“Natural Causes” and the Myth of Control

"A New Normal?" by Randy Heinitz, via Flickr.com (Creative Commons License)
"A New Normal?" by Randy Heinitz, via Flickr.com (Creative Commons License)

There are, as many of you know, a constant flow of books and articles now on issues related to wellness and health. Often they are tied to nutrition, working out, positiveness and the like. The themes circle around the desire to confound the reality of our own mortality. On the road a lot allows me, at times, to get into some of these books. A recent road trip allowed me to look at the new book by Barbara Ehrenreich called “Natural Causes” whose sub-title reads “An epidemic of wellness, the certainty of dying, and killing ourselves to live longer”. This is not a beach read. It is a book designed to provoke thought and discussion.
Simply put, Ehrenreich gives voice to the theory that there may be point when we need to understand that the “medicalization” of life (more tests, more fads, etc) mean very little. She writes : “I hope this book will encourage you to rethink the project of personal control over your body and mind. We would all like to live longer and healthier lives; the question is how much of our lives should be devoted to this project, when we all, or at least most of us, have other, often more consequential things to do”. Does the obsession by many to delay death at any cost, actually allow us to limit enjoying life?
The book takes a focused look on the “invasions of privacy” that Ehrenreich writes about, often in the context of the expansion of medical tests which she often portrays in terms of well orchestrated and societal accepted medical rituals. Her scalpel cuts deeply!
Ehrenreich has a PhD in cellular biology and spends a lot of the book in examining the cellular structure of life and the thought that there is life and agency on so much of the structures of life, even to the smallest of things. She asserts the existence of a “conscious agency other than ourselves, in the form of a deity, an assertion that has often been backed up by coercion.” Yes, she looks at the rise of monotheism and the belief that this deity “is all-good and all-loving” and notes that this belief system was needed to allow people to get away from the belief that “they will end up as a pile of refuse. Or, as the atheists are often asked, how can we die knowing death is followed only by nothingness?”
In the end, however, we get the sense that, while we are the subject of so many inputs (biological and sociological) we also still have the power to choose how we live and that living our life on our terms is preferable to having it controlled in a medicalized concept. This book will challenge us, as her other books have done. Yet, she points to some powerful issues and ideas, not the least of which is that we are, in the end, part of a larger living entity. A challenge then would be to return to this understanding that, as Ecclesiastes 1 states, that we are part of something living and flowing and evolving, something larger than our own “self”.
Rabbi Richard F Address.
“Natural Causes”. Barbara Ehrenreich. Twelve. Hatchette Book Group. NYC, NY. 2018.


  1. Our general fear of death, our ideology to preserve life at all costs and the ability to offer medical technology that can prolong the onset of death – is – in my humble opinion – contrary to G-D’s plan for us. We are preprogrammed to die…we know there is NO escaping the inevitable…and yet, the lengths we are expected to go to beat death is either killing us or merely prolonging the agony. If one believes Hashem is the Conductor… …then…why, if someone who is terminally ill and gets pneumonia…DO WE GIVE ANTIBIOTICS TO CURE THE PNEUMONIA only to prolong the inevitable? Isn’t this merely putting a stumbling block before the blind? Perhaps the pneumonia was a gift from Hashem….to end the misery? Just because we can interfere with G-D’s plan…doesn’t mean we should.

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