Some reflections on Being Mortal
I see it now – this world is swiftly passing.Karna, Mahabharata
A couple of years back (when I was fairly younger and equally blissful), a doctor friend of my father recommended I read “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande. Being young and confronting one’s mortality are mutually exclusive pursuits, hence the title of the book was enough to keep me away from it.
With the pandemic underscoring the fragility of mortality, enforcing uncertainty as the new normal, I felt the time for the book had finally come (when the student is ready and all that jazz).
Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” is a contemporary classic, which talks about the complexities and shortcomings of modern medicine, and along the way, it reflects upon what it means to be mortal and in a broader sense, to lead a meaningful life.
Fair warning – it is not an easy read.
Much like life, the tone of the book is sometimes morose – at times close to morbid – and then inspirational, joyful, and brimming with hope (<- recommended reading!). But it never shies from reiterating and emphasizing the oft-unspoken reality of our mortality, and what really matters towards the end.
Yet, while the subject matter of the book is sombre to say the least, Being Mortal is strangely a salve.
For the author (who is also a practicing surgeon) to acknowledge the fallibilities of current practice puts him at risk of being ostracized by his community. But it is all towards a greater cause – towards helping us mortals to live life as we define it, and to help medical professionals transform the methodology and philosophy of their practices from the grass root level, in turn to help us in this process of giving our lives meaning.
Here are some quotes from the book which I believe captures its essence.
– “What makes life worth living when we are old and frail and unable to take care of ourselves?”
– “Our decision making in modern medicine has failed so spectacularly that we have reached the point of actively inflicting harm on patients rather than confronting the subject of mortality.”
– “Arriving at an acceptance of one’s mortality and a clear understanding of the limits and possibilities of medicine is a process, not an epiphany.”
– “When to shift from pushing against limits to making the best of them is not often readily apparent. But it is clear that there are times when the cost of pushing exceeds its value.”
– “We all seek a cause beyond ourselves. In ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth making sacrifices for, we give our lives meaning.”
– “You may not control life’s circumstances, but getting to be the author of your own life means getting to control what you do with them.”
– “…the chance to shape one’s story is essential for sustaining meaning in life.”
– “How we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have.”
– “…when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain – your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures, and the people closest to you.”
I found the last two quotes most poignant.
As we grow older and get preoccupied in our daily routines, our perception of the speed of time also changes: specifically, it accelerates. Putting two and two together, we don’t have bucket-loads of time to do all that we aspire to.
It is very easy to lose sight of this fundamental reality in our world of rat races, binge-worthy escapades, and other frivolous distractions. It is critical that we don’t allow this background noise to drown the dire need for mutual care and empathy.
The story of our lives has a word limit – it is upon us what story we choose to tell and leave behind as legacy.