The contemplation of one’s own mortality frightens many people. To be more specific, people are fearful that their death will be painful, prolonged and difficult. I don’t like pain either. I mean physical pain, like from disease or injury. Psychological pain, emotional pain and painful crises of the spirit are things no one can avoid, and I think those may even promote growth as part of our process of maturation. But people can and do hope to be spared from unnecessary physical pain. That’s why people pray for a quick death, even if they can’t bear to say such a thing out loud.
We judge the rightness or wrongness of a death depending on who has died, and in what circumstances. If a person has lived whatever we consider to be a sufficient number of years, we don’t tend to be as upset when they die. We say things like, “Their time had come.” In previous periods of history when life expectancy was much shorter, people would have said this if you died at 50. If someone we consider too young dies however, it’s upsetting and sad, and difficult to accept. It doesn’t seem fair. I don’t think the process of death really has a justice quotient attached to it. Bodies are machines. Machines break, break down and cease to function, and at some point they can no longer be repaired or maintained.
People who have not studied statistics may hold unwise hopes about life expectancy. I think people don’t realize that the mathematical calculation of life expectancy is entirely based upon the rate of infant mortality. Throughout most of history, most people who died did so as infants or as children. If a person managed to survive into maturity, they were much more likely to live an “entire” life. People who died of old age in the 15th century got just as old as people who die of old age now. They had centenarians too. Yes, access to medical care and technology does have an effect, but not nearly as much as people think, at least not in the statistical sense. Mathematically speaking, we have so many more old people now only because we have so many more PEOPLE, period. More importantly, a greater percentage of us survive to maturity.
No matter what medical and nutritional technology we come up with, human bodies break down and stop working in vastly greater numbers after age 70. I’m not going to bore you by inserting the charts here. Let me put it this way. If the curve were equal to the drop angle of a roller coaster you were riding in, you had better be strapped in real good. We can’t prolong life. What we can have an effect on is the quality of life during whatever time we’ve got. That’s where exercise, eating well and access to good medical care count. Nothing will prolong your life (with any significant quality) beyond the expiration date stamped into your DNA. What we are learning more about is how to be healthier and stronger for more of that time.
Death can not be conquered. This is a truth worthy of long contemplation. Because death can’t be banished from your life, why not make a friend of it? The reaper is going to be there whether you like it or not. Smile at death, in the knowledge that death is an end to physical pain. Since I adopted this attitude of friendliness toward death, it has been easier for me to be helpful and comfortable with those I know who are dying. I still want to fight unnecessary pain wherever I see it, but I know death isn’t my enemy. Despite any beliefs I might hold or guesses I might make, I do not know what happens after death. Death brings relief from pain. For now, that’s enough to know.
Have you faced death?