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What matters in the end

In our household, conversations of late often turn to the idea of sending every member of Congress a copy of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Profiles in Courage.”

Have you read it? It was compiled in 1957, and one summary refers to it as “a bunch of different examples of courage.”

More formally stated, the book profiles eight senators who historically “defied the opinions of their party and their constituents to do what they felt was right and suffered severe criticism and loss of popularity because of their actions.”

A Profile in Courage Award grew out of the book; it’s given annually. John McCain won the award in 1999, and Gabby Gifford won it in 2013. The “public servants of September 11” were the awardees in 2011.

The book poses several questions. For example, “What makes an action courageous?" What must one do to earn the honorific of being identified as a courageous man or woman?” When you read this book in its entirety you come to see what the people portrayed have in common. Courageous actions are taken in spite of pressure or resistance to do otherwise — the person or the collection of people termed courageous “go against the grain in order to do what’s right.”

Know anybody like that? I suspect you do, but odds are they have not been elected to public office. They may live next door to you, they may even live with you. They are everyday folk who exhibit grit and moxie in the face of life’s ordeals. ("He handled his diagnosis with strength and courage.")

You meet them in a doctor’s office waiting room or at the scene of a car accident. ("She courageously rose to the moment in the face of great calamity."). Nursing homes that “give dignified voice to older people in the process of losing their independence” show courage. ("The nursing home administrator took a courageous risk and allowed the resident’s beloved cat to sleep on his bed.").

You will find bold examples of everyday courage by reading another powerful book, “Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gwande. It’s “a personal meditation on how we can better live with age-related frailty, serious illness and approaching death.” The author, a surgeon, courageously points out that his medical colleagues are too attentive to “cures” and reminds them “not everyone can be cured.” He profiles the importance of a physician’s “active listening” and the offer of comfort, kindness and recognition of the family caregiver’s need for purpose.

Gwande writes that members of the medical profession, himself included, have often been wrong about what their job is. Rather than ensuring health and survival, the physician’s responsibility is to “enable well-being” and promote a good quality of life. Perhaps this, too, is a book to buy in quantity. Send this one to thoughtfully chosen medical professionals.

Doing that would, in and of itself, be an act of courage. But I’d rather think of it as an act of love.

— Sharon Johnson is executive director of Age-Friendly Innovators Inc. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.