Care and Awareness
I’ve been offline for a lot longer than I’d expected. Given her battles with three types of cancer, my mother’s health has not been good for the past decade. 12 days ago she took a turn for the worse after getting pneumonia. She’s been in the hospital for some time, and has weeks of rehab to go. So I’ve been spending just about as much time with her as I can (except the past couple days, when I’ve been quarantined out on account of my own stomach flu!) My father died 2 years ago, and the rest of the family lives far away, so I’m the only visitor.
About a decade ago one of my colleagues (Margaret Gilhooley) wrote a piece called “Broken Back” in the Villanova Law Review, describing (in part) her response to the various insurance hassles that affected her access to care. I still assign excerpts of this piece to my students, because there’s a great deal that a first-person experience of the health care system can convey (over and above the statistics and economics that are the bread and butter of health policy analysis).
I don’t have many law-related thoughts on the experience just yet–though I’m sure some may come as we find out whether Medicare will be paying for the rehab. I’ve been frustrated by missing out on some things I love these past weeks–teaching, conferences (have fun at LCH, Dan!), writing, blogging. But there are some interesting philosophical voices that point out the human importance of this experience–either being dependent, or caring for another in their dependence. Feminist thinkers like Joan Tronto have long advanced an ethic of care, and Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals develops parallel ideas in a virtue-oriented tradition.
It may seem odd to invoke philosophy at a time like this, but an essay by Colleen Carroll Campbell provides some concrete examples of what Tronto and MacIntyre describe. Commenting on first-person accounts of dementia, Campbell notes that “They combine a penetrating self-awareness with an image of the ways that dementia erodes that awareness. And they reveal the ways in which the loss of some forms of consciousness may awaken new ones—new ways of being in and beholding the world.”
I’ve seen that process in gravely ill people I’ve known–a wisdom and perspective that can only come from a direct confrontation with the possibility of death. “Visiting the sick” is a corporal act of mercy in the Catholic faith; the visited not only give the visitor a chance to offer true compassion and assistance, but also provide a perspective on life that (with luck) we won’t know for quite some time. As George Steiner paraphrases Heidegger, authenticity derives from a “being towards death,” an awareness of finitude and mortality and a coming to terms with our true (and, ideally, best) selves. I saw this type of wisdom-of-care in the way my mother prayed devoutly, and kindly regarded all her caregivers, during the course of many difficult and trying treatments. I hope I can maintain something of this awareness as I continue caring for her, and reenter the maelstrom of professional life.