Views of life-death
Feb 18, 2012
Note: this piece is the first in the life-death series, the second of which was published here on April 17, 2012. This one was composed out of three separate posts two-three years ago. It sets the problem subsequent life/death posts will address. It was published on the Kings Tribune website on the date above and in the magazine's march 2012 issue.
"You're driving down a road in the desert, and the engine suddenly stops. .. no Pep Boys, no Auto Club to help. Whether the road continues is of no consequence. It has ended for you."
This is Edward Schniedman, dead at 90 in LA, predicting his own death's nature. While death is death, what it means seems to be a matter of opinion. Even what it is seems so, too. So, I offer some views of death as my contribution to the debates and discourses about death.
I have a stake. I'm old enough (68) to know that I'm nearer the end of my term than its beginning. I've outlived my father and his father by 4 years. I'm pretty clear I want to die when I want to, if I can, and have taken steps to encourage that possibility.
I share this view and intent with my wife. We've signed the necessary papers to ensure that the 'life support' technologies are turned off, or left off, if we're incapable of being consulted. Some things stand in the way of complete confidence they will be turned off, mostly others with other meanings to death, who may want not to accept what I have legally decided. Their meanings of life give different tones to death from mine. Some of those differences are catastrophically confronting for people like me. This is the terrain of naturally fundamentalist thinking in fact, not merely in faith or theory. The resurrected are only seen in faith tracts and films. How can I understand this better, and maybe them, too?
The purchase of assuredly effective means to end my life cleanly, with minimum clean-up required of any others is, however, not legally available. I do not want to count on under the counter substances with uncertified contents, etc. I would be happy to engage with a variety of safety requirements, especially ones aimed at ensuring the drug(s) cannot be accessed by anyone other than me. This would require a regime somewhat like the Swiss one portrayed in the Pratchett video. For a local perspective, see the Victorian branch of Dying with Dignity FAQs here.
Some initial takes on life-death
These views on life-death are undertaken with wonder at the difficulty of the task of making sense of death, and life. The counter point is my emotional wrenching by the uncertainty of fulfilling my preference for choosing my own death time, as much as that is possible. These are matters where perspective is nearly all in the struggle to give judgment a sustainable foundation. Here are some first takes. They do not pretend to be complete.
There is my notion of a 'good death'. Dying on one's own kitchen floor or over-night in bed, as one of my parents did, qualifies for this label. In some pre-modern societies there was an understanding that one's time had a limit and making way for others was both necessary and honourable. Another 'good death' may be that at home with more or less extended periods of relatively painless decline and social intimates present continuously on the way. The fact of dying attracts moral attentions of every imaginable sort.
The climate for dying
Second, we have the increasing squeamishness of late modernity about any perceived damage to the self, driven by an implicit assumption that we can be protected from all imaginable dangers (see some of the submissions to the Victorian Royal Commission based on assumptions that the actual 2009 bushfire conditions could have been foreseen and planned for comprehensively).
A handmaiden of this aversion to the material tribulations of everyday life is the philosophy of 'nice'. Be nice; don't trouble others; adjust your thinking and feeling to not confront anyone, even unintentionally.
'Nice' has been enhanced by the actions of the damages lawyers and the health marketing fraternities. The latter sell hopes of endless life and instant recoveries (you deserve a lineless face or pot-less gut as much as you deserve a Gucci or a Ferrari) from the costs of living (obesity, wrinkles, varicosities and lost hair among them).
The lawyers sell (actively marketed these days) reprieve from perceived slights to soul and self which have been legally or administratively excluded from polite discourse. Defence against bullying grows into defence against anything "uncomfortable" like a different perception of our workplace worth from our self-perception – the foundation of performance management, or learning! Warnings of the dangers of overhanging limbs and maybe fallen rocks compete with trees for attention on our highways.
