Saturday, April 30, 2005

Column on Death and Dying

Death & Dying

Tibor R. Machan

My friend David L. Norton?whose book Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of
Ethical Individualism (Princeton UP, 1976), should have been far more
famous than any that John Rawls and other celebrities in the discipline of
philosophy had written?wrote beautifully and wisely about aging. He gave
credit for the germ of his idea to the famous psychologist, Erik Erickson,
but David developed the idea in far more philosophical terms than Erickson
had. It had to do with how one?s perspective on one?s life undergoes
certain critical though very natural and potentially enhancing stages in
virtue of human nature itself.

One of the points David stressed is that a person with a good outlook on
life will gradually come to terms with the fact that he or she will die
and, while never abandoning the quest for living and, indeed, for
thriving, such a person will not protest or concoct fantasies in order to
manage the fact of impending death. I actually spoke with David by phone
about a week before he died of cancer and he appeared to me to have been
exemplary in how he dealt with his own imminent death.

As I have been getting older, several family members and friends have
died and, of course, I have been spending a tad more time on reflecting on
my own death than I used to. But I do remember when way back in my 30s I
probably had the experience that readied me best for my own eventual

It was when a tiny kitten I had wanted to become our household pet
suddenly developed some ailment and before anything could be done it
expired while I held it in my left hand. The kitten was suddenly no longer
there, only a dead kitten carcass, no real kitten at all. I noticed,
though, that all was very peaceful with this dead kitten, very
uncomplicated. I believe it was then that I realized that provided there
isn?t going to be too much unbearable pain or suffering, provided those
close to me don?t go ballistic about it all, I should be managing death
quite well, thank you. Because by all I can figure and have gotten used
to, have accepted in my bones by now, that after I die there will be
nothing for me to think, to remember, to consider, to argue, to feel, to
do?it will be the end of my life and, of course, of me.

Sure, there will be some remaining signs that I had been around, but that
will not matter to me at all, only to those who care about what I have
done, what I have meant to them. It is, in fact, for those who care for
me, who will have loved me, that my death will be a problem, not for me.
And about this I may be able to do something, if I give them the most I
can while I am still around, if I care for them and love them, too. I
might, also, be able to help them acknowledge that my being gone is not
what should be focused upon but that I had lived with sufficient dignity
and joy that my life can be deemed nearly all that it could be. And that,
I believe, ought to make them feel better, at least a little after I have

Of course, it is one of the fascinating as well as scary things about
one?s life that few things can be fully, accurately anticipated, apart
from the next several moments?or perhaps a bit more?of one?s future. Yet
one point David, following Erickson, stressed is that this, too, is
something that one must accept and embrace and then it will not be an
obstacle to living properly and fruitfully.

This goes contrary to what I learned was a main point in Martin
Heidegger?s philosophy. When I used to teach Existentialism, I studied
quite extensively his views on death and they were nothing if not morbid
and scary. Heidegger, who despite his serious flirtation with (and one
time enthusiastic endorsement of) Nazism, remains a prominent 20th century
philosopher?still embraced by some influential philosophers who should
know better?believed that we humans are unique in, among other ways,
having to cope with the persistent dread of death. (There is some evidence
now that some other animals have to cope with it to some measure, too, but
not at the philosophical level where they can dwell upon the potentially
awesome fact of it.) There are others in the history of human thought who
have made similar points.

I, however, liked what I understood to be the ancient philosopher
Epicurious?s attitude, who taught that all that fretting about one?s death
is pretty useless and is merely going to contribute to making one?s life
more unhappy than it has to be. This left a big impression on me, so much
so that I turned into someone always a bit puzzled when my own children
find bringing up, as a concern with practical matters would require this,
the inevitable subject of my demise too uncomfortable. I keep wanting to
impress upon them that it will just be something that is best to be
sensibly prepared for, so why not simply come to terms with it?

But I guess that?s easy for me to say?I will not be around to experience
the loss.

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