I just finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. One lesson I took away—so much in life is beyond our control. How does this apply to the writer? It’s a mixed bag, but writing offers a form of wellness, which, as we age, can be even more beneficial than an annual exam or unnecessary medical test.
To put it another way: Nurturing a creative life is always good for health, as much—maybe even better—than a run, or killing ourselves on the treadmill.
When I lost my husband to cancer, I felt tempted to discard hope, become a cynic. What was the use of medical science if it could not save a man, who, at the age of thirty-nine, was cut down in the prime of life? And WHY had this disease struck him and not others, who I saw living unhealthy lifestyles?
As it turns out, Ehrenreich, who has a Ph.D. in cellular immunology, addresses this question with a simplistic, yet compelling message: Our bodies can turn against us without warning—and it is no one’s fault. We can give up wine and butter and, yes—a healthy lifestyle is beneficial—but we have very little control over something as complex as our bodies and our immune systems. Trillions of cells are rioting within us, following their own paths and programs, forming a proverbial crap shoot, the gambler’s roulette wheel. As my husband said before cancer killed him, “This was the hand I was dealt.”
Our bodies and our minds remain in a constant state of flux, of alliances and conflicts, Ehrenreich notes. This makes a case for writing. Perhaps, this is a stretch, but I don’t think so. As we slow down, contemplate and reflect, writing allows us the opportunity to sort through the turmoil of events and people in our lives. It offers “agency” or action to make the unbearable, bearable—healthy changes that include relaxation and peace of mind. As we write, journal, share our stories, we view ourselves with more compassion or empathy—and this is probably more important—view others that way.
Reverence of the self, or the “I”, can be lethal, Ehrenreich contends. This idea that all we have and know and love goes with us when we die is problematic, maybe because it focuses on extinction and not the eternal.
"Depression, for example, or anorexia or any compulsive risk taking, represent patterns of synaptic firing that carve deep channels in the mind (and the brain), not easily controlled by conscious effort, and sometimes lethal for the organism as a whole, both body and mind. So, of course, we die even without help from natural disasters or plagues: We are gnawing away at ourselves all the time, with our overactive immune cells or suicidal patterns of thought.”
Our psychology can turn into a nasty web of our own making. Writers call it monkey mind or the inner critic; medical professionals might call it depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Traveling is a way to tap into something larger than ourselves. I remember when my son and I drove the entire perimeter of the South Island of New Zealand, observing an almost incomprehensibly diverse ecosystem, from glaciers to rainforests plunging to the sea. The simple lesson: these wonders appeared millions of years ago and belong to the eternal.
As a writer, the idea of focusing on the sum total of all the parts—the world around us—rather, than investing solely in ourselves and our own situations, appeals to me. Take the example of observing a young animal nurse from its mother. What does this teach about our own lives as mothers? As we observe the sun setting over the mountaintop, who hasn’t felt solace in knowing this happened long before we came along and will continue long after we are gone?
In essence, as writers, we resolve to understand how all things are related and interrelated in the cycle of living and dying. For the writer, this requires the power of observation, but also a willingness to move beyond magical thinking…that somehow we can forestall the inevitable goodbye to this life, this self, our books, our words—and that death can be cheated.
As Ehrenreich writes: "It is one thing to die into a dead world and, metaphorically speaking, leave one’s bones to bleach on a desert lit only by a dying star. It is another thing to die into the actual world, which seethes with life, with agency other than our own, and at the very least, with endless possibility."