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 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

Writing for My Readers – Part II


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarly in this series on recurring themes in my novel A Fitting Place, I mused on the need to create characters that resonate with my readers … to make my readers shiver with recognition as they follow the hopes and fears, the defeats and triumphs of fictional individuals whose life situations may be very different from their own, but whose emotional responses they recognize instantly.

The need for resonance from my readers looms large in my mind as I complete the final draft and incorporate the insightful suggestions of my editor.

It is a bit of serendipity that this final phase of my writing coincides with a semester-long course in the Philosophy of Art where we have repeatedly asked how to determine if a created object rises to the standard of art.

Herewith a few thoughts on how selected theories of art apply to getting resonance from my readers:

  • An early approach, going back to Plato and Aristotle, was the theory of representation, which required that art imitate life. While the focus of the theory was on the intentionality and skill of the artist, it implicitly required that the viewer—or the reader—recognize and appreciate the aspect of life being portrayed.
  • This theory went by the boards with the arrival of modern (e.g., abstract) art, to be replaced by the theory of expression. Here, the artist/author had to be motivated by an emotionally significant experience and transmit the emotion to the viewer. There has been ongoing debate about the need for the viewer/reader to experience exactly the same emotion as the artist/author, but without some degree of emotional resonance, it cannot be considered art.
  • A third approach is the theory of aesthetic emotion, for which the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant was a key proponent. In Kant’s view, appreciation of art is a wholly subjective experience that we assume others will share, but which cannot be defined or explained in conceptual terms.  In other words, adhering to the rules of the writer’s craft matters not if my readers don’t respond with a sensory feeling connected in some mysterious way to the meaningfulness of life.
  • My personal favorite is the theory of the text, proposed by Roland Barthes, a 20th century French literary theorist and critic.  Barthes makes the case that meaning is not created by the artist, but by the reader. In other words, it doesn’t matter what story I intended to tell, or what emotions I intended to convey.  What matters is whether my readers, as they engage with the words on the page, experience that shiver of recognition, that moment of aliveness that comes from being in touch with the universal human condition.

As I worked on A Fitting Place, I have pored over dozens if not hundred of articles about the craft of writing … things to do and things not to do.  The serendipity of the philosophy course, coming at this particular moment in time, lies in its timely and frequent reminder that, however skilled the craftsman, it is not good writing unless it touches the reader’s soul.

What do you think is required for writing to rise to level of art?


This blog continues the discussion on themes related to my novel.  I welcome comments and guest blogs from my readers based on their own experiences.  Let me know if you’d like join the discussion by doing a guest blog.