Sunday, August 7, 2011

Thinking about dying

There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew
that cultures decay, and life's end is death.
Robinson Jeffers The Purse-Seine, 1937

Charles Fiterman on facing death.
Beliefnet Discussions - "I have bladder cancer and was given 6 to 18 months. I think I'm facing it fairly well. I ask daily what am I doing with my time that justifies the pain and expense and inconvenience to others of going on. When the answer becomes bad enough I will do the right thing." Written on 2/25/2005.

 Charles died June 19, 2005 at The Palliative Care Center & Hospice of the North Shore, 2821 Central St., Evanston, IL 60201. Hospice care is not a death panel, it is a death option. It should be a basic right for all people.


 As a youth with a lifetime ahead one has plenty of life to waste even if one is vaguely aware that death is somewhere ahead and final. So one wastes it discovering what is of transient value and what might be of more value to self and society. In midlife one is so busy with creating value for self, family and society that thoughts of the end of life seldom intrude.

 Accepting the reality and finality of death, does not lead at all to fear of dying today or any day. When the time comes that the mind and body cannot maintain their integrity they will cease to function. In the meantime there are many things that a person needs to do to affect the society of which hesh is a part to make that society more human friendly. Some of those things will have lasting effects, some perhaps will have none, but all are important reasons for living today, and as long as one can affect others in the society.

 After the creative torch is passed to children and/or the creative successors at work, 50 is as good an age as any, that the end of life becomes apparent and one reflects on the contributions one has made, and what still is left to be done to help those carrying on the legacy. Telling stories about life lessons learned is a common solution, either live if one is fortunate enough to have the successors nearby, or in writing if not. Self-published books whether they have surprising impact far beyond their intended audience of friends and family, or which languish on shelves to be discovered by a later generation are all important. The value is in the creation, not the result.

 I know of one atheist who is struggling to stay alive to finish volume IV of an immigrant's life story that is resonating with another immigrant from a different country in a different era. Worthless? Easing into death? I think not. But the pressure of impending death is powerful, and the work left to be done is reason enough not to go quietly into the night.

 Death might well be described as a condition when affecting others is no longer possible. It is nothing to fear, if one has affected others properly they will carry on the task of making society a better place for humans, and life in the larger sense goes on, even though the no longer useful individual is not a part of it.

 Today I can see people I have affected taking the society to places I cannot conceive, but which I approve of. Whether I die today or some day in the future I am content. But I am not finished affecting others in my society. So until the time comes when I can no longer do so I will continue to live my life so that it is worth dying for. Thanks, Forrest Church.

 Just recently I passed some advice from my father, a great athlete, to his great grandson who will probably not be a great athlete but who is trying to learn a sport for fun. Maybe my grandson didn't even listen, but the time I spent with the memories of my father and the love I still gave and received from him makes his death merely a release from the pain of the cancer that took his life."

 I would suggest that some people that are long dead are still creating meaning in the world today regardless of whether they ceased to exist at death or are entertaining God in Heaven. Homer, Socrates who influenced Plato through him the world, the human Jesus, Shakespeare, Monteverdi, Mozart, just to name a few. Even the apocryphal sweeper who was "building a Cathedral" or the scribe that wrote Timothy. As Lincoln, Luscomb and many others have said "There is no end to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit."

 There is incredible meaning to today and every day if you know the kid (maybe your own) you rescue from the barrio may make it to the Supreme Court. It is true that some days are wasted, either through lack of opportunity, or laziness, but you never wake up planning for that when you know that the days left are limited.

 I am not looking for immortality, which seems like emptiness forever to me. I would rather do what I can each day to affect my chosen society to make it better, more beautiful, and more livable for all in it. Some days are better than others but the meaning is in the attempt.

As Edna St. Vincent Millay affirms;

My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night.
But ah, my foes and oh, my friends
It gives a lovely light.
"First Fig" from A Few Figs from Thistles

 Possibly my favorite poem. How better to explain the value of a day in a finite life.

 Accepting the finality of death does not mean courting it. It simply means that eventually it will happen, and that nothing will follow. I have found that atheists in general avoid risky thrill activities because they know that death is the end. I have many things to do in my life to continue and build on things I have already done. I am in no hurry to finish, but if death came tomorrow or today, I am content that what I have done was worth dying for.

 An atheist would spend their last 24 hours if they are aware of the fact will spend the last day with friends and relatives giving and receiving love and thanks for all the joys and gifts received over the life of the dying person. This will be of great value to the atheist by making the end a wrap up of a long and meaningful life. Certainly there will be loose ends, but these will bequeathed in life rather than in some soulless will. I know this as a fact having experienced it twice. I know of but was not present at assisted suicides that were uniformly described as poignant but generally happy experiences for all.

 "I have been to many atheist 'Celebrations of the Life Of .....' There is no mourning. Death is the bookend that says the person's active contribution is over, but those who knew and loved herm remember and celebrate all of the contributions the deceased has made to their lives and celebrate the Legacy of the deceased.

 I have been to many Christian funerals, where mourners sing sad songs and hope against hope that somehow their prayers will help the dead avoid Hellfire and damnation. And also secretly hope that when they die they will also avoid Hellfire and damnation.

 The 'High point' in a Requiem Mass is always the Dies Irae. The day of wrath and anger when the trumpets will sound and the dead will be judged. It is always scary music: Pay attention sinners! Get right with God or Hell awaits! Kind of fun to sing, but I wouldn't want to be a believer in that wrathful God. I particularly like the Tuba Mirum from the Berlioz Requiem. The brass blares from the four corners of the hall "You are Damned" the chorus responds musically "I have hope?" The horns repeat, louder. "NO WAY." The chorus tries again. Again the horns deny. Finally the chorus gives up and joins the horns in the damning chord.

 It is for this that we gather at the death of a friend? No, thank you! I much prefer the celebration of a friend's Legacy: To contemplate all those volumes on the bookshelf that we can remember at will and share with others when appropriate or necessary."

The world began the day that I was born
and on the day I die the world will end.
Between these dates there will have been
matters of great importance.
John Dobbs

 I have no problem with the fact that the world began on the day that I was born. From my predecessors, alive and dead, I was left a rich legacy of a valuable space, filled with beautiful music and wonderful people. Many of those wonderful people are dead, some long dead, but I can still appreciate their art and thinking from their legacies. Each day I look forward to the exciting challenge of incorporating as much as possible into my space. I eagerly do what I can to make the space even more valuable. Then, with as much love as possible I pass it on to those who will pay it forward.

...there is nothing I can leave
on the final date
but a legacy of urgencies.
John Dobbs

 If I have lived my life well, and loved enough, there will be many around willing and able to deal with those urgencies."

 With the kind permission of Bob and Louise Decormier, and with my greatest respect and love: I will end with a poem by Louise's Father from a collection of the same name. 

John Dobbs

I leave you this space
which I have occupied

now clean as a vacuum
to hold short sorrow,
and brief remembering.

There are no shards,
no broken statuary.
I had no idols.

The proud thoughts
and the humble things
remain unshattered.

I leave you this valuable
and useful