Who Am I?
Probably everyone reading this already knows, but if not: My name is Jesse. After concluding my undergraduate studies in pre-medicine, political science and economics, I am embarking on my year as a Watson Fellow (http://watson.foundation/fellowships/tj/fellows).
What’s the Watson?
It’s a year of “intensive study” about a subject near and dear to the fellow’s heart. The work must be conducted outside of the fellow’s home country and the US, which, for me, are one and the same. It’s not formal research, more a framework to guide personal exploration. Projects are all over the place, from cultural approaches to naming to life on boats to butterfly gardens. I’m interested in the ways medicine is culturally, spiritually, and institutionally located. Specifically, I will study different modes of death and dying around the world.
…Isn’t that a bit sad and/or morbid?
Fair point, but my project is focused on questioning that framework. A totalizing fear of dying underlies the American approach to aging, a cognitive aversion that isolates the aging in nursing homes and leads to costly invasive procedures that prolong a poor quality of life. I want to see how other societies conceptualize dying and whether these different understanding change their approaches to the structural challenges of aging.
On a grander level, I want to interrogate dying’s position as the opposite of life, as the nihilist doom that awaits us all. In high school and early college, I worked as a hospice volunteer and nursing assistant. I saw my fair share of bitter, lonely deaths, but I also saw moments of connection and reconciliation. Individuals craft a narrative for their whole lives, creating meaning meaning and purpose in their last days. Their families shared in this creation, recognizing their relationship to the dying, and opening space for a bittersweet celebration. I want to see the different shapes of these narratives, and, with the dying and their family’s permission, I will record and share the experience. Maybe, in some small way, it might change how we look at our inevitable human journey.
Wait, what exactly are you doing?
Right. I will travel to Ireland, the Netherlands, India and Botswana. In each place, I will interview and write about patients, their families, medical professionals, and spiritual advisers. Each country has a theme, but I will adapt my interests and analysis to the emerging circumstances. Ireland is the birthplace of modern western hospice, the tradition with which I am the most familiar. Also, as the son of a minister, I hope to explore the Christian traditions of death and dyng. The Netherlands is majority agnostic/atheistic, changing the meaning of the end of life. It has legalized physician assisted suicide, leading to an altered medical framework for death. India has a multitude of spiritual approaches to explore, but I will focus on the Hindu tradition. My time will mostly be spent in Varanasi, a holy city of death where one may potentially be freed from the cycle of reincarnation. Finally, in Botswana, I will explore how the HIV/AIDs epidemic intersects with traditional spirituality and evangelical Christianity. In each country, I hope I am able to glean insights about how the political and economic structures in healthcare influence individual’s choices around dying.
Is there some way I can help?
Well, aren’t you a charmer! Most important right now are connections, so if you know someone in one of these places I should meet, please let me know and I will reach out. I could also use books. I have a rough list here: https://amzn.com/w/17X94N9WNWVXE. It’ll be updated as I go, almost exclusively with Kindle editions that can be sent to my e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org). There’s absolutely no obligation, but if on some night you think “I wonder how Jesse’s doing?” by buying me a book, you’ll know I’m doing better. The list is just a set of suggestions, so if instead you think “Gosh, Jesse just has to read this,” then send it along and I’ll dig into it.
I can’t overstate how excited I am. My flight to Dublin is on July 29th. This will be my first time traveling to these countries. In fact, it’s my first extensive traveling ever. I’m exceedingly grateful to the Watson Foundation for this opportunity, and to anyone who is curious enough to read my blog. I hope I can do justice to the experience.