So, we are not to see death or damage in public. My ex-countrymen – Americans - take this even further by banning the showing of those dead from defending the country. The Pratchett video mentioned above received 800 objections to the fact it showed, without flinching or inflating, the last breaths of the patient's life! In case we might be overwhelmed by reality, our TV stations all prepare us for possibly disturbing images.
Nor should we even speak disturbing images. Our public servants are trained (I assume; why else this tortured rhetoric and toneless, robotic delivery by cops and docs and pols?) to say anything but 'dead', 'body' or similarly explicit language. Rather we are given 'the deceased' who 'passed on' (just to somewhere else?) or more grimly 'passed away' (finality is acknowledged), or, more evasively, just 'passed' (like a train in the night?). Yet all are considered "tragedies" that befell "victims" (with the exception of publically recognised crims and malefactors) in print, on screen and in the mundane discourse of our neighbourhoods.
Demographics and politics of life-death
The demographics of life-death are this: a few (about 20 %) of the electorate in Australia are prepared to fight (to the death?) to preserve the right of every conception to come to term and every adult to be constrained from dying on their own terms, assisted or not. This 20% achieve a larger electoral influence than their numbers warrant because the total field of voters is finely poised between the major parties. Small factors shift small margins in finely poised electorates. Electorally true and ethically incorrect.
The facts of death – who, how many, when, but not often how or why – are available daily, along with births. With one exception: suicides, successful and attempted, are seldom reported unless unavoidable and even then only implicitly (notably death by train). So the fact that we begin and end are matters of public record, presumably because enough of us are interested to warrant the use of space that might otherwise be sold for ciggy and alcopop ads. We cannot meaningfully speak of death or birth separately without being in denial of the absent partner – we are living-dying beings; we live for a while. However long we do, it never amounts to how long we have not existed. Hence I talk of life-death.
In addition, the boundaries are a bit suss on both ends. For example, where does IVF fit with naturally occurring conception; similarly where does life support machinery fit with naturally occurring death. Notice that neither of these options is available to the poor anywhere. Some of the poor some places do have the chance to sell a part of their biological resources to the rich (comparatively) elsewhere, giving them a surrogate participation in others' longevity. As the Everest example below highlights, human rights are easily over-ruled by specific disabling circumstances, plus variations in courage (or, as I'd have you think, variations in need for martyrdom, which is just a label for a split-second decision). This is also the land of everyday hospital triage under disaster conditions.
A program of explorations
I hope, after building various views of life-death, to arrive at a place where fully rounded treatments of life-death issues can more often be achieved. To do so would mean, for example, considering all specific issues in the context of the materially and socially enabling factors through which any resolution is constructed. In other words, to use consistently the biopsychosocial construct on which some evidence-based medicine attempts to stand for all life-death matters.
So here are some views of life-death to come in this series. The first I have elaborated a bit to give a sense of the material argument. The other six are skeletal images. The order is not assured, nor are the topics guaranteed as stated. I'll be learning as I go and that may change my overall perspective and the features in its view. Reader suggestions welcomed!
Extreme sports and....the permeability of rights in pursuit of meaning – some examples:
Cathy O'Dowd's Rewind 1999 piece in Sunday Life (24 May '09, pg. 30; Melbourne) included a report of her passing by a dying woman on the north face of Everest. "The general public don't get this: they think, 'As long as she's alive, you can't leave'. But they live in a world where you can call the police or an ambulance. You can't do that on Everest."
High risk sports - like sky diving, paragliding, bungee jumping , base jumping - have been around since lion-baiting was the entry price for manhood in sub-Saharan hunter-gatherers.
In Australia we have our own sport: binge drinking - specialty of the young and younger olds, with death dealing potentials and fulfilments every weekend. These are called "tragedies" when they are merely excesses of youthful riskiness.
Beginning of life and ...rights to life. The IVF opportunity and challenge
'Normal' end of life and... is death for embracing or defeating?
Martyrs, those who serve and the costs of justifiable violence
Suicide attempts, successes and failures...irretrievable meaning statements
Choice – what can we really choose, how much should we choose?