Mid-week Wisdom

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Book review: I’m (still) a believer

index11I admit this recent election has left me disheartened and disappointed. I keep looking for signs of hope. And I’ve found a few.

The nearly four million members of Pantsuit Nation on Facebook continue to share stories of everyday and heroic kindnesses they witness.  Good people across the country endeavor to “go high” when others “go low.” They’ve stood beside someone being harassed. They’ve bought coffee for someone in a hateful mood. They’ve refused to look away. Small things can turn into big things and remind us to start where we are.

One much quieter thing I did to improve my frame of mind was to read David Axelrod’s memoir, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics. I’d heard David on NPR soon after the results came in and I detected in him the same search for hope that I felt.

Axelrod was infected by the politics bug as a child, when his babysitter took him to see John F. Kennedy speak. While he was too young to understand the nuances of JFK’s words, the message that he took away from that experience was simply this:

“…we are the masters of our future, and politics is the means by which we shape it.”

In the book, he traces his roots to his Jewish immigrant grandparents and his mismatched parents. David finds his way to college in Chicago and then a job as an idealistic young journalist tilting at the windmills of Chicago politics. He marries Susan and tells of the heartbreak when their infant daughter begins having seizures. The inability to protect her child from seizures as well as the devastating effects of the medications meant to control them leads Susan Axelrod to found CURE. 

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David begins taking a more active role in campaigns with Senator Paul Simon, whose refusal to sell out impressed him when Simon said, “I’d rather lose with principle that win by standing for nothing.”

As a journalist, Axelrod seemed to understand at an instinctual level that campaigns were about telling compelling stories. His earliest campaign efforts reflected that.

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While this narrative stops short of the most recent campaign it details not only the election of Barack Obama but also the challenges and issues he faced as President. Axelrod acted as a senior adviser through the first two years of the Obama administration then returned for the 2012 campaign.

It gets into the weeds of personality, policy, and politics as they tackle the housing meltdown, the auto bail-out, unemployment, deficits, stimulus, Guantanamo, healthcare, and more. It’s a long read. You might find yourself skimming a few of the weedier sections, as I did.

No one comes out as perfect here. Everyone made mistakes. There were some failures and a few embarrassing moments. Nonetheless, for this lifelong Democrat, it reminded me of all the good that was accomplished in the last eight years.  The reality is that in spite the current uncertainty, a President—no matter how “great”–can only do so much. Furthermore, the only way for us to shape the future is to stand up, be counted, and never stop believing.

Book review: A matter of life and death

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If you learned your life was nearly over, how would you choose to live?

Dr. Paul Kalanithi, the author of When Breath Becomes Air, is thirty-six and about to finish a decade of training as a neurosurgeon, when he receives a devastating diagnosis. Stage IV lung cancer. This beautifully written book describes Paul’s journey from doctor to patient as he sees his future shrink.

Kalanithi’s oncologist advises to him to find his values, but he finds them shifting as his illness progresses. He repeatedly asks himself, “What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” Should he go back to work? Should he and his wife have a child?  Should he write a book? He works through these choices in a compelling and very human way.

Because his specialty is the brain, where identity resides, Kalanithi had helped patients and their families with some of these difficult decisions. Sometimes, “…the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living.”

“I had to help those families understand that the person they knew—the full, vital independent human—now lived only in the past and that I needed their input to understand what sort of future he or she would want: an easy death or to be strung between bags of fluids going in, others coming out, to persist despite begin unable to struggle.”

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Dr. Paul Kalanithi

Some of you may not be up to reading this book. Its emotional journey may parallel one in your own experience too closely. Nonetheless, I believe we need to have some of these difficult conversations with our loved ones before they become necessary. It’s not only about how we want to die—with compassion and without pain—but how we want to live—with purpose and joy. Those making decisions on our behalf need to know our wishes and we need to know theirs.  I recommend this book as a way to start the conversation.