Monday, August 10, 2009

Intimations of Mortality

Philosophers, because they tell the truth, are often hated. A philosopher will, after hearing me whine about having an incurable, universally-fatal cancer, tell me that there is nothing substantially different about us: we all live under a sentence of death attached to a date uncertain and should all live accordingly.

The assertion infuriates me. While being theoretically and logically correct, it incorrectly suggests a practical equivalence that simply isn't there. None of us, except for the future suicide or the death-penalty prisoner, knows the hour and minute of his death to a fine degree of certainty. People do die unexpectedly by trauma or natural causes. There are no guarantees. As the ancient logic says:
All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Therefore Socrates is mortal
Yet there is a plain fact to be considered: the likelihood of my dying sooner rather than later is statistically verifiable and greater by far than that of my annoying philosopher (unless he is likely to be murdered by his friends as was Socrates or is otherwise in The End Game himself). My higher probability of dying sooner is not simply pertinent: it begs the question of whether it is healthy for a healthy person to live as if his death could be at any time.

No one, no matter what they claim, lives as if his time were running out unless he knows it actually is running out. For one thing, that's when the Bucket List asserts itself. (See this post.) Although some may be able guess a few of the items, the items and their priorities on the bucket list don't become clear in advance. So short of a personal experience of A Christmas Carol, with visits from three spirits in a single night, no one is truly able to live their lives as if they could die at any moment. Turn, turn, turn.

History tells us that when some people truly think the world is ending, they give away their belongings to huddle together on a mountaintop to wait for the end. Neither I nor my philosopher is doing that!

Nor is there anything virtuous in living ones life as if today could be the last day. Look at the restrictions!
Begin and end the day in peace.
Buy only for today, own little.
Work for today if necessary, and finish your work.
Make no long-term plans, start no ventures.
No problems are upsettingly important.
Cherish nothing worldly.
And so on....
Or we can imagine being perfectly healthy except for feeling that we are going to die today, so we race around taking care of the last unfinished business, or get angry, cry a lot and throw things, or perhaps compose famous last words. Usually, however, the reality is that one is too sick to do much of anything on the last day but die.

Although in general I believe in fighting denial at every turn, being in denial of the possibility of imminent death is appropriate when the probability is low. In fact, for a normal person to to live so abnormally—as if today were his last when objectively it highly unlikely—is the very picture of a major psychiatric illness. Being at peace is always good, but so is advancing ones career or deciding to get married or raising a little righteous hell!

There is another point-of-view that I am reluctant to mention because it is really quite different. The Christian Divine might sound like the philosopher when he says, in one variation, we're are all the same because we are sinners and are doomed to eternal damnation unless we live in such a way as to satisfy the rules for gaining eternal life. Therefore, live life as if you could die at any time.

The difference lies in the requirement to follow the rules, whatever they may be, for avoiding the finality of death. The hitch is this: believers will also find themselves in the End Game, when they know death is truly coming but isn't coming right away. The end-game challenges I have been describing for months on this blog happen to believers in addition to whatever process is called for by their religious beliefs. End-game challenges are unique to every individual, and, when there's time, unavoidable.

The Penelope

PS: Has anyone told you we're in the same boat, death-wise, like my philosopher? If so, please tell me how you felt in comments.


  1. Hi Lonnie;

    Congratulations on your upcoming marriage.

    I enjoy your ruminations about mortality.

    My feelings: There are no rules. "You play; you win. You play; you lose. You play." Those are the last lines of a novel called, The Passion. I forget the author's name but it's a contemporary work.

    Good luck with the wedding.

  2. Lon, I, too, am infuriated when someone tells me "we are all in the same boat". How anyone can think this is comforting is beyond me..."when you have a terminal illness, let's talk", I want to say. I spend my time trying to push the unfortunate details from my mind, but they have a maddening way of creeping back in there. Still, I do feel blessed to have lived this long, and plan to keep going for a while longer.

  3. Kill the Philosopher! Then he'll stop making palitudinous remarks... I don't like thinking about your death, Lonnie, and I don't much care for thinking about my own... but I value your commentary - and wish you a longer number of days to enjoy doing more of it...

  4. My sister says occasionally, "Life is a fatal condition." She doesn't make such comments to us now that we are in this MM situation but many people, for lack of knowing what to say, do say the dumbest things. I cringe when they say them in front of Tim, then I bite my tongue HARD and remember that it is not said with malice just ignorance or discomfort. Gotta go look up the word "palitudinous" now.

  5. Oops - should have spelled it correctly - platitudinous - so sorry...

  6. Platitudinous- adj. dull and tiresome but with pretensions of significance or originality.
    GREAT WORD Sandy. I'm gonna add this beauty
    to my vocabulary. It describes several people I know(actually I'm related to them by marriage). ;o)

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