Death and the Meaning of Life

 

“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”      ~  John Updike

“To the wise advice that we live every day as though it will be our last, we do well to add the admonition to live every day as though we will be on this earth forever.”  ~ Sherwin Nuland

 

the meaning of deathAs I delve more and more into the medical and ethical issues of aging, I find repeated references to the tendency in modern society—and particularly America—to avoid the subject of death. I plan, over the next few months, to explore some of the social and cultural reasons for this pattern, but today’s blog is a personal muse on why death—the very fact of death—gives added and richer meaning to life and to the opportunities that await us.

Long-time readers of my blog (or readers of Sailing Down the Moonbeam) will know that a watershed event in my life occurred on a 35-foot sailboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. After a week of sunny days with calm seas and a cloudless sky, a companion sailboat, aptly named Pacific, missed the scheduled meet-up on ham radio. Initially, no one seemed worried, as the yacht’s absence was easily explained by battery troubles or a broken radio antenna, either of which might take a day to fix.  No one saw any reason to call for help.

I did not view their absence with such equanimity.  What if it wasn’t a mechanical problem? What if Pacific had collided with a whale or a submerged container that fallen off a freighter, and the crew was drifting in a lifeboat? We were well outside the shipping lanes.  The odds of finding a small lifeboat floating in an unknown direction from an unknown starting point were almost nil.

When Pacific did not reappear on the second day—and still no one suggested calling for help—panic struck. From the beginning of our sailing voyage, I assumed that if we had a major problem, someone would come to our rescue, much as I had always assumed that an ambulance would appear if I had an accident on a New York highway.  Suddenly, I came face to face with the imminence of death, with the very real possibility that my life could come to an abrupt end on sunny day in a calm sea.

The watershed moment did not occur that day. Rather it came several days later, when I realized that imminent death had always been a possibility—that my faith in the appearance of the ambulance on the highway was as illusory as my belief in help at sea.

Once I accepted that the fact that my being was out of my control, I wanted to use my time and energy for things that mattered to me … to seize every opportunity …. to make sure I used every moment of my existence as if it were my last.

I wish I could say that I have always been true to this philosophy. What I can say is that the awareness of the fragility of life has been a constant reminder that I should not fall prey to what society thinks is important.  Since every moment could be my last—I could die before I even finish this sentence—every new moment is a new opportunity to live my life better and more wisely.

This muse was prompted, in part, by my interest in the subject of aging and death.  It was also prompted by a recent philosophy class in which we studied the often-controversial German philosopher Martin Heidegger.  At the risk of oversimplification, Heidegger sees much of our everyday existence as “falling prey” to the social, religious and cultural mores imposed by those around us, as well as the generations that have lived before us. Even those who see themselves as rebels or revolutionaries or free-thinkers are doing little more than re-arranging the ideas and concepts handed out by others.

For Heidegger, the only escape from this “inauthentic” existence is death … not the actual death that terminates human life, but the possibility of imminent death. For Heidegger, the ever-present possibility that this moment will be my last also offers a perpetually renewing opportunity to live in a way that is meaningful to me.

Does the possibility of death add meaning—and opportunity—to your life?

The Paradox of Our Age/Time

 

Paradox

In 1992, political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously argued that the spread of Western-style democracies and free market capitalism would become the final form of human government.  It seems a paradox that the economic and political systems that were thought by Fukuyama to bring peace and stability to the world are increasingly on the defensive—in Europe, in Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa and, I often think, here at home in America.

While musing on this dreary thought, I happened on Jann Freed’s recent blog on paradox. I will reprint here a portion of the essay she shared from ‘Words Aptly Spoken’ by former non-denominational pastor Dr. Bob Moorehead.  This 1995 essay—The Paradox of Our Age/Time—shines a bright light on many of the contradictions wrought by prosperity … and may help explain why so many cultures choose to reject a way of life that seems to offer material prosperity but spiritual poverty.

“The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less.

We have bigger houses and  smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees
but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness.

We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often.

We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve added years to life not life to years. We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor.

We conquered outer space but not inner space. We’ve done larger things, but not better things.

We’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We’ve conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We’ve learned to rush, but not to wait.

We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but we communicate less and less.

These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion, big men and small character, steep profits and shallow relationships. These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes. These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill.

How many of these paradoxes bedevil your own life? Are there any that you can change in your own world?

The Bio-Ethics of Aging

Bio-Ethics of Aging

I wonder how many of my readers have managed to avoid the quandary that surrounds the health care needs of so many of our aging parents:

  • Should you respect their desire for independence or insist that they live where their medical needs will be taken care of?
  • Should you approve surgery or chemotherapy for an Alzheimer’s parent who has a malignant tumor?
  • Should you insist on insertion of—or removal of—a feeding tube for a stroke victim who will never regain even minimal intellectual or physical function but is in no immediate danger of death?

These issues loom large in my mind as I revise the syllabus for a class I teach on the Bio-Ethics of Aging.  What I see is that our lives have become ever more complicated as medical technology and innovative drugs have provided more sophisticated—and more expensive—ways to keep aging and death at bay.  Where once diminished capacity and ultimate death were considered to be inevitable stages of life, they are now increasingly challenges to be overcome.

The problem, as any reader of the daily newspaper will know, is that we as a nation are resource constrained. We do not have enough money or enough geriatricians or enough kidneys or enough antibiotics to treat every single older person who wants to be treated.  While we are only one of many countries facing rising health expenditures as the baby boomers age, we are unique among the developed countries in our lack of a consensus on what kind of health care should be provided, to whom, under what circumstances, and who should pay for it.

