Sunday, 26 November 2017

Figuring Things Out

“I learned about a lot of things in medical school,
but mortality wasn’t one of them.”
- Atul Gawande,
in the introduction to Being Mortal

At first blush, you might think that this blog post is depressing and focused too much on human deterioration as we age. I am sorry if that’s your response. It is certainly not my intention to be maudlin or negative.

It is true, however, that I have a keen interest in how my body is evolving as I age. I also have an equally keen interest in end-of-life issues, especially now that medical assistance in dying (MAiD) is legal in some circumstances in Canada. Having helped my first husband end his life legally in Switzerland in 2012, I know a thing or two about the issue.

But here’s the deal: I’ve always believed in researching and planning ahead, even if that means contemplating my own mortality. If I do this emotional homework when I’m not dealing with an actual health crisis, I believe I will be in a better position to make logical, life-affirming decisions when a crisis does arrive, both for myself and my loved ones.

I am currently reading two fine books about how humans handle mortality, with a related third book anxiously waiting its turn. All three books came into my life from listening to Krista Tippett’s marvellous weekly pod cast, On Being (link). To say that her pod casts have been invigorating and challenging is an understatement.

The first book that is helping shape my attitudes towards mortality is Dr. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. (Listen to Krista Tippett’s interview here.) Dr. Gawande is helping to change the national conversation about aging and death in the United States. His eloquent book should be required reading in every medical school on the continent. His philosophy is based on the assumption that people who are facing the challenges of aging bodies must be active participants in all aspects of their health care and not just passively accept the decisions of medical practitioners. I highly recommend his book.

The second and third books that are helping shape my attitudes towards ageing are Harvard Psychology professor Dr. Ellen Langer’s Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility and Mindfulness. (Listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with Dr. Langer here.) In the words of her fellow psychologist Dan Ariely, “Ellen Langer’s research changed the face of psychology...She also made the cosmos smile.”

I have referred to the power of Dr. Langer’s philosophy before. Essentially, she is convinced of the healing power of the mind, especially when it comes to the naming of things. I am part way through Counterclockwise, with Mindfulness lined up for reading next.

Both of these authors are helping me reframe my experience of aging and what to expect/require from the health care system. It is an ongoing quest, and no doubt I will return to it in my blog.

About the photographs: it’s a series of black and white photos I recently recorded on Bronson Rapids Road and Highway 62, southwest of Madoc in Hastings County. The beautiful, rolling countryside is a delight in all seasons. It also features several barns and houses that are in varying states of decay. Or, to borrow a reframing concept from Ellen Langer, they are in varying stages of returning to the earth.

Using black and white for these photographs felt like the right approach to convey their power and integrity.

Enjoy...and I hope you don’t find them depressing!


  1. A bit of familiar territory, Larry, and not in the least depressing. My shots of Bronson Rapids Road in colour don't evoke the same feelings at all. I think they're much better in B&W. The books and interviews sound well worth exploring.

  2. Thanks for prompting us all to begin doing this important thinking, Larry.