By Steve Gordon
In his only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the poet and philosopher Rainer Maria Rilke had his protagonist expound on an old wisdom, one in which “people knew (or perhaps had an intuition) that they bore their death within them like the stone within a fruit. . . . It was something people quite simply had, and its possession conferred a peculiar dignity, and a tranquil pride.”
The stone within a fruit. It’s an intriguing way to think about mortality, a prosaic image to bring home that our mortal end is always a part of us, always there inside us, as surely as our lifeblood and, perhaps, our soul.
It’s an image that has come to mind often in the last few months as I’ve been talking to people about the new book Let’s Talk about Death: Asking the Questions that Profoundly Change the Way We Live and Die, which I co-wrote with Dartmouth College professor Irene Kacandes. The book was released in November, and Irene and I have spoken to several groups and many, many individuals about our experiences in writing it, and about their own experiences with death and dying. The latter is just what we had hoped would happen — that people would want to open up about a topic that tends to stay in the shadows. We’d also love for that opening up to spread to others around them in the form of conversations that might, in maybe unexpected ways, change their lives.
We can hope that our book will have that effect on as many people as possible. In the meantime, I have noticed a few threads of thought twining through the conversations and discussions we have had. Here are a couple.
When Irene and I realized that the writing exchange we had begun as a way to explore and share our thoughts and beliefs about mortality might end up becoming a book, we were particularly enthusiastic about bringing to the fore the subject of death. It’s almost cliché these days to note that our culture is youth obsessed and death averse. As a society, we’d just rather not talk about it. I still recognize that to be true in at least a superficial way, but there is another truth that sits comfortably alongside it: Despite the avoidance in our culture as a whole, there still are a great many people who are very interested in learning and talking about death and dying, but who are inhibited for any number of reasons. They’re uncomfortable bringing it up in a group. They want to talk about it but their (spouse, child, partner, friends) won’t go there. It’s scary. They don’t know where, or with whom, to start. And so on.
But the interest is undeniable, so in discussions about the book there has been no shortage of people ready to engage on the topic of that stone that rests inside them. And when people start to talk about death, they mostly have one thing in common: They tell stories. Stories about when a parent or spouse died. Stories about when a child died, or a friend. Stories about their own experiences with a life-threatening illness. There isn’t necessarily a point to each story beyond the telling itself. These stories are important, though. They are how we share what we know and believe. They’re how we learn what we ourselves believe, and maybe what we want in our lives and our eventual deaths. They’re honest and heartfelt stories, with a need-to-be-told quality. They just need a place to be told. I now wonder if what we have in our culture isn’t really death aversion, at all, but a logjam of death conversations waiting to be released.
There is another commonality among the people interested in engaging with me about the book: age. When Irene and I spoke recently to a full house at the Norwich Bookstore, I saw only two people I assumed were under 45 years of age. Everyone else seemed at least in their 50s; most were a good bit older than that. I know that’s not surprising. It makes sense that people getting into their later years, as well as people of any age facing life-threatening or life-ending disease, would be the most likely to want to talk about death and dying. And, after all, that group in Norwich was an engaged and articulate bunch. Still, I keep hoping for a broader age range. My son is 38, and I think of him as being squarely in our target audience. I recently spent some time with a 28-year-old man with incurable cancer, and had some wonderful conversations with him about what he was facing. I thought at the time that any other 28-year-old could benefit from talking with that fellow, followed perhaps by some internal dialogue about mortality, and then by sharing those thoughts with people close to them.
Why bother? I do sometimes ask myself that question. When Irene and I wrote a column last fall for an NPR science and culture blog, one of the people posting a comment afterward said that when it came to death, he would just “play it by ear.” It might be a good plan. Millions of people undoubtedly have gone through life without spending a lot of time thinking about death, and have managed to successfully die when their time came. But there are potential problems with avoidance. It’ll work fine, I guess, if you get hit by a bus or if you have a heart attack and you’re dead before hitting the ground. But what if you have a stroke, and are left aware but incapacitated for a long time? What if you get cancer, and have a decline of months or years before you die? What if the people around you aren’t prepared for you to die, and will struggle to cope? And what if it’s not you, anyway? What if your husband or wife has that stroke, or that cancer, and you’re facing death, once removed? Time spent thinking about mortality now, getting comfortable with it, accepting its inevitability, will certainly change your experience with those challenges, and perhaps change the way you look at the life you’ll live between now and then.
I don’t suggest that you become obsessed with death. Spend some time thinking about it. Engage family and friends in conversation to hear their ideas and beliefs. Use those conversations to refine, or at least better understand, what you yourself want and believe. Resolve to do this every now and then to note any changes in what you want and believe about death. And otherwise let it go. It won’t go far. It’ll be there when you need it.
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