I have written previously about our risk-averse culture, and the obsession in public policy circles to eliminate even the possibility of any form of suffering, and that happiness may not be the be all and end all that we ought strive for, however, today I thought I’d wade even deeper into this matter, and deal with that great taboo – death.
With apologies to Rowan Atkinson, I find this rather morbid fascination with death quite disturbing. We seem to live in a society where death is the great be all and end all. Public policy seems to be geared in so many fields – and I’m not just talking about healthcare here – about the avoidance of death. As if it is the only thing that matters. As if there are no other considerations to take place or other factors to weigh. Apparently death is everything.
Except I’m not so sure.
Throughout history, cultures have been built around the concept that there are things far worse than death. Dishonour, for one (perhaps best exemplified by the Samurai culture in Japan). Our modern society scoffs at such notions, to hold one’s sense of being and the reputation one has as greater than life seems quite absurd. But is this really the case? After all, death is finite, but your name is immortal.
Perhaps a better case than Japanese Honour Suicides, however, is the history of martyrdom in the West. Whilst unfortunately now associated primarily with some rather reprehensible practices, it can not be denied that not only does the concept of the “good death” have a long role in Western civilization, but that for achieving centuries martyrdom was seen as one of the highest expressions of faith. For what greater thing could there be than to die for your beliefs? When atheists like Stephen Lansburg writes that he can not accept Christians as genuine as they exhibit fear of death… well… he kinda has a point. But this is a point that transcends religion – what greater end could there be for anyone than to die as a principled martyr, for your political beliefs or otherwise. In doing so, you achieve true immortality, not only for you, but perhaps for your cause. Surely such things are greater than life. And there is a way to die that is even better than life.
(This is perhaps why, although I personally oppose euthanasia, I have a lot more sympathy for its proponents than many on my side – the idea of wanting to die with dignity has something to it. In contrast with its proponents, however, I am unsure that the alleviation of suffering is necessarily the best argument in favour.)
At the risk of repeating myself ad museum, existing is not living. And dammit, at times, death is what makes life.
These thoughts, of course, would matter little, and would be confined to my own private life if not for the fact that the pathological fear of death has permeated our legislators so thoroughly that they are attempting to reshape all of society around it. Not content to allowing individuals to make up their own minds, they have decided to impose their terror of death upon us all.
And that’s ultimately the issue here. I would happily acquiesce to others living their lives in a bubble, free from all risks, and prolonging their existence as long as possible (their “life”, their choice), but they’ve started to impose this on me. And that’s a real problem. Because, dammit, there are things worth dying for. There is such a thing as a good death. And to simply say that we should focus all our resources on forestalling death – which, let us not forget, is inevitable, is just foolishness.
Whether you are a person of faith or not, I think it ought be self evident that, as with all things, there are trade-offs when it comes to the end of our existence. Ironically, when it comes to the final absolute, there are no absolutes. And, ultimately, it is death that makes life living.