How our attitude to life shapes how we deal with the inevitability of death
At the age of sixty-one I’ve already lost a lot of people during the course of my meandering journey through life. The early losses, incurred during the vulnerable years of childhood, were traumatic. I spent a great many years trying to save everyone, which is not only a logical impossibility but also a fool’s errand.
It seems to me that there are phases in our lives and if we’re very fortunate we get the time to pass through each phase in turn.
When we’re young and vital, of course we want to devour life. We’re hardwired to live and thrive and mate and reproduce. We want, as much as possible, to live out the archetypal stories given to us by whatever culture we happen to have been born into.
Reality, however, is far more complex than simplistic stories and we rarely get to coast through life on a magic carpet of benevolence. So we learn about struggle and disappointment and defeat and occasional victory. If we’re lucky we have the astonishing good fortune to reproduce, love our children, watch them grow, and finally see them leave to create their own independent lives.
Throughout much of our lives we try to hold on to the things we care about. This is a trait deeply conserved by evolution because for most of our history we’ve never been able to count on having food to eat tomorrow nor have we been able to count on physical security. In a world of predators and diseases, our species was fragile and always clinging on at the edges of survival until the advent of the agricultural revolution around eleven thousand years ago. But eleven thousand years is a blip in evolutionary terms, so our brains are still hardwired to hold on tightly to anything of value.
What this means is that we really hate death. We want those we love to remain with us. We want to remain too, always here, always aware of our own existence. We want to avoid loss.
Reality is predicated on very different foundations. Philosophers have commented on the transient nature of existence since before writing was invented to capture their musings. We truly cannot step into the same river twice. All things pass.
And that means we have to come to terms with the inevitability of death.
In former times death was all around us. If a woman had eleven children across her period of fertility, perhaps two might survive into adulthood. People aged rapidly due to the exigencies of their lives and (for most people) atrociously poor nutrition. People saw death up-close because people died at home and in the streets. Death could come at any time; a scratch could lead to infection which could lead rapidly to an unpleasant demise.
Today we hide death away.
Everyone dreams of the “good death” where they pass away surrounded by smiling loved ones, free of pain and fear. In reality 90% of us will die in an anonymous hospital bed, confused and alone and in pain and full of fear, with tubes sticking out of us and overworked nurses hurrying past without a sideways glance as we struggle to pull one last breath of air into exhausted and defeated lungs.
Because we’ve hidden death away, few people prepare for it. When a parent dies, the children have little or no prior experiences that would have habituated them to the inevitability of death. So death is regarded as a tragedy, an unconscionable tearing of the fabric of life. Grief is powerful and the loss is felt very deeply.
For myself, however, I think the real tragedy is the fact we keep people alive for so long. People with neurodegenerative diseases who no longer know themselves; people with cancer whose treatments eke out a few more months at the cost of phenomenal suffering for themselves and for those who love them; people who are so old that all their systems are shutting down so doctors race from one patch-up to another, unwilling to accept the obvious fact that it’s time for death to supervene.
Everything in life is transient, an impermanent victory over entropy that requires taking energy from external sources in order to maintain a temporary degree of order. But entropy always wins.
Surely we should focus on living as fully as we can during the extraordinary moments we are granted? Most people seem to sleepwalk through life, staring at screens and working in jobs they hate and stuffing themselves full of harmful inputs in order to numb their existential malaise. But why not, instead, revel in the brief existence we’ve been granted? Why not do everything we can to live to the full rather than merely accept whatever happen to be the quotidian norms of the day?
And most of all, let’s accept the transitory nature of existence itself. Every person who is alive has received the most astonishing privilege. Surely we should celebrate each second of this privilege rather than torment ourselves by trying to hold on to things that by their very nature must slip away.
Of course we will miss those who die. And of course no sentient creature can contemplate its own nullification with absolute serenity. But we do have the choice about how we look at this amazing business of being alive, and that choice will radically determine the way we deal with death.
Perhaps it’s necessary to have lived for many decades and to feel the approach of one’s own end in order to feel equanimity about death. I doubt I could have felt so peaceful during my twenties and thirties. Those are the years of achievement, of creation. Now I’m in the gentle foothills of life, having descended from the summit, and I can see the end ahead of me on the horizon. It’s been, overall, a respectable journey and for the most part I’m content.
We should not fear death. What we should fear is the insane prolongation of life that today passes for standard medical treatment.
Why should we inflict on our loved ones pain and suffering merely in order to push back by a few days or weeks the inevitable moment when we have to let them go and then grieve for them? Why should we sacrifice those we love on the altar of our own inability to accept the natural coda to life?
My greatest fear is falling into the hands of the medical profession at the end of my life and being forced to endure past my natural end. Consequently, I’ve worked out my own plan and I firmly believe it’s better to go a little too early than to leave things even a fraction of an hour too late. Those I love know they are loved, and I know I am loved by them in turn. Those I love will remember me as I truly am; I will spare them memories of being a shell in a numbered bed. And I will spare myself from being disempowered and turned into a passive receptacle of someone else’s fear.
I am ready to go peacefully into that dark night; I feel no need to rage against the dying of the light.