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Facing death-1: Why think about it?

I have been thinking about death quite a lot recently. Circumstances have forced this topic to the forefront of my mind. Don’t get me wrong. There are no signs that any time soon I will be shuffling off this mortal coil, checking out, kicking the bucket, snuffing out the candle, or any of the other euphemisms we use to avoid the word death. As far as I can tell, my body is ticking along nicely.

So why dwell on death? It is because I have reached the age when the deaths of friends and other contemporaries, or the parents of friends, or friends of my parents, or even people younger than me, are no longer the rare events they once were. I am now older than the age when my father died suddenly of a heart attack three decades ago. My mother also died four years ago and the last few years have also seen the death or serious illness of relatives, friends, and colleagues.

Furthermore, those older people who had strong influences on me when I was younger (like teachers), and the icons of popular culture of one’s adolescence, who are usually ten or twenty years older than you and made lasting impressions when you were at an impressionable age, are also at the age where they are dying with some regularity. The daily obituaries regularly list actors, musicians, writers, politicians, and athletes, people whom one strongly associates with some aspect of one’s early life. They are now disappearing from the stage to be replaced by people with whom one does not share the same strong connection that one forms in the heat and passion of one’s youth. For people of my age, the deaths of James Garner and Paul Newman were far more poignant events than that of Heath Ledger or Michael Jackson, even though the former two lived long and full lives while the latter two died at tragically younger ages.

It used to be that the shock of hearing about such a death would slowly dissipate and be erased by other events. Now the passing away of a familiar name occurs with ever-increasing frequency, with news of a new death coming before memories of the old ones have faded away, resulting in thoughts of death always lurking in the periphery of one’s consciousness.

As a result, my own impending death is a topic that cannot be avoided and must be faced squarely. It is time to face up to my own mortality. In doing so, I realized that I am ready (more or less) for death. Let me be clear that I am not looking forward to death nor seeking it in any way. I enjoy life. It has been good to me and I will regret it when it comes to an end.

When I say that I am ready for death, what I mean is that I have come to terms with the fact that I do not have that many more years to live but that I will not think that I have been cheated in some way if I should die in the near future. I may have picked up this attitude from my mother who, when facing her own death from cancer, reassured me not to feel sad, saying that she had had a good innings (she was a cricket fan too) and was ready for it to end and that one must not be greedy and expect good things to go on forever.

While all animals have an instinctive avoidance of death, only human beings (as far as we know) have the awareness that it is inevitable and the ability to recognize the inevitability of their own end. So I decided to contemplate death seriously but not solemnly and write a series of posts on the topic.

Part of the reason for doing so is to help break the taboo over this topic. One thing that I find strange is the sense some people have, which is quite strong in America, that death at any age is something that has to be fought at all costs, staved away, and that one should try to squeeze every extra day of life that one can, even if that means going to extremes in terms of diet, exercise, medications, and extraordinary medical interventions. My belief is that this obsession with avoiding death is due to the fear of death.

People seem to be willing to endure serious compromises in their lifestyle and quality of life for the sake of increasing their odds of living just a little bit longer. I decided some time ago that I would not go that route. I would continue to live the life of moderation that I have always done, enjoying life by doing all the things that I have always wanted to do, and take my chances.

Perhaps the best way to end this first post in the series is show the closing scene from Woody Allen’s film Love and Death.

Comments

  1. says

    @ OP

    Perhaps the best way to end this first post in the series is show the closing scene from Woody Allen’s film Love and Death.

    My favourite would be Jacques Brel: Le dernier repas.

    I am having a school reunion soon. Although South African life expectancy is pretty crappy, I was told: “Sover ek weet is daar maar nog min in ons bos gekap.” (Afrikaans: “As far as I know there has not been much chopping (down of trees) in our forest.”)

  2. says

    It is an excellent song. I’m not sure, however, that we’re meant to admire the character singing it:-)
    Of all his songs about mortality and death (and he did a lot), maybe J’Arrive is a better pick for the ordinary person.
    But then, Brel played so many grotesques in his music that it’s hard to escape the thought that there was a little bit of the real performer in them.

  3. says

    the latter two died at tragically younger ages.

    Why are their deaths tragedies? They both died by choice (of a sort) – the tragedy is when someone who’s not doing something stupid with potentially lethal drugs suddenly gets a cancer, out of the blue. I had a friend who’s a health nut; lived a good life and enjoyed every minute of it, made sensible choices, then – whoops – mesothelioma. Bam.

    Someone playing russian roulette is also their choice; it’s not a “tragedy” if your number comes up in that case. Selfishly, I wish Jackson and Ledger had lived longer and made more great music and art for me, but their deaths were the consequences of their choices — which is more than a lot of us get.

  4. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Facing death-1: Why think about it?

    Why not?

    Believe it or not, I hope you will be around on this pale blue dot for along time to come too.

  5. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Getting older.

    Not much to say in its favour except it (usually?) beats the alternative. (Speaking from experience here.)

    Me, I want to live long enough to see Pluto unveiled close up by New Horizons. Probly longer too but that’s the first step of many.

  6. rq says

    “Putting down one’s spoon” is a local euphemism that I happen to like in particular.
    Death happens. Sometimes expectedly, sometimes less so, but always inevitably.
    Personally, I plan to stick around to read many more of your posts, so here’s to a good long and productive life for you!!

  7. Trebuchet says

    “Pining for the fjords”?

    @SteveoR

    Not much to say in its favour except it (usually?) beats the alternative. (Speaking from experience here.)

    “Usually” is probably appropriate. But there often comes a point when life is no longer “living”, as my wife and I have seen with all four of our parents in recent years. We don’t let our pets suffer through terminal illnesses, but people? Mandatory.

  8. moarscienceplz says

    One thing that I find strange is the sense some people have, which is quite strong in America, that death at any age is something that has to be fought at all costs, staved away

    I think maybe this happens because we USAians don’t really have a sense of the sweep of history. I’ve seen Brits talking about somebody that lived in the 16th century, saying,”back in his day…” with roughly the same tone as an American talking about the days before cellphones. It’s unusual for us to live in houses that are more than 50 or 60 years old, and it’s very unusual for us to live in the same house our grandparents lived in. So I think many Americans subconsciously think the universe was born and will die concurrently with ourselves. Therefore, we have a duty to live as long as possible.
    ;-)

  9. moarscienceplz says

    Rereading my previous post, maybe this also helps explain why so many Americans reject the idea of a universe that is billions of years old.

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