Evanston RoundTable, June 28, 2018
Everything comes easier with practice, from skeet shooting to horseback riding to piano playing. It takes 10,000 hours, experts say, to master a skill.
Dying is different. There are no scales or exercises, no practice runs, no warm-ups. It’s one and you’re done.
That is why it’s good to think about the unthinkable in advance, as unpleasant as that might seem, in order to come to grips with the pivotal final days and hours. What will they be like? How will we conduct ourselves? Most people assume dying entails extreme pain and suffering. But maybe not. According to a recent University of North Carolina study, dying is “less sad and terrifying—and happier—than you think.”
Hard to imagine. And yet, given the right circumstances, maybe it’s not so far fetched. Like anything else, dying can be done well or poorly. There are several facets of a “good death” that are worth pondering and planning for.
One of the best places to learn about death, not surprisngly, is at funerals. A funeral is a biography in an hour. Funerals are about looking back, recalling the essence of a person, sharing anecdotes, hearing from family and friends. That’s when the totality of a life—the laughter and tears, amazing facts and poignant stories—can be summed up and appreciated.
Funerals also remind us that life has a point, which may not be so apparent when we’re in the throes of living. And that point is to live the best way we can. This sounds banal, but it is no less true. Because living to our moral and physical capacity, full out, is the best way to live. And that is how we want to be remembered.
A good death suggests a good life. Just like at the end of every day we want to fall asleep knowing we tried our best, at the end of every life we want to slip away knowing that we tried our best, and have worked hard to help others.
Educator Horace Mann advised: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
Such victories don’t have to be epic. They can be as personal as helping a friend in need, or as fulfilling as mentoring a young person to find his or her life’s goal.
Martin Luther King said the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. A good life also has an arc—toward helping and inspiring others.
There is such a thing as a good way to die, too. That is when someone dies with courage, grace and composure. Like a good life, such a death is an inspiration and a comfort to others.
Every day we should conduct ourselves such that when we come to the end, our last days and hours are made easier by the path we took to get there.