CURRENT READING – ON DEATH by MILTON MAYER – PART V

HOW TO DIE

In the concluding segment, Mayer suggests there are three ways to prepare for death – denial, gritty determination, and self-reassurance that everything will be all right afterwards. He hypothesizes that mundane virtues which carry us through life may carry us through death as well, and persons with the four cardinal virtues (fortitude, temperance, justice, and wisdom) in life are unlikely to lose them at death. It is childish to mitigate the fear of death with the hope of eternal bliss; the mature person can accept life’s ending as such.

Besides the horrors of damnation make the believer dread death more than the agnostic. He notes Pierre Teilhard de Chardin doubts God would create a useless hell of eternal suffering; rather nonexistence or simple separation from God is more reasonable. Paul Tillich argues there is little scriptural evidence for an afterlife at all. Resurrection seems untenable, but mere spiritual persistence seems too intangible for orthodox Church dogma. In contrast, he reminds us that William James thought we believe in immortality because we believe we are fit for it and deserve it. Science with its pointless view of life and death fails to meet human needs, so. Carl Jung concludes, “As a physician, I think it is hygienic…to discover in death a goal to which one can strive; and that shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal that robs the second half of life of its purpose. I therefore consider the religious teaching of a life hereafter as consonant with the standpoint of psychic hygiene.” 19

Mayer arrives at last at his synthesis: ‘If Death cannot be cheated, maybe he can be talked into making it a little easy…Nearly everyone is agreed that the best way to die is not to shuffle and lag, but to be hurrying to do something useful (or something else useful), or at least something urgent that preoccupies the putative victim.”20 And if we die of natural causes and not suddenly, we experience one of life’s supreme experiences. Since it cannot be prevented one might as well view it as an opportunity. By suffering the “sense of dying” one learns about “the conduct of life and the demeanor of its close.”21 He offers two examples: Oliver Wendell Holmes who said “To live is to function. That is all there is in living.” and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu “It has all been very interesting.”22 Since we must die, we should practice it in the death of others and by seeing ourselves as dying.

He closes, “We do not know that there are no worse things than dying. We do know that it would be nice to be rid of the blemishes of this life…Death takes us down a peg or two, too, and cuts us and our furnishings to size; probably not a bad thing for most of us, and maybe the best thing that ever happened to us. Who knows?”23

Seneca could not have said it better!

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19The Great Ideas Today 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1965. Page 147.

20Ibid.

21Ibid., page 148.

22Ibid.

23Ibid.

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