Is dying a transformative experience?

When you hear that someone has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, it isn’t too hard to be philosophical about it:

  • “That’s awful. But such is life.”
  • “Misfortune can befall any of us, can’t it?”
  • “We never know when our time is up. We must do what we can to live the life we’ve got and appreciate it as we go.”

But when you hear that you have terminal cancer, you think: “Fuck, fuck, fuck. Why is life so fucking unfair?”


In 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous paper called “What is it like to be bat?”1 In it, he made the observation that a bat experiences the world probably quite differently from the way we experience the world. And he argued that, in fact, a bat’s experience is so different that we, being human, cannot in principle know what it’s like to be a bat. We can imagine ourselves hanging upside down, eating bugs, using sonar to navigate, and so on. But we’re doing just that: imagining ourselves doing the things bats do. What we’re not doing is imagining what it’s like to be a bat.

This difficulty, of imagining what it’s like to be another creature, is not just there between a human and a bat; it’s there between any two creatures, even when they’re members of the same species. I can imagine, if I try hard enough, what it’s like for me to be in your shoes. But can I imagine what it’s like for me to be you in your shoes? I can imagine myself living your kind of life, but I can’t really imagine what it’s like for you to live your kind of life.

We relate to each other because we have something in common. That’s why it is hard to a relate to a bat, or people who are very different from us. I think this is why small talk exists. If you and I can talk about the weather, then there’s something we can agree on. Now that we’ve established that we have something in common, we can relate to each other.

Deeper connections between two people, though, need more than small talk. They need ground that is not only common but important to both of them. Think of those who share a common struggle: players on a sports team, soldiers in a platoon, students in graduate school. Many of these relationships do not last when the individuals no longer share the same goal, for example, when a player gets traded or when a student drops out of school. Some friendships do last, long after the shared purpose has ended — when the war is over, for example. But the friendships between soldiers persist largely because the history they share matters to who they are now. Few veterans leave that consequential aspect of their lives out of their self-conception.

And those who have been friends for a long time often choose to talk about the past rather than the present. It’s the past we still have in common. And it’s the past we rely on, even when everything in our lives seem to change. We change beyond recognition, and yet, when we get together, we talk about that time we fit all eight of us in the car and Sam, god bless him, volunteered to ride in the trunk.

There’s a gap between us that we don’t want to shed light on. Some things stay the same, but many things do not. What we have in common becomes increasingly diluted by the new important things in our lives: our marriages, our children, our divorces, our new careers, our recent struggles. We think if we put in enough effort, we can imagine what our friends go through. We can imagine what it’s like to have children (or we can remember what it’s like not to have children) and if we try hard to enough to imagine (or to remember), our friendships can still grow.

But here’s where Nagel’s bat swoops in. I don’t know if I can imagine what it’s like to have children. And I don’t know if you can imagine what it’s like to have terminal cancer.


The philosopher L.A. Paul has recently argued that becoming a parent is what she calls a transformative experience.2 This may sound like some purple poetic expression, but it’s a technical term and she means something specific by it. For an experience to count as transformative, (1) you have to learn something you could not have learned without having had that experience, and (2) after having had that experience, you think of yourself differently, or orient your life according to different values. This means that you cannot imagine what it’s like to have a transformative experience, because otherwise it wouldn’t be transformative: the experience tranforms you so much that you are now a different person and you could not have known how you would be different beforehand.

I don’t know if becoming a parent is really, truly a transformative experience, but it probably comes as close as anything. My wife and I tried to have children, but luck again wasn’t on our side. So I will never know what it’s like to have children. I do not know how it would have changed me and what I care about. If you think I’m trying to make this sound sad, I should let you know that Paul is clear in saying that transformative experiences are not inherently positive or, for that matter, inherently negative. It isn’t necessarily good or bad to have them. Precisely because they change you, you cannot know if they are good or bad: if we have not had a transformative experience, we cannot say that it would be good or bad to have it, since we do not know what it’s like; and if an experience changes us fundamentally, we cannot say that it was good or bad for us since we cannot compare it with how things were before since we no longer see things the way we used to.

I don’t know if having a terminal illness is a transformative experience either. Other than hearing the words “it’s incurable” or “your prognosis is months”, being as sick as I am bears no unique phenomenological experiences. There is no sensation to dying (at least not yet). There’s pain, to be sure, and the pain feels different and I feel it in strange new places. But the pain doesn’t tell you it’s dying pain. There’s fatigue also, but we’ve all been tired before. And now, just because it lasts longer and persists despite the usual remedies, the tiredness doesn’t tell you that you’re dying. There are also side effects in treating the illness, but none of those tell you that you are dying either. After all, the same treatment with the same side effects is given to those for whom the disease is still curable. All this probably explains why so many of us do not accept our fates — having one’s illness be terminal doesn’t feel like anything special at all.

There’s only this to the experience: the recurring and constant pain, the fatigue that lasts for days on end, over and over again, the nausea and the headaches, and the ever increasing portion of your time spent inside pharmacies and hospitals, going to them, coming back from them, with doctors and nurses and other people there to help you, with tubes and needles, putting fluids inside you while extracting others. My illness has become my life, or at least a large part of it. But those who have terrible but curable illnesses also live this kind of life.

