On being calm about death

Near the end of the original Star Wars movie, Obi-Wan Kenobi, the wise Jedi elder, smiles just before closing his eyes and allowing himself to be struck down by the evil Darth Vader. His face reveals a moment of calmness and acceptance at the moment of death.

Something similar happens at the end of Batman Begins. Ra’s Al Ghul, Batman’s evil but wise mentor, closes his eyes and meditates when his death becomes unavoidable.

The lesson seems to be that the wise are calm at the moment of death. This is not a new idea created and perpetuated by cool Hollywood movies. It is actually rather old.

In the Apology, Plato describes Socrates as accepting his punishment upon death by willingly drinking the poisonous hemlock he is given. And it’s not just in his willingness to die that Socrates is calm, but also in the process of dying. According to Plato, Socrates is aware of how his body dies moment by moment: his limbs go numb first, followed by his torso, and last of all his voice, from which his wise words emanate.

But this description of his death is probably a lie. Hemlock does not make one go numb. Instead it makes one vomit and tremble, among other symptoms, resulting in a painful death. Now one philosopher has gone to great lengths to argue that Plato’s description was, in fact, accurate. But what is interesting to me is why this is an important matter at all, why is calmly dying so important to our image of wisdom?

Let us compare our reaction to Plato’s account of Socrates’ death to our reaction to someone losing their mental and voluntary faculties long before they die. We notice a difference. The first situation inspires awe and respect, and the second, sadness and pity.

I think we should be sceptical of these images of wisdom. Dementia is real and common among the elderly as are serious changes in one’s personality. Someone who was wise and calm in life may turn into a raving and incoherent lunatic before they die. And because one is inextricably subject to the caprices of one’s physical body (including the brain), the moments of one’s death may conceal and obscure rather than reveal who one really was.

But Socrates’ calmness regarding death goes beyond just the physical manifestations during his last minute. It’s present in what he says about death:

since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good….. I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil.

This is the logic of his thinking, one couched in terms of hope. The idea seems to be that if we do not know for certain that X will be bad, then there is a possibility that X is good, and thus we should not fear X. And to think that we can know for certain that X is bad is to think we know more than we actually do, which is the hallmark characteristic of a lack of wisdom. Thus, being wise means not fearing death.

This argument is flawed. For one, it is too strong. If we believe that certainty in most knowledge is impossible, as many of us do, it means that we should never be afraid of anything at all, even if it means falling into a pit of lava. We may be fairly confident that it will be very painful, but we cannot know that for certain, for random miraculous things can happen during our descent into the pit.

And we can also question the very premise of this argument — that we should hope when there is a possibility of a good outcome and only fear when there is a certainty of a bad outcome. But why? Why not fear when there is a possibility of a bad outcome, and only hope when there is a certainty of a good outcome?

But more importantly, Socrates’s way of thinking is entirely unBayesian. In particular, it’s far too binary and too extreme. According to Socrates, we should hope when there is even the smallest possibility of a good outcome, and we should fear only when there is certainty of a bad outcome. But this precludes the possibility of having mixtures of fear and hope. Can I not say that I hope 30% that this will be good, but 70% fear that this will be bad? Maybe this doesn’t make sense of our psychology, for it does not describe how we actually think — maybe we cannot have both emotions of fear and hope simultaneously. But there is no logical error in thinking that A is 30% likely, and not-A is 70% likely. In fact, it is more nuanced and precise than simply saying that something is “possible” or “a good chance”. And when we think this way, in terms of assigning likelihoods, how do we conceive of hope and fear? I’m not sure, but we have to abandon Socrates’s approach.

The point of all this is really to ask why we should be calm at the moment of death. For Socrates, it made sense to be hopeful, because one doesn’t know what will happen and what happen might be good. That argument, as I’ve tried to show, is rather ineffective.

There is at least one other reason for Socrates’s calmness. For instance, he didn’t just believe that we did not know that death would be bad, but he believed that the death of the body did not mean the death of the person. In short, he believed in the immortality of the soul. And so did Obi-Wan Kenobi, from Star Wars. I’m not sure about Ra’s Al Ghul, but most depictions of mystical wise men portray a faith in the afterlife, and this faith grounds their calmness. I’m not going to argue for this, but I don’t think an afterlife is likely.

