Saturday, September 19, 2015

Can we learn to die purposefully?

Read this article.  "Slipping Away" It is a terrifying life log of a young man with an incurable disease. See yourself in one of the two main roles of the story. Take a very long breath. Hope that your life will not make you live either role, then read my thoughts born out of imagining that nightmare.

Naturally, genetically we are programmed to live, almost at any cost. We spend all our life even before day one practicing staying alive. In most culture the "will to live against all odds" is glorified. If one said "life is overrated" one would probably be judged either suicidal or mentally unbalanced. But, perhaps, could we learn to be less attached to our own life to be better people, better siblings, parents, children to our counterparts in those relationships? If we could learn to value our lives less for ourselves and more for them?

It is lost in the darkness of history and of the history of phylosophy, forgotten in our modern cultural make up, but this is not a new idea. The Stoics beginning in the 3rd century CE elaborated a concept of a "virtuous life" where self sacrifice is ethically appropriate under specific, objectively definable circumstances.

(From Wikipedia) The Stoics accepted that suicide was permissible for the wise person in circumstances that might prevent them from living a virtuous life.[22] Plutarch held that accepting life under tyranny would have compromised Cato's self-consistency (constantia) as a Stoic and impaired his freedom to make the honorable moral choices.[23] Suicide could be justified if one fell victim to severe pain or disease,[22] but otherwise suicide would usually be seen as a rejection of one's social duty.[24]

In this context, is it moral for us to "use" another person's life to our advantage as "loving caretaker" if we cannot live a normal life without imposing a change of life to someone for the continuation of our own?
Of course, the "caretaker" may gain from the relationship a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction of a love commitment, BUT that is their perspective.  And surely no one but us are entitled to recommend what we should do with our life.
BUT for our judgement of ourselves and of our "virtuous life", is it ethical, is it moral to depend on others to  the point of upending their life for our continuing existence?

One thing is to understand, and even agree, with a philosophical argument, it's all another to live by it, let alone to die by it.

So, the question is: Is there a way to mentally train for Stoic Living/Dieing if a circumstance as the one in the post referenced above occurs? How could we develop the stoic character and mental lucidity to exit the stage of our life before we lose the ability to independently take action? Before we become burdens to our loved ones? Many US states and EU countries have "death with dignity" statutes, but hell may set in for the "caretaker" long before the "end of life" parameters of the laws permit action.

This is no idle question if we consider that the old-age dependency ratio sees a rapid increase between 2010 and 2030, from 22 to35, and Alzhainer's will be a global epidemic by 2050  We owe our children and spouses to consider this matter. When all other diseases like cancer, ALS, MS, etc. are included, the odds that we may become bombs waitng to explode (slowly) next to our loved ones are far from trivial. Ask yourself how may instances of family and friends that have cared for terminal lovedone have you heard of in the last year or two?  Which of two hells would prefer to be in: sick one or caretaker? Why not you? Why not me? Of course it can happen, easily enough. What is the ethical thing to do?

In reality the loving caretaker (you?) has very little psychological latitude to walk away unless the relationship was busted to begin with. So, that leaves the "terminal patient" in charge of selecting the outcome. That is why to Stoics this would be a moral and ethical issue: should one impose his life priority onto another?

So much for philosophy. In practice, how can one train in advance to look at one's own life with sufficient detachment to call it quits when subsistence at someone elses cost becomes the only option?

Firemen and policemen train to take enormous chances to save lives knowing that they may lose teirs. Soldiers frequently show the willingness to take a bullet to save their buddy, secret service do it daily for POTUS and First Family members, missionaries and aid personnel take a risk for a cause.  All train to take a high risk to lose their life for a highher purpose.  None actually get to the point of purposefully and coldly sacrifice themselves for another's quality of life, not life, quality of life. Yet that is what I think we need to train for - before, perhaps long before, we become totally dependent, when we can still evaluate clearly the impact of our existence upon others, that's when we must be able to open the exit door and serenely walk through it for a higher purpose.

My father, in 2008, was diagnosed with leukemia and was told that to stay alive for any length of time to fight it, he had to get on kidney dialysis first, which would have made him an invalid dependent on my mother. For her sake he refused and died in 48 hours. I never got to ask him how he trained to become able to make such a decision so calmly and objectively. I was there to watch him go, supremely calm and sure about his decision. I just don't know how he got to that state of mind.

Perhaps he got it from studying the behavior and culture of Inuit, Eskimos (and probably other cultures) who take it for granted that when the time is reached where the individual can no longer "contribute" to their social group (family, clan) then it is time to go sit on the ice in the night and let one's spirit go. Are the end of the ability to contribute and the beginning of dependence one and the same?

As a society with ever increasing life expectancy we also must prepare for the consequences (diseases) of old age and what they can do not to us but to our loved ones. Should we start steeling our nerves for it, as the Inuits, long before that crucial time comes?

With a subject where there cannot be answers right for all, all comments are necessary and welcome in the search of a little wisdom. I look forward to your comments.

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