On Living Reading Group Guide
1. “We all have some experiences that we hold up as the stories that define our lives,” Egan writes in the opening pages of On Living, and she returns to this theme throughout the book, chronicling the stories her patients told her and the meaning they eventually found in the telling. Has a particular story defined your life? In what ways?
2. A woman dying of colon cancer and end stage dementia, in a fleeting moment of complete lucidity, tells Egan, “Whatever bad things have happened to you in your life, whatever hard things you’ve gone through, you have to do three things: You have to accept it. You have to be kind to it. And you have to let it be kind to you.” What do you think she meant? How can you let a hard thing, whether a minor tragedy or a life-altering trauma, be kind to you? What would that look like?
3. How does Egan discuss religion in On Living? Do you see this as a religious book? Why or why not?
4. “The world’s been telling me for seventy-five years that my body is bad. First for being female, then for being fat, and then for being sick,” a patient tells Egan in “If I Had Only Known, I Would Have Danced More,” which prompts Egan to wonder, “How do these voices telling us that we are supposed to hate our bodies affect our notions of how we should care for the sick, the disabled, the elderly, the young? For mothers, soldiers, workers, immigrants, men, women?” What do you think the effect is? In what ways do you see this being played out in our culture today?
5. “As a very young woman, I thought regret was a failure, something to avoid at all costs. It is, in fact, a window.” What do you think Egan means by this?
6. In “Dying is Just a Verb,” a patient asks Egan to wheel her outside her nursing home so she can “feel the wind in my pussy again.” Egan bursts into laughter, and that evening desperately wants to retell the story during a neighborhood gathering, only to be derailed by a woman who “can’t stand to hear stories about the dying.” So she stops, thinking, “How could I explain that while there are sad moments…they are far outweighed by happy, enjoyable, boring, peaceful, frustrating, tedious, and yes, hilariously funny moments?” In what ways does Egan utilize humor throughout On Living? How does humor act to humanize “the dying”?
7. Discussing her ketamine-induced psychosis and the secret reminder to herself she kept on her flip phone—You Are Capable—Egan asks, “Can our deepest self be destroyed by what happens in this life? Or do we have some sort of unchanging, essential soul?” What do you think?
8. Later, Egan writes, “Every single person I spoke to about the ketamine hallucinations told me they were not real. They were not a real religious experience. That was not a real encounter with God. There was no reality to them, and therefore no value.” Do you agree? How do we decide what is real and what has value? For ourselves? For others?
9. “The world is not black and white. There is no black and white. There’s only gray. You have to live in the gray.” Do you agree? How does this sentiment apply to Egan’s own story? The book as a whole?
On Living Reading Group Guide