So are there any other reasons to be calm at death? One reason might be that it is somehow inherent in wisdom to be calm. But this is a terrible answer. If there are good reasons to be calm, then it is wise to be calm. And if there are no good reasons to be calm, then it is not wise to be calm. Wisdom is not something that exists apart from being able to have and act for good reasons. In other words, to say that one reason to be calm at death is that it is wise to be so is to say very little.

I can only think of one good reason to be calm at death, but the reason is not so strong that if you fail to be calm at death you would somehow lose the title of being wise. The one good reason I can think of is this: it’s generally more pleasant to be calm than to be agitated, and so this is probably true at the moment of dying too. That’s it. It’s a pretty weak claim.

So it’s a good idea to be calm at death, but it’s no big deal if you’re not.

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Review of Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture”

When I heard that Randy Pausch had pancreatic cancer, and how he too knew that he didn’t have much time left, I wanted to know what he said in his book, The Last Lecture. But the book is less to do with how to deal with dying, and more about how to enjoy living.

Pausch was a happy and optimistic man, confident in his own idiosyncrasies and quirks. I used to be suspicious of quirks, as if they were cheap and easy ways to make oneself unique and different, as if one were compelled more by the need to distinguish oneself somehow from the rest of humanity rather than a need to find commonality with fellow human beings.

But that’s harsh. No one wants to feel as if they’re the same as everyone else. And there’s a universality here too: we all need to know that we’re us and not someone else.

Pausch admires his own quirks, and draws lessons from them. He writes about picking up his nephew and niece in his new car, a Volkswagen convertible.

“Be careful in Uncle Randy’s new car,” my sister told them. “Wipe your feet before you get in it. Don’t mess anything up. Don’t get it dirty.”

I listened to her, and thought, as only a bachelor uncle can: “That’s just the sort of admonition that sets kids up for failure. Of course they’d eventually get my car dirty. Kids can’t help it.” So I made things easy. While my sister was outlining the rules, I slowly and deliberately opened a can of soda, turned it over, and poured it on the cloth seats in the back of the convertible. My message: People are more important than things. A car, even a pristine gem like my new convertible, was just a thing.

I love this story, even though I can’t imagine doing the same thing. He draws many other lessons too.


I.

“I’ll take an earnest person over a hip person every time, because hip is short-term.

Earnest is long-term. Earnestness is highly underestimated. It comes from the core, while hip is trying to impress you with the surface.”

I’m not as down on hipness as he is, but like Pausch, I do value earnestness more. Earnest people are awesome.


II.

Advice he got from Jon Snoddy,: ‘ “If you wait long enough,” he said, “people will surprise and impress you.”*

‘As he saw things, When you’re frustrated with people, when they’ve made you angry, it just may be because you haven’t given them enough time.

‘Jon warned me that sometimes this took great patience – even years. “But in the end,” he said, “people will show you their good side. Almost everybody has a good side. Just keep waiting. It will come out.”

Following this advice means that we try to replace our hatred and anger with understanding and patience. How can that not be good advice? People come around. Eventually.


III.

‘Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.’

We often don’t get what we want, but even then we get something — disappointment, frustration, irritation, anger, apathy, indifference, calm, relief, whatever. No matter what, we get something, and we can accept it and try to learn from it.


IV.

Show gratitude. But when someone isn’t so easily thanked, and if you cannot adequately pay someone back, pay it forward.

This advice works not just for the specific things people have done for you, but for the virtues their actions reveal. If others are kindhearted, and you have been the recipient of their kindness, you can cultivate that kindheartedness, and then you can pay it forward to others for the rest of your life. If others are good listeners, and you have been listened to, you can try to become a good listener too, and you will pay it forward for the rest of your life. If you have seen courage, strength, decency, wisdom, you can cultivate those too, and pay it forward for the rest of your life.

If I am at all a good person, it is because I have been lucky enough to be around better people.