Thursday, July 3, 2014

On the Matter of Life and Death

By Michael DiBello

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy provides a chilling and sobering tale of death. Ivan Ilyich is caught up in the everyday routine of what most would consider a patently ordinary life. His main concerns are everyday problems and affairs. He holds an unreflective stance towards death, perceiving it as a simplistic event experienced by the other, not himself. Yet, that all changes when he begins to die. He grapples deeply with the meaning of life, suffering, and death. Questioning the core of his being, he starts to doubt how well he had actually lived his life and experiences an agonizing death.1

For me, the novel raised several important questions, including: Can we truly live well and meaningfully without thoroughly reflecting on our own mortality? What, if anything, can be done to prevent deaths like Ivan Ilych's and other so called “bad deaths”?

People can live similar lives and die similar deaths. Nonetheless, just as every individual lives in a way fundamentally his own, everyone has a unique encounter with the specter of death. We can die quickly or slowly, painfully or painlessly, in denial or with acceptance, of old age or by accident, bitter or satisfied; the list of descriptions can go on and on.  Most people, when asked, could probably come up with an ideal conception of how they would like to go. While some undoubtedly experience a serene and graceful passing, surgeon Sherwin Nuland explains in How We Die that this is rare. Sadly, a norm for the end of life has become futile life support and unfamiliar doctors and nurses.2 Perhaps educating ourselves on what we can more realistically expect to happen to us in the dying process can not only minimize physical suffering but also allow us to appreciate and reflect more deeply on what we distinguish as valuable and important in being a person. Indeed, what tortured Ivan Ilyich was that it was too late for he, himself, to think about what death really meant and hence, what life really meant.

How often do we really think of death in terms of ourselves? The philosopher Martin Heidegger was concerned that conceptualizations of death separate it from the self and are inauthentically placed in the public domain. He argued this was evident through linguistic expression that reduced death to an event that happened to “one” or “they”. As he says, “dying is not an event, it is a phenomenon that should be understood existentially… by its very essence, death is in every case mine, insofar that it ‘is’ at all.”3 Heidegger asks the question: Why is the concept of “dying” only utilized in the context of imminent death? In Being and Time he introduced “being towards death” as a philosophical idea.3 This means that dying is something happening all of the time to everybody, most importantly to oneself, not just to specific people at specific times.

Popular media and culture surrounding medicine play powerful roles in attitudes about death and dying. The latest reports about miracle drugs, while in some ways encouraging, may unconsciously cultivate unrealistic expectations about sustaining life when death is inevitable. These and other technological advances can give the illusion that dying is something we can control and have a choice in, or that the process can micromanaged. It is hard to deny that choice has become an integral part of the dying process in modern medical culture. A plethora of choice can foster hope for people in many medical situations. While hope can bring deliverance, false hope can bring suffering. Nuland explains that doctors (and the patients they influence) may tend to see death as something that must be conquered at all costs, as something for science to overcome. Unfortunately, he says the process devolves into a “puzzle” that must solved, far removed from real human emotions and needs.2

Ars moriendi, or the art of dying,2 perhaps is the type of paradigm shift that is needed regarding mortality. Death should not be avoided at all costs, yet it should not always be readily accepted without medical intervention. It is an ambiguous, complex phenomenon that is not conducive to pure ideologies. Just as the artist does not look to science when he paints a canvas, one need not look to science to engage in an intensely personal experience. Doctors and other healthcare workers need not be the only “experts” on dying. Perhaps, ironically, grappling with the nature of mortality and what it entails can be healthy for an individual's sense of personhood. For example, upon learning he was terminally ill, Australian philosopher Julian Young was so inspired that he wrote three books in four years. A terminal patient describes a new-found vividness: “To live in the bright light of death is to live a life in which colors and sounds and smells are all more intense, in which smiles and laughs are irresistibly infectious, in which touches and hugs are warm and tender beyond belief…”.3

Henry David Thoreau may teach a further lesson on death and dying. A great thinker, social activist, and naturalist, he was clearly full of passion for the extraordinary life he lived. However, if we are to trust his comments in midst of a terminal disease, it is clear he gave quite a bit of consideration to his own mortality: “When I was a little boy I learned that I must die, and I set that down, so, of course, I am not disappointed now. Death is as near to me as it is to you”.3 

1. Tolstoy, Leo, and Richard Pevear. The death of Ivan Ilyich and other stories. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Print.
2. Nuland, Sherwin B.. How we die: reflections on life's final chapter. New York: A.A. Knopf :, 1994. Print.
3. Barry, Vincent E.. Philosophical thinking about death and dying. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2007. Print.

Mike graduated from Northeastern University in January 2014 with a major in biology and a minor in ethics. He is interested in a wide range of issues in bioethics and how they are applied in today's world.  

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