What is wrong with dying? II

I gingerly picked up on this topic a few years back. I recounted then that quite a few people I had discussed issues around dying with did not seem to have what is often taken to be a standard, egocentric sense of great loss that dying would seem, paradoxically, to bring. (It’s paradoxical because the dead person is no longer in a position to suffer the loses.) Rather, many people I had spoken to were worried about the harms and losses visited on those whom they would leave behind.

One conclusion might be to say that there is no one kind of bad thing about dying. What one doesn’t want to happen will depend on all sorts of other things. But what I have started wondering is whether there need be anything bad about dying. Might not one feel a complete enough individual with a quite good account of how one has used one’s talents and worked to overcome adversity that one could be rather content to leave now, or five or ten years hence. The point being that one feels one’s done a lot.

What happened to me to raise this question was that I had developed a very bad abdominal infection and had to have emergency surgery. It was close to life-threatening, and so I ended up reflecting on what it would be like had it actually been life threatening. “Well, whatever,” I thought, as I fell back asleep full to the gills with narcotic pain killers and intravenous antibios.

Because of those circumstances, I don’t for a minute want to make this about me or my life’s experiences, still less my accomplishes. Rather, I think that if one’s feelings are skewed by a lot of pills, one shouldn’t draw on them to reach a large conclusion. Still, it seems a sensible question that can be asked. Is there a sense of completeness that can leave one fairly calm in the face of death?

What about those one leaves behind? In the case of an older academic who agreed with Alva Noe’s view about stopping with one child, that child may have inherit enough to quite drastically change their control over their life’s circumstances. And one may be leaving one’s partner embedded in a supportive community.

In this case, is death so awful? My whole life I have thought of death as a pretty terrible curse. But need it be? Of course, death might be preferable to years of severe pain, but might death also be not to be feared in some fairly ordinary circumstances.

5 thoughts on “What is wrong with dying? II

  1. It’s interesting. Perhaps because I work in public health, I have some sort of inchoate sense that one “ought” to live till about 85 (the average life expectancy for a woman in my country) preferably in fairly good health, without putting too much strain on the health system or one’s family, and then die sometime after that, preferably peacefully in the arms of one’s family. I’m not saying it’s right, it just feels to me like an obligation of some sort.

    As to accomplishments – there I think you get into the vexed question of the gap between what one wanted to do, and actually achieved!

  2. A famous poem by Housman is on point here:

    Here dead we lie
    Because we did not choose
    To live and shame the land
    From which we sprung.

    Life, to be sure,
    Is nothing much to lose,
    But young men think it is,
    And we were young.

  3. The thought of being dead, i.e. no longer to be oneself, surely becomes less frustrating as age brings a sense of having achieved personal goals and/or helped in the achievement of wider social goals?.
    But the thought about how ones dies, the process of going from alive to dead, cannot but remain scary. There are so many painful ways to die, and not die instantly, but that takes minutes and maybe hours of sometimes agonising struggle.
    Who can be sanguine facing such thoughts?

  4. I’d be ok not dying if, for example, I were a lotus eater. I could be a fairly sophisticated lotus eater! If the world were pleasant for everyone and self sustaining and I were pleasantly retired and people kept producing food/books/music/plays/movies/etc., then hurrah! (I need for my physicality to keep reasonable.)

    I don’t think I have any life projects that I care about one way or the other. There’s so many things I though I’d do, that I’m pretty clearly not going to do, that I’m pretty meh about it. Not finishing my PhD dominated *so* much of my life and the problem it finishing it mainly solve was not having finishing it.

    And this takes me, again, to the Tractatus:

    The temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say, its eternal survival after death, is not only in no way guaranteed, but this assumption in the first place will not do for us what we always tried to make it do. Is a riddle solved by the fact that I survive for ever? Is this eternal life not as enigmatic as our present one? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time.

    I’ll note that this seem true for *other* peoples’ deaths as well. Their living forever does not necessarily fix our relationships or answer to what we need from each other.

  5. What no-one seems to take into account is that without death there woud be no room for new life, nor the materials from which it arises. The conscious fear of death (as opposd to loss, which is something quite different) seems only to arise in humans, & can disappear completely in certain circumstances. To be overly concerned about one’s own death is supremely egotistical, but alas, very human. Life, growth, death, decay & regeneration is the cycly of life, & in this sense, there is no such thing as death. It is only when the individual identity is considered more important than anything else that we consider ‘death’
    important. It is really loss that we fear, the loss of self, or of loved ones.

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