Here’s another essay that defies brief summary.
Megan Erickson reviews Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, a book by Barbara Ehrenreich, and while I can pluck a few passages, you are encouraged to click through.
As an aside, Friedrich Hayek is still dead — and resides in Hell.
Okay, not really; there’s no such thing as Hell.
But it’s the thought that counts. “Death-dying elites” seem to have accepted a numerical matrix and commensurate dollars-and-cents value on every calorie meticulously recorded. Where we find time to live amid these ongoing calculations remains a mystery — and this comes from a guy who owns a FitBit.
So, if you’ll excuse me, the drinking lamp is lit.
The Great Equalizer, by Megan Erickson (The Nation)
Barbara Ehrenreich and the ethics of dying.
… In Natural Causes, Barbara Ehrenreich explores the stories told by death-defying elites to make her own biological and political point: “no matter how much effort we expend, not everything is potentially within our control, not even our own bodies and minds.” In death, we will once again be equals—and so an egalitarian politics also means accepting this outcome.
At 76, Ehrenreich tells us, she is old enough to die, and over the past few years she’s given up preventive screening for breast cancer, scaled back her punishing exercise regime, and chosen to spend her time doing the things that bring her joy, like hanging out with her grandchildren. For Ehrenreich, this embrace of death is not merely a matter of biology but also of politics and ethics: “You can think of death bitterly or with resignation, as a tragic interruption of your life, and take every possible measure to postpone it,” she writes. “Or, more realistically, you can think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and seize it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.” Accepting death, for Ehrenreich, means being able to live more fully.
Natural Causes was inspired by a particular moment in Ehrenreich’s life: her acceptance of her own mortality. But that moment gives way to a broader inquiry into the biological, social, and political implications of the American denial of death. In fact, one reason the book is so compelling is that Ehrenreich moves fluidly back and forth between discussing our physical limitations, our social and political limitations, and the relationship between the two.
The interdependence and chaos created by the body also lead to the same conclusions as the interdependence and chaos created by modern life: We can’t just go it on our own.
For Ehrenreich, this is demonstrated by the very nature of health. It’s only because of the collective medical advances of the past century or so that people living in a postindustrial world can conceive of “wellness” as a natural state and nature as harmonious or wise. Sure, herbal remedies, breastfeeding, and at-home childbirth are “natural,” but so are famine, epidemics, and high infant- and maternal-mortality rates. (The first-century philosopher Epictetus instructed parents, “When you kiss your child, say to yourself, it may be dead in the morning.”) Today, with good reason, we expect children in postindustrial societies to survive their parents, and we have the dedication of rigorously trained doctors and devoted scientists to thank for that. But this doesn’t mean that nature itself is on our side or that medicine and science will be able to save us. From this recognition, Ehrenreich begins to weave together an ethics rooted in not just accepting but embracing the realization that humans are united in suffering, that we will all experience the ravaging effects of nature and time, and that rather than try to run from that knowledge by controlling our minds and punishing our bodies, we must address it together, as a society.
Ehrenreich also insists that viewing health care differently will allow us to see the ways in which the inequalities produced by class, race, and gender are much more central in determining one’s health than individual choices and screenings. It is not the specific choices of a poor person that lead to diabetes, cancer, obesity, and so on, but rather those inequalities produced by capitalism. While physician and Rockefeller Foundation president John Knowles may have pronounced in 1977 that most illnesses can be chalked up to a person’s bad habits, and thus the “idea of a ‘right’ to health should be replaced by the idea of an individual moral obligation to preserve one’s own health,” Ehrenreich wants to remind us that it’s almost always not just one’s own choices, but also the randomness of nature and the inequalities produced by human societies, that have the power to destroy us.
These days, Knowles’s view of health is everywhere. It is a common line of reasoning found in the health-care and related industries, which are eager to “empower” consumers through the use of apps, personal devices to monitor everything from steps to sleep to heart-rate stats, and discounts offered by insurers for annual exams (the utility of which, like preventive screening, is now the subject of scientific scrutiny). But it’s a line of reasoning that is also often used to justify opposition to the creation of a national health-care system.
And here we arrive at Ehrenreich’s final point. Since nature operates randomly and is not often guided by individual choices, we must act together as a society to try to equalize health outcomes as much as we possibly can. (And even then, they will still be grotesquely unfair.) Contemporary society, Ehrenreich writes, is “so deeply invested in the idea of an individual conscious self that it becomes both logically and emotionally impossible to think of a world without it.” And yet, “there is one time-honored salve for the anxiety of approaching self-dissolution”—not endless rounds of chemotherapy, or the insistence that you’re a fighter and that you’re going to make it, which has practically become the recommended etiquette for those with a cancer diagnosis—but the submergence of “oneself into something ‘larger than oneself.’”
Natural Causes may be a book that offers little comfort to many. But it is radical. It’s now strange, almost quaint, for those of us living as consumers in a capitalist society to be told to accept the fragility of our bodies and place our faith in the power of our collective humanity. Given that most of us are supporting others and will likely have to do so for the rest of our lives, whether it’s our children or our parents without Social Security, the need to postpone death is not antisocial; it is a pressure felt by anyone who’s not an heiress. But Ehrenreich gives us something else instead, reminding us how important it is to build social “utopian” supports that can mitigate the pain of a dystopian body. In this way, Natural Causes is, if nothing else, the culmination (though hopefully not the last book) of a career spent insisting on a common-sense morality that is actually visionary.