Evanston RoundTable, May 16, 2019
Is it a good thing not to know the moment you’re going to die? Of course, some people do: patients in the final stages of an incurable illness and prisoners destined for execution know.
But most of us are spared this terrible knowledge. The young hardly notice. For them, life seems to stretch out forever, like Elysian fields in a vast park. Even in middle-age the day of reckoning seems comfortably far off, distant enough to ignore.
Only in old age do we begin to know: now—any month, any week, any day—could be the time, especially as we witness the passing of dear friends.
What’s that knowledge like? For many years I’ve interviewed the very elderly about their lives, their regrets, their joys. (Some of those interviews are posted on my web site, lesterjacobson.com, under “Received Wisdom.”)
The one question I gingerly posed to them, nervous that they might be offended, was what they thought about dying. Were they ready for it? Did it scare them?
To a person the answer was no. They weren’t offended, they weren’t ready and they weren’t afraid.
Now that I’m approaching something like that age, past the biblical life expectancy of three score and 10, I think I know why.
People are rarely “ready.” There is always more to do, to see, to be. We are never finished on the journey to become the person we want to be.
And yet, for many people, death’s grasp is no longer fearsome; sometimes it is welcome. T.S. Eliot wrote, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” But he wrote it (in “The Waste Land”) at the age of 34, less than midway through his 77 years. Death is a foreign country for the young; for the old, especially if theirs has been a life well and fully lived, it is something they’ve come to expect and hopefully prepared for, by being, to the best of their ability, their best self. That usually means how they’ve helped others, by minimizing selfishness and maximizing empathy.
Life is a journey to reduce the ego enough to think of others first. It means acquiring and displaying compassion and forgiveness. Ego is strongest among the young, who are trying to find their identity, and the middle-aged, who are trying to leverage it for self-interest. Only at the end, when we are stripped to our essence, can we really feel free to discard the ego.
So maybe that is the answer: it isn’t t bad to know when you’re going to die—if you have lived well and fully and let go of pain and regret. That’s when we can look back and cherish and appreciate the precious time that was given to us so that we could do our best to help others.