not focused on death but, instead, an exploration of what we discover when we are confronted with our own mortality – specifically, what we learn about what it means to live a meaningful life. Surprisingly, one of Being Mortal’s principal conclusions, that we find meaning by knowing and living out our values, is also the clarion call of 21/64.
Through research, anecdotes, and interviews Gawande shows us how industrialization, social security, and medical knowledge have shaped how society and the medical community perceive and address mortality. He argues that today, the evolution of these attitudes have reduced the dying, the elderly, and the infirm from people to patients and narrowed the goal of medicine to maintaining bodily function instead of enhancing quality of life.
Gawande details his own transformation from a doctor treating symptoms and curing disease into a more comprehensive care provider who considers how to preserve a person’s ability to continue doing whatever it is that makes her life worth living. Although Gawande is dealing with his patients’ mortality and 21/64 with our donors and clients’ philanthropy, each of us found that to be effective in our work required a candid discussion about values. Moreover, the skills Gawande discusses using are the same that I’ve been developing in my own work: broaching heavy, intensely personal subjects with empathy and without judgment; learning how to ask difficult and uncomfortable questions; figuring out what the right questions are, and; really listening to the answers by not only hearing what someone says but what they mean.
On the surface, Being Mortal only seems relevant for a medical professional or someone currently dealing with death or illness; but its message is universal to anyone who wants to be intentional about her choices and holding important conversations about the future with family. Although this book may seem depressing, it is quite the opposite. I found it inspiring and uplifting, and a great starting point for beginning these discussions with loved ones. I would highly recommend it for the holiday season.