Natural Causes

This book by Barbara Ehrenreich is an exploration of the experience of aging, of accepting and then shunning much of the common wisdom, and then coming to terms with the idea of death and the steps required for that. It was an engaging book, it traversed a wide range of topics, and I would recommend it to anybody interested in how biology works, how to live a pleasant life without the constrictions of modern society, and how we get in our own way too often.

She starts the story explaining that she has stopped participating in many of the routine health activities that is expected of her age (never mentions, but seems upper 60s or so). She frames it interestingly, that she has reached the age where she could die. Not that a person can’t die at any age, but that she is reaching the phase where “natural causes” can describe it. She has taken up going to the gym regularly, but has stopped having regular doctor check-ups, stopped monitoring health indicators, and stopped worrying about what she eats. She seems like a free and vivacious person, and this more or less matches the future I envision living, so it caught my attention right away. She goes on in subsequent chapters to explain the history of the annual check-up, and that it varies so much that there is little evidence it does much good. She also slams the modern approach of over-prescribing medications, which again I lean in that direction, and uses research and statistics to back up her argument that much of it is little more than ritual.

She takes a wonderful aside into the contrast of ritual vs medicine, where ritual is an accepted set of activities that can impart something on the recipient, and medicine is a proven, demonstrable, repeatable activity. Ultimately she argues — fairly convincingly, I would say, and I’d love to hear doctor friends respond — that much of modern medicine is simply ritual that should be acknowledged as such. It brought to mind the two times my wife carried our children through pregnancy; we were shocked at how little doctors actually knew about the process and what is necessary. The reason people still call the birthing process a ‘miracle’ is because there is SO much of the scientific understanding still hidden. She walks through arguments for ritual, a parallel to my perspective on one of the benefits of regularly attending a Catholic mass, and comes out recognizing benefits in a shared experience, a ritual of familiarity, and the personal change that can take place within this common ritual. It’s a delightful insight into my own life.

She explores a great many other avenues, including comparisons with other mammals, the menstruation experience and how it evolved and how it compares with other mammals, and the history of people coming to recognize their own self and how that has changed human behavior. She walks through the approach of death, and peels off onto another tangent about the pointlessness of doing things (doctor appointments, things that make one uncomfortable or unhappy) when they won’t impact anything 100 years hence. And yet, she also focuses on the importance of preserving happiness and life for those around us now. She frames this in the supposedly current view of the world around us as lifeless, and challenges us to see life and agency all around us — the world teeming with life, including light photons and individual cells. She talks in and out about the idea that individual cells — based on the latest studies — seem to have agency and an ability to make decisions. It’s a fascinating one, and if I were interested in biology as a high schooler, this might be a career path to explore. She ends in a bit of a bizarre place, arguing that we should recognize the life and agency in everything, but overall the message is a positive one and I appreciated the holistic effort.

My big takeaway is that life should be lived openly, lovingly, and engaged. Welcome life into your world, and you will be joyous and happy with the experience. And we will all die, and that’s okay, because that’s how life is, but that should not deter us from breathing deeply and doing our best to find comfort and joy for ourselves and others in the time that we do have.