This is my 336th post about death and dying on this blog. And I am now into the final month of this yearlong project.
I am amazed and grateful that I get to contemplate dying so intentionally and comfortably before it is happening. I know that I will not always be up for this work.
Some friends of mine, while they have been hospitalized or sick, have testified to me that it is not possible for them to read and think about death under such circumstances. It seems too raw and too sad.
This makes sense.
We have investment accounts and retirement savings so that we do not need to think and worry too much about money later in life.
It seems worthwhile to store away reflection on the last things and to build an accounting of what matters ultimately when we are young and healthy so that we do not need to worry about this so much when we are sick or dying.
I recently came across this intriguing excerpt from David Velleman’s paper, “Against the Right to Die.”
Once a person is given the choice between life and death, he will rightly be perceived as the agent of his own survival. Whereas his existence is ordinarily viewed as a given for him – as a fixed condition with which he must cope – formally offering him the option of euthanasia will cause his existence thereafter to be viewed as his doing.
The problem with this perception is that if others regard you as choosing a state of affairs, they will hold you responsible for it; and if they hold you responsible for a state of affairs, they can ask you to justify it. Hence if people ever come to regard you as existing by choice, they may expect you to justify your continued existence. If your daily arrival in the office is interpreted as meaning that you have once again declined to kill yourself, you may feel obliged to arrive with an answer to the question ‘Why not?’.
This evening I read a chapter from Gilbert Meilaender’s book, Bioethics and the Character of Human Life: Essays and Reflections.
Here is one paragraph that particularly captured my attention:
Thus, although compassion surely moves us to try to relieve suffering, there are things we ought not to do even for that worthy end–actions that would not honour or respect our shared human condition. One of the terrible truths that governs the shape of our lives is that somethings there is suffering we are unable–within the limits of morality–entirely to relieve. Hence, the maxim that must govern and shape our compassion should be “maximize care,” which may not always be quite the same as “minimize suffering.”
In the last chapter, Rule XII: Be grateful in spite of your suffering, Peterson mentions that he has repeatedly suggested to his various audiences “that strength at the funeral of someone dear and close is a worthy goal” and he notes that “people have indicated to me that they took heart in desperate times as a consequence.”
After a worldwide book tour and many other public appearances, Peterson has had the opportunity to test and play with his ideas with many audiences. And it is interesting to read his thoughtful reflections based on his careful observation of the reactions of persons in the audience.
Earlier in the book, he mentions, as he has said elsewhere, that he sees people’s faces light up whenever he speaks about responsibility. Peterson is keenly aware that people have been raised with a greater emphasis on rights and the corresponding sense of entitlement that ensues with this focus. Yet, a sense of responsibility is what ennobles and fills persons with a sense of their proper dignity and capacity.
Accordingly, this challenge to have strength at funerals is an extension of his usual exhortation to responsibility.
This is a really short post to direct you to this excellent commencement address delivered by Ryan T. Anderson.
He titled it, “‘He Knows What He Is About’: Living a Life That Matters”, which is derived from one of the most splendid quotations of John Henry Newman that Dr. Anderson quotes at the outset and on which my friends and I have been reflecting a lot in recent days.
Particularly of relevance to the theme of this blog, I was struck by how Dr. Anderson exhorted the high schoolers on multiple occasions throughout the address to contemplate the thoughts they might have on their deathbeds as a key to discerning how to live a life that matters.
I love Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writing so much.
It has that confident aphoristic quality to it that elicits attention.
Such is the case with his short essay entitled, “Death as Homecoming.”
Right at the beginning, Rabbi Heschel proposes that “in a way death is the test of the meaning of life. If death is devoid of meaning, then life is absurd. Life’s ultimate meaning remains obscure unless it is reflected upon in the face of death.”
Still, Heschel is keen to note that the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition do not stress “the problem of dying” so much as they stress “how to sanctify life.”
Today a Facebook memory came up from three years ago when I happened upon the Church of St. Robert Bellarmine in Rome.
I recognized the patron of the church as the author of a book that I had very much enjoyed reading a few months earlier entitled The Art of Dying Well.
As I stood outside the church, I recalled St. Bellarmine’s remark, “Now every one will admit, that the ‘Art of dying Well’ is the most important of all sciences; at least every one who seriously reflects…”
The most important of all sciences!
Well, if you have not until now considered it a science, here is a excerpt from his preface to introduce you to the tenor of his argument:
Among my hobbies these days is attending a bioethics book club every two weeks on O. Carter Snead’s new book What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics. The book is about how the dominant view in our time of persons as expressive individualists contradicts the lived experience of our embodied reality. Snead analyzes why we go astray in our public bioethics when we do not account for the realities of vulnerability and mutual dependence in and throughout our lives.
Most recently the study group finished reading the chapter on Death and Dying. In it, Snead notes: “By far the most common rationales cited for seeking assisted suicide were concerns about ‘losing autonomy’ (92 percent) and being ‘less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable’ (91 percent).”
Since there are many reasons why we can lose autonomy and the ability to engage in activities that make life enjoyable, it is worth scrutinizing these ideas of “freedom” – the loss of which risks rendering life seemingly not worth living.
I am reminded of Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky’s reflections. In Sculpting in Time, he says: “And the longer I lived in the West the more curious and equivocal freedom seems to me. Freedom to take drugs? To kill? To commit suicide?”