"There is need for some kind of make-believe in order to face death unflinchingly."
The best death, many feel, would be a quick, painless passing in one’s sleep. Others hope for family and friends at the bedside, with expressions of love all around. That's comforting to imagine.
But this brief piece is not about the best death. It’s about what I would consider the minimum for a good enough death. As I approach the beginning of my eighth decade this minimum has become exceedingly simple. Perhaps deceptively so.
A good enough death would not need to be a dignified one. It would not have to be suffused with mindfulness and equanimity. It would not need to center on the warm satisfaction from having loved well, or having been well loved. It need not include a comforting sense of continuity for family, humanity, or conscious life in general.
Of course I’m hoping my own death does indeed include all these qualities. It’s possible. But it’s more likely my last days will be spent in protracted submission to some merciless malady, dosed on opiates, mostly unconscious.
Could there be a "good enough" death even in that situation? From my perspective there could be, for it would need to include just one thing: courageous honesty about death itself. If on my deathbed there were at least some moments of consciousness, and if the simple acknowledgement "this ends here" flickered up briefly through the opiates, then that would be good enough.
What in that situation would not constitute a good enough death? Simple: a denial that "this ends here." Any delusion or self-deception that let me off the hook. Clinging to some idea of immortality, hoping against hope it actually exists.
Despite more than four centuries of scientific inquiry, there are still billions of people who, in Geoffrey Miller’s unsparing description, “. . . construct pathetic ideologies of self-comfort to plug their ears against mortal terror. They nuzzle into reality’s course pelt for a lost teat of supernatural succor.”
Christian and Islamic fantasies notwithstanding, a supernatural parent will not reach down at the end to scoop us up. Hindu and Buddhist fantasies notwithstanding, we will not be passed along magically by the less personal, but equally mythical mode of reincarnation. We will just disperse.
I reject magical versions of hope, but mine is not necessarily a counsel of despair. To some extent letting go of fantasized futures can liberate us. It can allow us to focus more fully and consistently on our living present, our one and only life. Perhaps, sensing more acutely the passing of this life, we may become more deeply mindful of its intricate, fleeting moments. We might find this, at least sometimes, to be enough. If not, it will have to do. Ultimately it's all we have.
It's not just true believers who would dispute my last contention. A certain brand of futurist would as well. The currently fashionable antidote to our fragile life is a newer vision of immortality, or at least life extension, emerging at the much publicized interface between technology and biology.
The techno-dreams included here range from the conceivable, such as radical genetic engineering, to the wildly speculative, such as downloading consciousness into computers. What impact any such dreams might have have on our eventual longevity is, to say the least, open to question. But they do at least suggest a thought experiment that might be of use to all of us right now.
What if extension became endlessness? If technology should ever offer an indefinite lengthening of life, we would face an impasse. Eternity would become unworkable. A sense of meaning in life, I suggest, depends upon the recognition of our eventual death.
Separate life from its end point, strip it of its intrinsic relation to finitude, and urgency evaporates. The sense of purpose dissolves. There would always be time for anything; hence, everything could wait. Furthermore, after endless years, anything one might do would seem just another version of something already done, many times, in the past.
In her novel "All Men Are Mortal", Simone de Beauvoir explores this notion skillfully. She portrays the nearly catatonic boredom and indifference that develops in an immortal man as he endures centuries of existence on earth. For those who yearn for immortality--in our world or some other--this is a cautionary tale.
Our death, our final dispersal, is more than just true. Given the structure of human consciousness, it is also in a sense necessary. We might rage against the dying of the light, but if dying should disappear, we might well come to demand it.