By Jeff Keeling
“There are different concepts of autonomy. One is autonomy as free action — living completely independently, free of coercion and limitation. This kind of freedom is a common battle cry. But it is… a fantasy … Our lives are inherently dependent on others and subject to forces and circumstances well beyond our control. Having more freedom seems better than having less. But to what end? The amount of freedom you have in your life is not the measure of the worth of your life. Just as safety is an empty and even self-defeating goal to live for, so ultimately is autonomy.”
– Dr. Atul Gawande, “Being Mortal”
Last December, I visited my grandmother, Helen Keeling, in Seattle. I had the good fortune to be with her, my aunt and a cousin to celebrate her 94th birthday in the nursing home where she had spent the last several years of her life, bedridden.
A couple months earlier, something internal had been tugging at my heart about going to visit grandma, and while I was at it, my maternal grandfather, Fred Mclucas. The thought of grandma, though, pulled hardest. The lovely and talented Angela encouraged me to plan a trip, and off I went, determined to visit and also to record some stories from interviews I would do with both grandparents about their early lives.
I touched down at Sea-Tac on a dark, rainy early December afternoon. The visiting and interviews all were wonderful experiences. Grandma would grow tired after an hour or so even from just talking and answering questions, but the stories I drew from our time together – and the insights I gained into her upbringing and how it shaped her personality and character – were prizes I’ll always treasure.
Grandma died less than four months after my visit. Her physical decline had stretched years, quite in contrast to the norms of her childhood. Back then, babies, children, young adults and those in the prime of middle age often died suddenly, or after a short time if they contracted the types of ailments through which people commonly survive much longer these days.
I hadn’t known until the visit, in fact, that between the births of her three much older siblings and grandma, my great-grandmother Tillie Berry, had borne two other children. “One was born dead, one was born but died a few days after birth,” Grandma told me, agreeing when I suggested that wasn’t terribly uncommon.
“The doctor asked me when I was pregnant about family history, and he asked what they died of (there had been a third such death around the time the first three kids were born). I don’t know, but my father said they refused to take nourishment.”
Great-grandma Tillie died of a stroke when grandma was in high school. She had survived an earlier stroke, and grandma – with her other siblings already gone and married – had watched her decline before losing her beloved mother while Grandma was still a vulnerable teen.
Dr. Atul Gawande explained it well in his 2014 book “Being Mortal”: Only recently has much of the world seen life prolonged to such a degree that we now grapple with a multitude of questions about things such as treatment, hospice, and how quality of life and prolonging of life are sometimes complementary and sometimes conflicting considerations.
During this same period, roughly the past 70 years, we have largely rushed headlong into the adoption of technologies – medical and otherwise – that seduce us into the sense of autonomy Gawande references in the quote above. I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment that autonomy is a self-defeating goal.
Useful as they are, our technologies have frayed community and family networks of interdependence. They have contributed to many peoples’ sense of loneliness and isolation even in the midst of constant “connection” through “interactive” digital communication. They have aided us as we split into our own tribes based on self-selected preferences, and they reinforce that tribalism by using algorithms to tailor content we see, leaving many of us in echo chambers that leave out others’ perspectives.
I met a special woman last week. Ellie Chestnut is featured on page 1 this week. Her life certainly is better thanks to medical technology. But Ms. Chestnut is nowhere to be found on Facebook. She does her social networking the old-fashioned way, lavishing homemade food, and plenty of love, on the folks at her doctors’ office, her pharmacy and elsewhere. As she puts it, “you can’t outgive yourself.”
Interdependence isn’t always easy. It puts us face-to-face with one another’s foibles and weaknesses in a way that autonomy allows us to avoid. But in so doing, interdependence can create in us a capacity for greater empathy. It can help us realize how little control we really have over our lives. At its most profound, it can give us an understanding that the root of love is knowing, to paraphrase Jesus, that whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.
I certainly don’t live these truths well most of the time, but they remain truths all the same. As I advance in years, I hope to live them more fully. They are the path to joy.