Here is the fourth of five fragments that I place beside each other in my experimental essay on living and grieving beside Judith:
…it becomes a question for ethics, I think, not only when we ask the personal question, what makes my own life bearable, but when we ask…what makes, or ought to make, the lives of others bearable (Undoing Gender, 17)?
Butler connects her theorizing of grief to the question of what makes life bearable and livable. Distinguishing the livable life from the basic material conditions that make life possible, Butler wants to think about how and when lives are and aren’t deemed recognizable and worthy of life and of being grieved (Undoing Gender, 39).
I was never afraid to lose my mom. Okay, that’s not true. Before my mom was diagnosed I couldn’t imagine how I could ever live without her. Her death was the one I feared most, even more than my own. Yet once I learned she would die soon, it wasn’t her impending death that made me come undone; it was her life and what would it mean for her (and for me) if she lived, without half of her stomach, always haunted by death, not knowing when the cancer would come back or when she would no longer be able to walk. As sad as knowing she would die soon made me, I knew I could handle her death. I wasn’t sure that I could handle her painful, yet inevitable, journey towards it.
Butler contrasts her notion of the livable/bearable life with the good life and argues that the good life is only available to people whose lives are already possible and recognizable and who don’t have to devote most of their energy to figuring out ways to survive and persist (Undoing Gender, 31-32). For her, the question of the livable life must necessarily precede the question of the good life, because to strive for a good life, one must first be recognized as having a life (Undoing Gender, 205).
My mom started falling down a lot. It wasn’t safe for her to be alone. The decision was made to begin hospice care. She was no longer living with cancer; she was dying from it. She had entered the final stage. Any thoughts about a cure or remission—that hope for a good life to be achieved again in the future—was replaced by practical discussions of how to ensure that she continued to have a comfortable life that was free of pain. The good or even livable life were no longer possible for her. The best she could hope for was the bearable life. And what she could expect (and eventually did reach) was something that seemed even less than the bare minimum requirements of life. Yet, even as I witnessed her decline and the resultant shift from good to livable to bearable to unbearable life, I can’t really make sense of her experiences of those last four years (or even the last six months) as just surviving until the inevitable. Up until those last days, years after she was supposed to die, she lived and, in moments, however fleeting, flourished. She enjoyed life, she laughed, and she loved her daughters, her grandchildren and my dad.
What makes for the livable life? How do we distinguish that life from ones that are merely bearable or others that flourish? Who gets to make this distinction and how do they do it? My mother’s living and dying with pancreatic cancer pushed at the limits of my understandings of life and how and when it is possible.
Some questions prompted by this fragment: This idea of the livable vs the good life speaks to my interest in virtue ethics. What would a virtue ethics based on the livable life as opposed to the good life look like?
I am struck by the slippage in Butler’s text between the livable and bearable life. What are the differences between these two forms of life? How did my mom, as she attempted to balance her medications and struggled to cope with ever-decreasing mobility, slip between the livable and bearable life?
How does thinking about my experiences living and grieving beside my mom in relation to the livable life (as opposed to the grievable life) shift my perspective on the entire process? What links can I draw between the livable life and care giving and receiving? In the context of a person living and dying with pancreatic cancer, what types of care are required for the livable life?
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