Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (Metropolitan Books, 2014)

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Paradoxically, though perhaps not surprisingly, Christians often do not cope any better than anyone else when it comes to facing their own mortality. When illness or infirmity strikes, they are taken by surprise and do not always make the decisions that they would have, had they thought through things well in advance.

One might think that since the medical profession has to deal with terminal illness and death on a daily basis, it would be well equipped to help patients navigate these difficult waters. But the truth is quite the opposite. In his extraordinary book Being Mortal, surgeon Atul Gawande puts the point this way:

"I am in a profession that has succeeded because of its ability to fix. If your problem is fixable, we know just what to do. But if it's not? The fact that we have had no adequate answers to this question is troubling and has caused callousness, inhumanity, and extraordinary suffering."

Gawande approaches the subject of mortality from multiple perspectives. From the fascinating history of nursing homes and assisted living centers, to the decline of geriatrics as a field of medicine and the benefits of palliative care, Gawande takes an unflinching look at how we currently deal with these difficult issues, as well as how we got to where we are now. The most powerful section of the book is the intensely personal story of his own father's terminal illness and how his family collectively faced the many challenges.

I do not know what Gawande believes about God. But for those of us who are Christians, I believe that the many questions raised by his book should prompt us to ask: what are we doing, both as individuals and as a community, to craft a better roadmap for the last years of our lives? The message I have taken away from Gawande's book is that outsourcing this final stage to the medical profession is a mistake. Obviously there are no easy answers, but we should start by discussing these questions within the Christian community. The hope that we have in Christ means that we should not be afraid to confront our mortality, and so we should live and think and talk as people who, indeed, have no such fear.

An expanded version of the review can be found here on Tim’s blog.

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