On thinking about death

When I think about dying, which is all the time now, I sometimes wonder why I didn’t think about all this before. And wondering about why I didn’t think about all this before is only one tiny step away from wondering why everyone else isn’t thinking about it now.

Scott Alexander once pointed out that one of the scariest things about utilitarianism is how intuitive and sensible it seems until you actually look at the real world. If you confine your world to your friends, family and neighbours, you might be willing to incur small loses for the greater benefits of others. But when you think about what the world is really like, and not just what’s within your normal world, it becomes very demanding and scary.

He offers the following fable:

Imagine a happy town full of prosperous people. Every so often they make nice utilitarian decisions like having everyone chip in a few dollars to help someone who’s fallen sick, and they feel pretty good about themselves for this.

Then one day an explorer discovers a BOTTOMLESS PIT OF ENDLESS SUFFERING on the outskirts of town. There are hundreds of people trapped inside in a state of abject misery. The Pit Gods agree to release some of their prisoners, but only for appropriately sumptuous sacrifices.

Suddenly the decision isn’t just “someone in town makes a small sacrifice to help other people in town”. Suddenly it’s about the entire town choking off its luxury and prosperity in order to rescue people they don’t even know, from this pit they didn’t even know was there a week ago. That seems kind of unfair.

So they tell the explorer to cover the lid of the pit with a big tarp that blends in with the surrounding grass, so they don’t have to see it, and then go on with their lives.

But the thing about the world – the real world, the world we have now – is that there are actual things that are very much like bottomless pits of endless suffering. They comprise the developing world, the poor, the mentally disabled, the elderly in nursing homes, prisons, psychiatric wards, most hospitals, those dying in war-torn countries, and those ravaged by disease.

And while utilitarianism would be relatively easy if there were no bottomless pits of suffering, it’s damn hard in reality where these pits exist. And we can’t just cover these pits with tarps. First, these pits are not literal holes in the ground and they don’t make tarps big enough anyway. And moreover, we have a hard time being so deliberately callous. But what we do is not much better.

I don’t know what you do when you are asked to think about all the suffering in the world. But here’s what I do: I think about it for a bit, then say, “It’s a complicated problem, and there’s not much I can do about it.” But I never put actual effort in finding out how complicated the problem is or ever try to do much about it. I just repeat the “it’s complicated” mantra to myself every time the issue comes up.

My own dying is just one of millions. My own suffering is not worse than those of millions’ others. What I’m going through is relatively easy to contemplate, but even I flinch when I think about it. Much easier before when I didn’t have to think about dying at all. Now I’ve got no choice. I have to think about it. I can only imagine how hard it is for my friends and family to try to deliberately think about dying. That may come off as snarky, but it’s also sincere. (Can you be both snarky and sincere at the same time?)

People struggle with living their ordinary lives, and ordinary lives are not easy, with mortgages, taking care of children, looking for a job or an apartment, or worrying about whether you’re going to keep your job, worrying about your relationship with your spouse — those are real problems that are really difficult. And then you have to think about the fact that this Ken Chung, your friend, brother, son, cousin or nephew, is actually dying from cancer? DYING for chrissake! Of course, I’d rather be in your shoes than mine, unless you’re also in one of those bottomless pits or in one worse than mine. But it’s still hard, because most of your life, even though it’s normal, is still really hard, and we can only handle so many hard things at a time.

So here are some thoughts on how to relate to the dying, or at least to this dying person. If you can say something to me that is not cliché and sincere and kind, that’s amazing and incredible. Truly. But don’t ever feel guilty about saying something that is cliché to me. Even things like “You’re strong”, “You seem wise about all this”, “We have to enjoy the days we have” all mean a tremendous amount to me, even if I disagree and think I’m weak, unwise, and I have no idea how to enjoy what life I have left. You should know that you cannot pull me out of the pit I am in — my disease is incurable.1 All I ask is that you not a put a tarp over me and forget about me.

But even if you did that, I can’t really fault you. After all, part of me wants desperately to reject utilitarianism just because it makes me think about things I’d rather not.

  1. Even if you wanted to try pull me out of this pit, you would have to go and study immunotherapy, gene therapy, and/or oncology, and somehow make multiple Nobel prize-worthy breakthroughs really fast.