Action. Understanding. Which word attracts you more? That sounds like a query posed by a personality test, but it’s actually the question I was asking myself after reading an interview with the surgeon Atul Gawande regarding his new book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.
I fall in the latter’s camp, leaning toward understanding, a prerequisite to action. But sometimes I feel alone in this tent, especially these days when the impulse to do, make, and produce seems paramount.
In the interview, Gawande was asked what books influenced his decision to become a doctor and his approach to medicine. His list was long, including playwrights, poets, and novelists from Chekhov to Keats to Percy: “They’re just writers, telling us about the experience of being human.”
His reflections on the power of literature to help us realize our purpose, to make sense of our feelings, to connect to others who may transcend time and place underscored for me the value of understanding. I was moved to hear him, a doctor, declare, “We have a particular responsibility to understand what people experience when their body or mind fails them. Our textbooks and manuals aren’t enough for that task.”
But what does it really mean to understand? How do we break out of our own interior perspective to appreciate what another person is feeling? Quite honestly, it takes time, patience, humility. When his own father approached the end of his life, Gawande simply asked him, “How much are you willing to go through just to have a chance of living longer?” He knew that as a surgeon he could extend his father’s life, but he also respectfully recognized that he needed to give his father power over his own story, his own narrative.
Perhaps the interview resonated with me because my students and I are deep into Macbeth. How many of us might argue that Shakespeare has become superfluous, a tedious study written in an archaic language describing a distant time? In my class, we’re just reading after all, or talking, or connecting, or sharing, but we’re not doing. My students aren’t making something that is going to transform the world.
Except I think in our little way we are. Last week, I asked my students to share on a post-it note a moment when they acted precipitously without much thought and then regretted their actions. They shared lies they told, cruel words they spoke, even the killing of a beautiful cardinal in a moment of spontaneous and thoughtless violence. We tried to understand what led us to those instants … those short spans of time between desire and action that were bereft of understanding. How do we prevent ourselves from living in that moment, apart from ourselves but inside of ourselves, fractured as Macbeth is after murdering Duncan? How do we prevent ourselves from ever stating, “To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself”?