Human Exceptionalism

“The Last Great Act of Living,” or How My Dad Taught Me How to Live by Showing Me How to Die

The always wonderful Canadian bioethicist Margarette Somerville has a terrific and thoughtful article about dying, disability, and the great meaning that can be found in these times of difficulty. It’s a long piece and I can’t do justice to it–for that you will have to read it for yourselves. But we can present the gist as an appetizer.

She first identifies one of the driving forces behind the euthanasia movement. From her column:

Euthanasia allows people to feel that although they can’t avoid death, they can control its manner, time and place. It’s a terror reduction or terror control mechanism that operates at both the individual and societal level. So if we believe legalizing euthanasia would be a very bad idea, we need to develop and communicate other ways to deal with our fear of death.

An answer to terror is unleashing “the human spirit:”

It’s a term I use in a religiously neutral sense, in that it can be accepted by people who are not religious and those who are, and, if religious, no matter what their religion. By it I mean the intangible, immeasurable, numinous reality that all of us need access to in order to find meaning in life and to make life worth living; that deeply intuitive sense of relatedness or connectedness to all life, especially other people, to the world, and to the universe in which we live; the metaphysical–but not necessarily supernatural–reality which we need to experience to live fully human lives…

The key is finding hope:

Hope is the oxygen of the human spirit; without it our spirit dies, with it we can overcome even seemingly insurmountable obstacles…Even terminally ill people can have hope–what we can call “mini-hopes”–for instance, to stay alive long enough to see a grandchild born, to attend a daughter’s wedding, to see an old friend the next day or to see the sun rise and hear the birds’ dawn chorus.

But ensuring hope requires action from us:

We must accept old or dying people’s gifts, especially those gifts that are of the essence of themselves, recognizing that they and the person who gives them are unique and precious, as are their lives or last days on earth. In confirming the worth of these gifts we confirm the worth of the giver, and the old or dying person needs that confirmation.

Somerville concludes:

The challenge is to maintain death as the last great act of human life, a final human act through which we can still find meaning and, I suggest most importantly, pass meaning on to others. In other words, in our dying, we need to be given the opportunity to leave a legacy of meaning. .

I saw Somerville’s vision vividly brought to life when my father fell badly ill, declined, and then died from colon cancer. I watched an already wonderful man– grow. Through the crucible of failing health, Dad strived boldly to develop a secure sense of himself that had escaped him during his difficult youth, the horrors of war, and even the success of having become a mechanical engineer despite never having gone to high school.

As he struggled with cancer, he sat day after day overlooking his beloved cactus garden contemplating the meaning of it all. He had no formal religion, and kept his thoughts in this regard to himself. Once, when I asked him what he believed, he would only say, “I have my beliefs.” And he never lost touch with life. For example, this was the time when I was transitioning out of active law practice–foregoing a very good living for a time of great financial insecurity–and Dad was not amused. I was called to account and we had a profound conversation over a lingering lunch at a Pasadena restaurant about life and its purpose.

Dad had his bad moments, of course. And I am sure there were tears and fears he expressed in private to my mother. But mostly what I saw was fortitude. It didn’t come easily: He worked to achieve it, aided immensely by the gratitude he felt at being loved by family and friends. I saw him rally and experience a year of health his doctors said he wouldn’t have. And, when that time passed, I saw him decide to stop fighting and let nature take its course. Dad died in a Veteran’s hospital hospice on Lincoln’s birthday in 1984, a better man than he had ever been on the day that was his last.

The idea of assisted suicide and euthanasia wasn’t even considered by our family. At that time, it wasn’t even an issue in the public’s consciousness. But, there is no way Dad would have gone that route. He found his dignity, his transcendence, by finding hope and purpose in his dying, just as Somerville describes.

I only hope that when my time comes, I have it within me to emulate my father. This much I know: The way Dad died was the last of his many great gifts to me. I still love him so much and miss him every day.

(The photo is of my parents in 1945 upon Dad’s return from World War II)

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