So what tells me I’m dying? There’s no gut feeling — no gut knowledge that I only have so much time. There’s just my doctors’ words buttressed by data that only they can intelligibly interpret. (One might take all this as reason for me to distrust my doctor and hew my own way. But what it really shows is my unavoidable dependence on experts and how there’s only so much epistemological value to my feelings.) But there is something to knowing that you have a disease that’s going to kill you soon. If you accept that fact, and acknowledge it deep down and in all the things you do, I think it does transform you.


The young prefer spending their time meeting new people over spending it with those they already know well. They are preoccupied by questions such as, “what will I do next?”, “will I become successful?”, “what should I do to become successful?”, “will I find my soulmate?” But the elderly, it seems, are different: they prefer to spend their time with family rather than strangers, and with old friends rather than trying to make new ones. And because they know their time is limited, they want to spend it on everyday pleasures and the people they know they already love.3

When I was young, my family and I would make a yearly visit to New Jersey where my great aunt and her family lived. We would stay there for a week or so and play around their large house, as my mom’s extended family would dote on us. But whenever it was time for us to go, to begin our journey back home to Montreal, my mom’s aunt would cry. She was always a little frail, and I had wondered then, as I wonder now, if she was preparing herself to say goodbye for the very last time.

I do that too now. Friends visit from far away, and I wonder if it’s the last time I will ever see them. Friends talk about visiting me in four or five months, and I wonder if I’ll be around to receive them. I went to McDonalds a few weeks ago — I have a small but special fondness for the place — and I wondered if it was the last time I’d ever eat there. Epictetus counselled that we do that on purpose: we should try to imagine each meeting with a loved one, each experiencing of an ordinary pleasure, as possibly our last, even when we’re not terminally ill, so that we may learn to appreciate what we have and not dwell too much on what we don’t. He thought it would change us for the better. I have tried to follow his advice for many years, long before I was sick. But it was hard to do in any real capacity. Now it has become part of my everyday. I’m no longer sure if Epictetus is right about whether this practice changes us for the better. But I do think it changes us.

So what this means is that there is this gap between me, who is dying, and you, who are not. If you are young, you still want to do things that can shape the rest of your life. If you are older or if you are sick like me, you might not care so much to shape the rest of your life as much as to live it and appreciate what you can. These differences between us are unavoidable and understandable. But it means that no matter how much some of you are there for me, I still feel alone. You do not know what it’s like to be dying, and you probably can’t know, until it happens to you.

I suppose this is why support groups exist. Only other people who are living with cancer knows what it’s like to live with cancer. Only others facing a terminal illness really know what it’s like to face a terminal illness. And when I go to these support groups, I do feel less alone. But only for a short while. Not everyone at a support group is dying, and not every dying person accepts that they’re dying. But more to the point, these people are not my friends or my family, and, being short on time, I’m not interested in making new friends.


I’m not the only one this illness has transformed. It has turned my wife into someone whose husband is dying. And it will eventually turn my wife into a widow. I do not and cannot know what it’s like to watch your husband or wife suffer through this illness, and I will not know and cannot know what it’s like to lose the love of my life. I can only imagine what it’s like for her now and what it will be like for her then, and she can only imagine what it’s like for me – and we both know that such imaginings can only give us the barest outline of what our experiences are like. There are two of us transformed by this illness, but in different ways. My wife and I are both left a little alone by this illness, left incompletely understood, even by each other.

But despite that, we are here for each other. And even if none of my friends and family really understand what it’s like to be dying or what it’s like to have a husband who’s dying, they are here for us — unwavering and stalwart. Now that life seems so fragile and short to me, all this seems like a wonder.


  1. Here’s a link to Nagel’s article. ↩︎
  2. See Paul’s “What You Can’t Expect When You’re Expecting” and “Précis of Transformative Experience both available on her website. ↩︎
  3. See Chapter 4 of Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. ↩︎
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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.

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. 

I don’t want to die, but I will

The sadness I sometimes feel is just a result of this straightforward problem. I want something that I can’t have. The simplicity of this frustration is almost immature.

I’m hardly alone with this problem. The tension between what we want and what is going to happen is universal. It’s not just me. Almost all of don’t want to die, and all of us are going to (probably). There’s just an immediacy to my situation – I’m going to die sooner than most, and I don’t want to that to happen.

The wise advise against wanting something you can’t have – Buddhists, Stoics, whoever else. We must accept what is inevitable in order to live peacefully, with equanimity and calm. What good would it do, they ask, to want something impossible? What good would it do to resist change? How fruitful is it to rebel against nature?

And death, if it is anything at all, is natural. All living things die. That is about as universal a truth as you can get, without stepping into the abstract. It is a concrete reality, unfailing in its comprehensiveness.

But that death applies to all is only a statistical reality. It is a claim about how things have been thus far. There’s a tree, the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, that is said to be over 5000 years old. Is it mortal? It can certainly die, from natural disaster or human ill will. But if it’s left alone, will it die at all?

Some might say that death is written in the laws of nature, but that, of course, is not literally true. The laws of nature are not written anywhere, not on any stone tablet, not in the holy books, not on the side of a mountain, not in the stars, not anywhere. And those who think they know the laws of nature are, I say, fools – fools for thinking they can rest assured in their supposed wisdom, fools for accepting ideologies as facts, fools for stifling their own curiosity with cliches. And yes, here I am, calling the Buddha a fool, Marcus Aurelius a fool, Yoda a fool, and all other holy men fools.

But I too am a fool. I want never to die; I want to live forever. This is about as foolish a wish that one could have. Nobody lives forever. Fact number one.