Dignity in death can soothe survivors

By Tibor Machan: Syndicated Columnist

My friend David L. Norton, whose 1976 book “Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism” should have been more famous than any that John Rawls and other celebrities in the discipline of philosophy had written, wrote beautifully and wisely about aging.

He gave credit for the germ of his idea to the famous psychologist, Erik Erickson, but Norton developed the idea in far more philosophical terms than Erickson. It had to do with how one’s perspective on one’s life undergoes certain critical though natural and potentially enhancing stages in virtue of human nature itself.

One of the points Norton stressed is that a person with a good outlook on life will gradually come to terms with the fact that he or she will die and, while never abandoning the quest for living and, indeed, for thriving, such a person will not protest or concoct fantasies to manage impending death.

I spoke with Norton by phone about a week before he died of cancer, and he seemed to have been exemplary in how he dealt with his imminent death.

As I have been getting older, several family members and friends have died and, of course, I have been spending a tad more time reflecting on my eventual death. But I do remember when way back in my 30s I probably had the experience that readied me best for my own demise.

It was when a tiny kitten I had wanted to become our household pet suddenly developed some ailment and before anything could be done it expired while I held it in my left hand. The kitten was suddenly no longer there, only a dead kitten carcass, no real kitten at all. I noticed, though, that all was very peaceful with this dead kitten, very uncomplicated.

I believe it was then that I realized that provided there isn’t going to be too much unbearable pain or suffering, provided those close to me don’t go ballistic about it all, I should manage death quite well, thank you. Because by all I can figure and have gotten used to, have accepted in my bones by now, that after I die there will be nothing for me to think, to remember, to consider, to argue, to feel, to do. It will be the end of my life and, of course, of me.

Sure, there will be some remaining signs that I had been around, but that will not matter to me, only to those who care about what I have done, what I have meant to them. It is for those who care for me, who will have loved me, that my death will be a problem, not for me. And about this I may be able to do something, if I give them the most I can while I am still around, if I care for them and love them, too.

I might, also, be able to help them acknowledge that my being gone is not what should be focused upon, but that I had lived with sufficient dignity and joy that my life can be deemed nearly all that it could be. And that, I believe, ought to make them feel better, at least a little, after I have died.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at Machan@chapman.edu