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Sep 29 2011

Roger Ebert’s Inspiring Courage

If you haven’t been inspired by how Roger Ebert has handled the tragic health problems that have beset him, you haven’t been paying attention. Thyroid cancer has resulted in the removal of part of his jaw and the loss of his ability to speak or to eat and drink and he now takes nourishment through a feeding tube. But he has shown remarkable dignity and grace during the whole thing. He has a new book out about life and death and an article on Salon that sums up his views. It is a model of how a non-believer should handle the prospect of death.

I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris…

Many readers have informed me that it is a tragic and dreary business to go into death without faith. I don’t feel that way. “Faith” is neutral. All depends on what is believed in. I have no desire to live forever. The concept frightens me. I am 69, have had cancer, will die sooner than most of those reading this. That is in the nature of things. In my plans for life after death, I say, again with Whitman:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes.

I can only hope that, when I inevitably face the prospect of dying, I would handle it with a tiny percentage of the courage and grace with which Roger Ebert is doing so.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    davidct

    That piece highlights just how shallow the fanciful comforts of “faith” truly are. I am glad that Mr. Ebert has been so articulate in sharing his experience of a life being lived in the rational world.

  2. 2
    John Hinkle

    He’s got that healthy, Samuel Clemens idea of death:

    “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” ― Mark Twain

  3. 3
    Abby Normal

    It is a model of how a non-believer should handle the prospect of death.

    Ed, this may be my own issue, but that phrasing really got my hackles up. Telling folks how they “should” handle death, as if there is only one correct way, distracted me from what followed. I would preferred something more along the lines of your closing, like, “It is a model of how a non-believer can handle the prospect of death with grace and courage.”

    Don’t get me wrong, I loved Ebert’s perspective. Heck, bump into me on the street and you’ll have better than even odds I’ll have a copy of Leaves of Grass with me. But I there’s also a place in my heart for Dylan Thomas and those who, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

  4. 4
    jamessweet

    I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state.

    Recently I was pondering this, and suddenly instead of that making me feel less worried about mortality, instead I felt more disturbed that there had been an eternity before I was born where I didn’t even exist! And that furthermore, my coming into being as a thinking entity was not an instantaneous event, but a slow fuzzy process.

    Now I have to stare into the abyss on both sides. Goddamit…

  5. 5
    Tim DeLaney

    The world is a better place for his having been in it. I hope somebody will think that of me when the time comes.

  6. 6
    JustaTech

    Wow. That was amazing. But, fankly, I would expect nothing less of a guy who, after losing his ability to eat, wrote a freaking cookbook! He pracitcally defines grace in the face of adversity.

  7. 7
    TCC

    I love that section of Song of Myself that Ebert quoted – that and “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant are two of my favorite poetic treatments of death.

    Also, in a weird sort of synchronicity, the last clause is one I’ve been seeing a lot, since I just started reading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and it functions in just about the same way there as when Ebert uses it.

    Personally, I also like what he says elsewhere in the article:

    That does a pretty good job of summing it up. “Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

    There’s a lot of truth in that.

  8. 8
    tacitus

    It was a bit of a surprise to find out recently that my nephew, who is only 22 years old, already thinks of death in the same way as Roger Ebert. I have to admit that I am less sanguine about the prospect of death — I would be perfectly happy if science found a way to extend the human lifespan a few decades before I die, though I am fully aware of the pressures and problems such a discovery would cause on society, so it maybe that it’s not something one should really be hoping for.

    I also wouldn’t be particularly unhappy if I found out that death wasn’t the end of my existence. As an atheist, I do not expect it, but I am also certain that the Stone Age concepts of Heaven and Hell are nonsense, so I don’t fear that possibility.

    But mostly, I don’t think about it, and I suspect that’s how most people deal with the issue, unless and until they are faced with their own mortality. I thought I was in that situation back when I was in my mid-30s, and frankly, didn’t handle it very well (with the exception of not for a moment turning to religion for comfort). Hopefully, I will handle it better next time around, when it happens for real.

  9. 9
    juice

    Sure the Mark Twain quote is clever, but for billions and billions of years before you were born, you weren’t alive to appreciate life and to possess the will to live. Once that happens, death (IMO) is the most horrible thing in the universe. Death is absolutely the most horrible thing in the universe.

  10. 10
    tacitus

    Death is absolutely the most horrible thing in the universe.

    Well, that’s certainly not true, as anyone suffering from a painful terminal (or even non-terminal) illness will tell you. Many welcome death as an end to suffering.

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