On fearing death – why does it matter?

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I can’t remember specifically when, but for a some time when I was younger, perhaps around my early grade school years, I would start tear up a little each time I went to bed. My dad would come in to say good night, and when he did, my tears would become stronger. He would notice my sadness, and in his comforting, caring tone, he’d ask,

“What’s the matter?”

“I’m afraid for when you die,” I’d timidly say.

I can’t remember what my dad would say in response to this, but whatever he said was enough to get me to calmly go to sleep. I guess nighttime was the time I saw best for confronting the nature of my parents’ mortality. Is this normal for the common seven-year-old? Keep in mind, I wasn’t forced to do this – both of my parents were healthy, along with my sisters, and most of my extended family as well. We didn’t really have many health issues in our family outside of those seen as “due to old age.” This is surely not the case for many, many children in this world – too many children are forced to confront the nature of their parents’ mortality all too soon in life.

I brought this story up in class last week, because the topic of class was simply, “Death.” This module, titled “Illness,” is where we try to take the idea of illness and examine illness’ place in society as a philosopher would. The first of a few readings we were assigned for this class was Epicurus’ letter to Menoeceus where Epicurus speaks, among other things, on the idea of fearing death, and what it means to think of death as being good or evil.

Epicurus tries to speak about why humans tend to fear death, and speak to why it might not be rational to fear such a thing. Pulling a quote from Epicurus:

“Death…is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”

Here we see that, considering two possible states (being dead or alive), we can’t really fear death as death itself, simply because we might cease to exist when we die, hence we cannot be present to do the fearing death. This isn’t necessarily contradictory to many religious beliefs, I think – in the Catholic tradition, life is found in death, hence I don’t really think Catholics (I can’t really speak much to other religions) believe in true death, but only physical death; Catholics believe in the eternal life of the soul. Going further, the only conclusive thing I can say about death are these words: “I don’t know.” I don’t know what lies on the other side of the passing of my body, I don’t know where my mind or soul goes.

If we take Epicurus’ words to be true, we might be able to say that it’s not rational to fear death. However, I was speaking with a classmate after this week’s session and she drew the distinction between the idea of fearing death as being reasonable versus rational. The distinction I’d like to make here is that while it might not be rational to fear death, it might wholly be reasonable. This idea hinges upon the mere fact that we are social beings, and live in relation to others. Since I really, honestly don’t know when my death will come, and I won’t actually be able to know that I am existing “in death” (again please don’t construe this with ideas noted in whatever religion you might hold), then I really shouldn’t worry about life for my own sake. What I should worry about, though, is my life in relation to others, and others’ lives in relation to mine. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to fear the death of those I love, because if they leave this earth, or this realm, there would be nothing in this world that could fill the gaping hole in my heart and soul that their exiting would create. I have yet the capacity to experience their absence, and that absence would undoubtedly cause me to suffer as a result.

I chose my words carefully in that last sentence, because the term “suffering” is an interesting one. Oftentimes, especially in biomedicine, suffering comes in tandem with pain (patient X is experiencing pain and suffering due to Z). However, after exploring the idea of suffering in class, it can’t really be said that all pain leads to suffering, nor that all suffering comes from pain. Suffering, in a broader sense, can be caused by all sorts of things in life, or simply by life itself. The loss of a loved one, a hard breakup, not getting that dream job… What I think I want to believe is that death is not the greatest evil in this world, rather it is the suffering that comes with death, or more generally, that suffering is something that we can rationally fear as humans.

Suffering consists not only of the item that caused its existence (pain, death, etc.) but also of a unique temporal element. That is, suffering exists only in a narrative of life – of past, present, and future. If we think ourselves as suffering, then we usually know when the suffering started, and hope for when the suffering will end. Some might say that suffering is a good thing, as it builds character – however I would only agree with this if we can reasonably see that our future holds a time when the suffering we experience now will not exist.

Without hypothesising any more on suffering, I want to turn towards biomedicine and the motives that drive biomedicine into such a high role in today’s society. It seems as though the role of biomedicine today is ultimately to stave off impending death, to relieve us of our mortal duties as humans, to keep us living as long as possible. I often turn to the concept of a quality adjusted life year, or the QALY. Yes, this time is adjusted for “quality” and not merely years lived – living off of a ventilator for 20 years, incapable of speaking or moving around, might in fact be worse than one year of being medically unhindered. However, the QALY is still attached to time – the QALY, and therefore our objectified goal in medicine, is temporally dependent. Why this dependence?

I could imagine that one might want to extend her life because this gives her the opportunity to make longer, more meaningful connections to others, to leave a lasting impact on this world, and to effect change in the best way possible. We live for the future, we prepare ourselves for what might happen later on in life, and what we might be able to do with one more degree, with a little more work experience, or with a little more time spent in connection with others. I can’t argue against having more time spent with loved ones, but bear with me here and take that idea to the extreme. What if we had eternity to spend with others?

If I had eternity to spend with my family, I might just pass up an opportunity to hang out with them for, say, another opportunity to go out and meet new people. However, strictly because I do not have eternity to enjoy my loved ones’ company, I might want to spend a little more time cherishing what time I do have with them. In this sense, our mortality, and its temporally limited nature, allows us to really cherish the relationships we have because we never really know when they’re going to end. Furthermore, if we spend all of our time fearing the end of our relationships, we would never have the time to really enjoy them in the present moment.

I’m going to leave the conversation there for now. I do want to talk more about the goals of biomedicine and the role that suffering and death play, but this would require many more words, and a lot more thought and time. I’ll also use that time to ponder more on suffering, and how to actually tackle this idea philosophically. In other words, I’m going to devote an entire blog post to the matter instead of tacking it onto this post.

~~~

Life update: we’re into reading week, so I don’t have class this upcoming week. I have a few things planned:

  • To play in the house band at Phineas on Tuesday night
  • To see a West End show on Wednesday night – The Exorcist (getting my socially necessary dose of Halloween activities in a little later than usual)
  • To go see a BBC jazz live recording session this coming Friday
  • To start (and finish) my first political philosophy paper (wish me luck)
  • To go visit a few museums in London (I just got a national art pass, so I have no excuses now!)

 

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One thought on “On fearing death – why does it matter?

  1. When Mike Jr. was about 5 someone on the school bus told him that his parents would die someday. He asked me with tears in his eyes if it was true. Death is devastating. I think loosing my dad, your grandfather, was probably the hardest thing I went through in life. Your mom and I were both 3 months pregnant at the time, and I was afraid I might lose my baby due to emotional grief. That’s how Robert was named after my dad, because we lost him that year. I really think having to care for a newborn baby helped me to stay busy and not be consumed with thoughts and memories about my dad. I don’t think we fully get over grief, because the death of a close family member forever alters your life and your perception of life. Somehow, with God’s help, we learn to manage our feelings and find strength to go on.

    Like

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