Sunday, December 06, 2009

Two Cheers for Lower Mortality

n Arnold Kling and Nick Schultz's From Poverty to Prosperity, they highlight the many ways life has become much wealthier, easier, better, than 100 years ago. A signature fact is that life expectancy has increased 25 years in the US over the past 250 years, and these stats are significant in Robert Fogel's nifty book The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100. Mortality stats are often given as prima facia evidence of a better life.

But, there is a downside. As mortality has gone down the preoccupation with death has gone up. Personally, I have experienced a small number of deaths, none of them of young people, as is typical. This leads to an unfamiliarity, and so it becomes scarier. The bestseller, Tuesday's with Morrie was supposedly all about how a learned man's dying was really about teaching a young Mich Albom how to live. I read it as a pathetic screed against dying, thinly masked against this hysterical objective. We have come a long way since Roman times, when defeated generals would regularly kill themselves in defeat, and a fallen gladiator would always present his throat to his adversary, accepting death (he was usually spared, however).

Death is so rare we think it unnatural, but it is necessarily as natural as being born. Given it is so uncommon and we generally don't believe in an afterlife, our fear of death is probably greater than it has ever been. Fear of death causes us to increase suffering to avoid death at all costs creating a further fear, the fear of the pre-death slide.

There's a neat scene in Marley and Me, where the old dog leaves the family because he knows he is going to die. The old dog knows how to die. One does one's best, and when the body gives, resign and accept this fact of life. Recently, an acquaintance noted his father was getting frail, and he and his siblings decided to force the widower into into a nursing home for his own good. After they informed him of their decision, and how it was in his best interest, he said, 'let me say goodbye to Billy', his pet goat. He then shot himself in his barn. This was seen by his pastor as a shameful end, but I think it rather stoic.

In our secular age, we think living is everything, and so doing everything to stop it is a good thing, but it's not. Regardless of motivation, facing death with equanimity is a sign of courage and wisdom, because it's hard to enjoy the present knowing you are going to be scared shitless with certainty in the future.

I don't want to die, but I also don't want to fear death, because via backward induction, it would imply I feel fear all the time. It's like competition: hating losing, but don't fear it; in this case, hate death but don't fear it. It is not the worst of all things.


Jennifer Collins Taylor said...

Thank you Eric for skillfully blending research, history, personal experiences and contemporary literature and film references about death and dying into this post.

I applaud your honest opinions and willingness to share part of your philosophy of life and death with the readers.

End of life conversation in a respectful dialogue is what matters most to me; and I'm glad you are not fearful of the conversation.

Your last sentence reminds me of a question that one of my hospice friends asks people: "Is there anything you think is worse than death?"

Anonymous said...

"It is not the worst of all things."

How d'you know? Have you ever died?

Anonymous said...

At least you're not afraid of death panels.

Anonymous said...

I'm all for reducing the mortality, at least from age related deaths, all the way to zero. I can't think of any reason that modern medicine should not be able to stop or even reverse the aging process, eventually. The mechanisms for repair are already in place we just have to learn how to use them. Of course, the operative word is "eventually" so no guarantee this problem will be solved in time to save me. Such a shame! It seems very likely that anyone, say, under 50 has a good chance to live a healthy life into their early 100's given scientific progress, so plan wisely.

As far as death, I don't think I fear it but it does leave a bittersweet feeling. Being alive is truly one of the most amazing and inexplicable facts, yet here we are. Knowing that some day I will be gone forever (and won't even know that I am gone) is another imponderable. The existentialists use death as a reason to bemoan or hate life but that is a mistake. I liken it to a dog or cat. We all get pets knowing that we will (hopefully) outlive them. And the pain of losing them does hurt but that hurt does not negate, undo or wipe out the real joy that we got from the pet. This principle applies to my ultimate value, my life, as well. The fact of my eventual death does not wipe out the value and joy of my life.

# 56 said...

Excellent post.