My friend Leslie loved to quote from the famous Flannery O’Connor short story, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, where towards the end, the Misfit (an escaped convict) says of the Grandmother: “She would have been a good woman . . . if it [sic] had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” In my reading of this piece, it took the terrible threat of murder by the Misfit and his gang to get the selfish Grandmother to finally act in a more human, honest, and compassionate manner. With the fear of imminent death, she was at her best and most authentic only at the last possible minute.
I’m reminded of Leslie and her love of that story only days after her funeral. She just succumbed to cancer after having fought it back miraculously about fifteen years ago. We’ve not been in touch with one another for a while, but Leslie and I could pick up a conversation that was three years old as if we had just met for milkshakes or Moo Shu three days before. Her death—or, in fact, the way she lived—has re-reminded me of the need for all of us to live our lives as if there is no tomorrow. Leslie lived a full life as a compassionate truth-to-power teller—someone who would never hesitate to speak her mind with facts and evidence to support her beliefs, but nor would she hesitate to listen and learn from others. She was always the consummate teacher and student, always—even before the cancer first appeared—living her best and most authentic life possible.
While we were grad students in Austin, Texas, Leslie and I discovered our mutual passion for patient advocacy. We both spend a lot of time (okay, the past tense for her ..spent…which is hard for me to accept or get used to) with cancer patients who are facing devastating news, enormous suffering, and the fear of death—often for the first times in their lives. The majority of people we help go through a “personality transplant” once faced with the scarlet letter “C” emblazoned upon their consciousness as the official “Cancer” diagnosis is handed down. Once the initial shock and depression wanes, most become more friendly, more compassionate, and more truthful….less patient, less polite, and less tolerant of BS. Faced with the possibility of cancer ready to shoot you at any and every minute of your life, most patients begin to live life more fully—more “real” as most of them put it.
“Bill” was one such patient that Leslie and I worked with. His “BD” (before diagnosis) life showed him to be self-absorbed, selfish, and concerned only about advancing his career. He was so political in his every move that he spent most of his life calculating the costs and benefits of saying or doing certain things at work. Even in his first days “AD” (after diagnosis), Leslie and I had taken Bill out for frozen yogurt in an effort to get him to face the realities of his illness, but he spent three hours telling us his complex plan to hide his illness from his boss because he was fearful of losing his chance at a promotion. Bill was so concerned about building his power base and reputation at work that he was often cruel and vindictive with anyone who got in his way.
But as the chemo and radiation began to take their inexorable toll, stripping away not only his hair but also his ego, Bill faced the fact for the first time that he might not survive. He began to undo the alienation he had created between himself and his wife, daughters, co-workers, and friends. He apologized to many of them. He rediscovered his passion for guitar (he was quite good). He actually became much better at his job at work, earning his promotion rather than manipulating it. And his sense of humor—which apparently had been the defining feature of his character so many decades before—returned. He lived three amazing years which, while full of medical hell and suffering, were full of life, truth, and his pursuits of real happiness. Soon before his death, while in hospice care at his home, Bill told me and Leslie one rainy afternoon, “Wow, thank God the cancer gave me the courage to be the real me again. Better late than never!”
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So what do Leslie, Bill, and these experiences with patient advocacy have to do with healthcare reform? Well, after these many months—and especially these past few weeks as the partisan rancor has ratcheted up again in the midst of the House bill passing and the Senate debate starting—I have felt increasingly that a good politician is hard to find. No, I’m not claiming that there aren’t any good people in politics or that all politicians are bad or evil. But I worry that we’ve created a political system that makes it almost impossible for good people to do good things while they are in office.
I’ve had the opportunity to share the stage recently on panels and presentations with former Congressional members like Tom Daschle, Bob Dole, and Newt Gingrich, each of whom spoke of the freedom they felt once they left office. “I can be the real me again,” says one of them. “Ah, the freedom to speak freely for the first time in decades,” says another, to the laughter of an audience of reporters and healthcare executives. Still another admits, “I may be able to change the world more by having left the Congress than I could when I was in it.” And they suddenly have a sense of humor again, a playful and empathetic respect for one another on stage, even if they have powerful ideological differences. They remind me of Bill and all those cancer patients that Leslie and I worked with—suddenly mortal, human, honest, and real again.
Have we, as a society, created a situation where politicians can no longer give their best ideas, honest opinions, and most compelling evidence?
These past 18 months working on healthcare reform, I have seen first-hand so many politicians bound by “partyability”, “scoreability,” “soundbiteability,” and “electability.” Instead of putting forth their best possible ideas, they put forth what is acceptable to their Party, fearing that the Party will put a well-funded, well-publicized competitor against them in the next race if they don’t tow the line. They put forth bills that are “scorable”—that can survive the bizarre scrutiny of the Congressional Budget Office—instead of what they feel is right for the country. They avoid tackling or explaining complex issues and stick to short, simple slogans that can come across well in a six second sound-bite on the news. And, of course, the next election begins for them the day after the previous election’s victory party, with polls, focus groups, fund raisers, and “public opinion” data to shape one’s every action and utterance. It’s a wonder that anyone runs for office anymore.
I have found myself wondering if our country would be far better off if we could each go through a “mortality moment” earlier in our lives—a cancer diagnosis, an accident, or something that forces us to face the imminence and inevitability of death. It’s tragic to me to see patients, politicians, or anyone discover what’s really important to them only in a moment of crisis just before their peril…or so late in the life that they no longer have the energy to set themselves on a different path…or well after they’ve left behind a position of power where they could have really changed the world. O’Connor’s famous short story is a profound reminder that all of us must somehow find the courage—and be given the opportunity—to be our real selves every day, not just at the last critical hour.
Maybe I am living in a fictional world to think that we can all live our lives with more authenticity. Many will think me naïve to ask policy makers, of all people, to be more open, compassionate, and real—aware of, but not overwhelmed by, the inevitability of death. Living life to its best and fullest, instead of just avoiding death. What mountains Congress—and we—could move if we lived with such everyday courage!
A good friend is hard to find, and losing one is harder still. But Leslie’s example challenges us all to remember to live life with authenticity…as if there is no next election, as if there is no legacy beyond what we have accomplished up to this very moment, as if there is no tomorrow.
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NOTE: ERIC DISHMAN’S ‘HOME BLOG’ PAGE HAS MOVED TO: blogs.intel.com/healthcare.