In practice, the United States rations health care based primarily on who can pay rather than who has the greatest medical need.  Even with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, access to health care depends on the ability to meet co-pays … to meet defined income limits … to meet state-by-state Medicaid criteria for income and co-pays.

I am teaching this course because I believe that both the baby boomers and their children desperately need to understand the ethical, legal, and pragmatic choices they will face in the next decade or two.  From a bio-ethical perspective, not all health care is the same.  From a bio-ethical perspective, each of our decisions about health care for us and for our parents has worrisome implications for the health care, education, and employment of the generations to come.

A key question addressed in the Bio-Ethics of Aging is not whether we should ration health care—we already do—but whether we should allocate it in a way that is more transparent and more equitable than our current system. I believe the answer is “yes,” but I challenge my students to define what that more equitable system might be.

Bio-Ethics of Aging
Senior College of Greater Des Moines
September 8, 15, 22, 2014 – 10:00 – 11:30 am
Pappajohn Center, Room 218

To register for the course, please google http://myseniorcollege.com/catalog.pdf

Letting Go of Anger

 

Letting-GoThe fine art of “letting go”—Buddhists call it detachment—has been one of my guiding principles since my early 40’s, when I spent a year crossing the Pacific Ocean on a small sailboat.

That was the year that I learned, in a visceral rather than intellectual way, that letting go is what you have to do if you hope to live in the moment.  A quest to find familiar foods—McDonalds and whole wheat bread—in Pacific Island communities could only hamper your discovery of such local delights as pamplemousse, guava, conch fritters, and ceviche.  Setting expectations—e.g. planning to arrive in Tahiti on a specific date and time—when you couldn’t control the weather or the currents was a sure-fire way to miss the sensual beauty of a day at sea … the dawn light creeping across the fluid surface of the sea, the porpoises who cavorted in our bow wake.

But letting go of these sorts of things has been easy for me compared to letting go of anger. Anger at a mother who neglected you. Anger at a spouse or friend who betrayed or demeaned you. Anger at the boss who passed you over for a promotion you deserved. Anger at anyone who violates your trust, who diminishes your self-esteem, who makes you question your self-worth.

I was reminded of this as I read a recent blog entitled, aptly enough, “Letting Go,” in which the author, Danielle, offered some practical tips for getting rid of anger.  Herewith, some tips of hers and some of mine.

  • Recognize that we all live in our own reality.

My mother was a case in point. She never intended to hurt her children, but she was so crippled by her own fear of being hurt that she had no emotional reserves to draw upon for the care of children. As she did with adults, she rejected me before I could even imagine rejecting her; she punished me for my inability to anticipate what she wanted. Somehow, my efforts to please her always failed.  I could never be the child she wanted.

Depression—anger turned inwards—plagued me until I was in my 40s, when I finally recognized that I had been an unfortunate bystander in her own personal tragedy … that it wasn’t “my fault” and I wasn’t a failure.  Only then could I begin to let go of my anger at her. Only then could I begin to live my own life instead of the life I thought she wanted me to live.

  • Recognize that anger is often a response to “old tapes.”

Letting go of my anger at my mother did not, unfortunately, erase 40 years of painful emotions or the automatic behaviors I had used to cope with her rejection. Over the ensuing decades, I have managed to break most of those old habits, but there are still times when something sets an old tape to running. A paralyzing anger is the default response.

As complementary personalities, my partner Kent and I occasionally set off old tapes.  Fortunately, we understand each other’s foibles and can usually recognize the pattern in time to head off an angry response. Even when we fall prey to the old tapes, though, we can usually figure it out within a few minutes and let the anger go.

It is not always so with friends, even some I know very well. I recognize the hurt … I feel the anger … but it can take days or weeks or months for me to understand how much of my anger is rooted in something that happened 50 or 60 years ago.

  • Recognize that we often impose a higher standard of behavior on others than we do on ourselves.

We all make mistakes.  Sometimes our intentions are good, but we just plain get it wrong.  Sometimes, we’re too busy and self-absorbed to see what’s needed. And then, of course, there are times that we do the wrong thing because we’re still playing out those old tapes of our own.

One of the benefits of maturity is the ability, when we make a mistake, to forgive ourselves, to move on even as we vow to do better the next time.  Too often, however, we do not offer the same generosity of spirit to those around us, responding in anger when someone we trust does something that is hurtful.

For example, I expect Kent to understand and be forgiving when I make a mistake that wounds him, but when he slips up in a way that is hurtful, my instinctive response is often anger alongside a quick march to the moral high ground. I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that he is terribly—and wonderfully—human.

  • Recognize that the need to claim the high ground is another name for being a victim.

I have long believed that most things in life—including what other people say or do to us or about us—are fundamentally outside our control.

From this perspective, holding on to anger gives up the one form of control we do have—the ability to choose our response to what happens around us. Holding on to anger allows someone else to control your identity, to define you in terms of their actions rather than yours, to further diminish your sense of self-worth.

In a recent blog on The Confidence Gap, I observed that whenever something diminishes your confidence level, inaction erodes your confidence further, while positive action serves to rebuild it.  Holding on to anger is a form of passivity and inaction.

Letting go of anger represents an active decision to take control over your own life.

How does residual anger left from old tapes affect your life and relationships?