Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Just Finished "Death"

I mentioned a few months ago that I had begun the most recent Lapham's Quarterly called Death.  I just finished it over the weekend.

Such a wonderful compilation of thoughts about this topic.  There is no way to properly give it justice other than recommending that you read it yourself, but I will attempt to convey a few of the thoughts that crossed my mind as I read.

First, there was much humor in the magazine.  While it certainly includes many essays from the perspective of death's finality, it also shows a remarkable range of thoughts in which death and the circumstances of some deaths, can be humorous.  Sort of like the axiom that we shouldn't take ourselves too seriously, there were many who applied this same thought to death.

I was also struck by the insights provided by writers from hundreds, even thousands of years ago.  I think that we often consider all those who came before us, especially those born in the time before the great industrial and technological revolutions of the recent past, as stupid, or at least so much less evolved.  I also feel we look upon them with a bit of pity as well.  What they couldn't do, didn't know, etc.  Yet, some of the more insightful reflections about death came well before the 1600's, even in times BC.  It reminds me that man has considered his immortality since day one, has lamented that his time is so short, has continually strived to find elixirs and potions to extend his youth.

This thought then flows seamlessly into the realization that despite our extended life expectancy, we strive more than ever to live a longer, higher quality life.  Of course, that in itself should be expected, yet perhaps we have entered the realm of absurdity in recent times.  I am lucky that I still feel relatively young, have been told by friends that I look a bit younger than my age, so perhaps I am disingenuous when I laugh at those commercials that tell men that their problem is low testosterone, and by rubbing something under their armpits they can be young again.  I imagine that for some, an ideal existence would be to look twenty for eighty years then just die.  Perhaps that means it is getting older that we fear more then dying.

For me, I certainly would prefer more life.  I want to see my kids find happiness, in love, in work, in family.  I want to continue to write, perhaps even see one of my posts go viral some day.  I want to still be awed by the full moon rising over the horizon or a beautiful sunset over water or an open field.  I want to be there when my wife is able to stay home and tinker in the yard or create beautiful stain glass art in the basement.  I want to travel a bit more. 

But today, as I sit here typing away, I don't fear death.  While there are things I still wish to write, places I still want to see, experiences I still wish to have, while I certainly would prefer to live longer, I don't fear the nothingness of death, or the judgment of heaven or hell, or the chance I might come back as a slug. 

Perhaps that is the secret of life.  Knowing that all men die, knowing that you will someday die, accepting that regardless of wealth, fame, intelligence or education, death is the one experience that we all have in common, that unites us as fellow travelers in time.  And that living, truly living one's life as fully and with as much love as possible, is the one and only way to cheat death. 

Finally, a copy of the letter sent by Jack Kevorkian to the Chief Justice of the United States about assisted suicide was published towards the end of Death.  I was unaware of the point made by Kevorkian in this letter and it struck me hard.  He stated that by giving people a way to kill themselves, making it legal for someone to end the tremendous suffering they may be experiencing, just this act of having a way out can give people the strength to continue to live.  In other words, it is sometimes easier to endure one's hardship when one feels they have some kind of control over its existence.  To Dr. Kevorkian, the idea that someone's suffering has no end in sight and that they have no option in ending it is as horrible as the actual suffering itself.   In makes me think that those who are against assisted suicide for humane reasons, either have not yet experienced the suffering that those who see to die endure, have not seen a loved one endure such pain, or do not fully understand the meaning of what it means to be humane. 

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