OutreachNC’s 2019 Book Club

This month we’re reading Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich. Here are some thoughts about a book that asks hard questions about the aging process, the wellness industry and how we should view death from both a personal as well as social perspective. 

10 Thoughts on Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer

1. As this book opens, it seems compelling and positive. Ehrenreich writes, “Once I realized I was old enough to die, I decided that I was also old enough not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life” (p. 3). She goes on to describe her motivations, then, for eating well, exercising and maintaining good health. She writes, “I exercise – not because it will make me live longer but because it feels good when I do it” (p. 3). I have to say that as I get older myself, this philosophy resonates with me. I no longer exercise or eat well to attain a certain physical appearance but for the general good feels accompanied with treating my body well. 

2. Ehrenreich’s writing often describes her own self-evolution. She writes, on page 15, “This, I should observe, is the moment I became a feminist in the fullest sense – a conscious woman, that is, and something other than an object or a moron.” She also suggests that doctors and the ritual of medicine overall are engaging in a power struggle with patients that pits one against the other (the doctors as the more powerful of the two). I wasn’t as compelled by some of these arguments/points. 

3. In Chapter 6, titled ‘Death in Social Context,’ Ehrenreich explores the idea that we’re individually responsible for our health and, thereby, to be blamed when we develop ill-health, for example being diagnosed with cancer or suffering a stroke. Must we ask ourselves what role our diet, exercise, stress levels, sleep habits and any other measure of ‘wellness’ played in our illness, and are we attempting to ‘blame’ the victim when people become ill with ‘preventable’ disease? 

4. Natural Causes might make you question your diet, exercise habits and new mindfulness app in a way that makes you feel a little silly for having ‘bought into’ wellness trends that may not be scientifically substantiated. But then, after some thought, you’ll continue eating Greek yogurt, eyeing the CrossFit gym and thinking about each of your individual steps because…well…what’s the alternative?  

5. In Chapter 11, and throughout the book as a whole, Ehrenreich asks the question: who is in charge? Are we truly in charge of our health and wellness? Can we tame our minds, or is this all just the wellness industry’s ploy to sell us shakes, fitness gear, self-help books, foam rollers and meditation apps?  

6. Throughout the book, Ehrenreich questions the medical profession as a whole and our relationship with doctors, fitness trainers, therapists and more. She debunks widely held beliefs (myths) and points out discrepancies, many of which we have heard before. She isn’t afraid to question popular ideas, as she does on page 87 when she refers to a study from 2014 that found, “…meditation programs can help treat stress-related symptoms, but they are no more effective in doing so than other interventions, such as muscle relaxation, medication or psychotherapy.” 

7. Jeeves gives this book 3 out of 5 stars, taking off two stars for the sometimes negative tone of this book but realizing the importance of the topic overall. 

8. If you’re intrigued by Natural Causes or love Ehrenreich’s writing/commentary, you might also enjoy some of Ehrenreich’s other writing including Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy

9. We learned a new word in reading Natural Causes: elided (pg. 108). If you are already using elided in your daily vocabular, kudos. We had to look it up. Elide: to suppress or alter; to strike out (per Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary). 

10. In the end, we found Natural Causes interesting, full of compelling questions but also sometimes glib, overly negative and certainly written with an agenda. We’ll let you read yourself to determine just what that agenda might be. 

That’s it for us this month. Next month, we’re looking forward to The Little French Bistro by Nina George. Doesn’t that sound charming? 

We love sharing books with everyone and anyone who’s got a review, comment, thought, critique or favorite quote to send along. Feel free to write to us at editor@outreachnc.com and let us know your thoughts on Ehrenreich’s message. 

Now open a widow, let in some spring air and enjoy the turning of a crisp book page as you settle into some lighter-weight reading.