Sunday, 22 May 2011

Getting stuff done before you die

In yesterday’s FT A.N. Wilson commented on someone’s death at 73 that that was a good age at which to die. For me, 73 is a bit too close for comfort; there are things I want to do before I die. Yet what sense does that thought make?

In rational, or do I mean rationalist, terms, none. It won’t do me any good when I'm dead that I've achieved an extra five things. I suppose I might die happier having achieved them, i.e. feel happier during my seconds, hours, weeks or months of dying, but if my death were sudden and unexpected, as I think would be best, I would simply have been happier for what I wouldn’t have been aware was the final stretch of my life.

But if I hadn’t achieved them and were still striving, that needn’t be an unhappy state. If I were cut off in the middle of it and had the odd moment to reflect, I don’t see that my feelings need predominantly be of unhappiness or frustration. I’d be dying in the course of, instead of at the end of, doing stuff like the stuff I do now and being in the state I'm in now, thinking what I do is worthwhile and enjoying doing it. Suppose I had to stop striving and submit to an extended period of illness while gradually dying: I agree that might be frustrating, though I imagine the frustration would be less to the fore in my consciousness than the experience of illness and decline.

Looking at it less rationalistically, though, Hannah Arendt, if I understand her, held, following the Greeks, that we are distinctively human in so far as we escape the sort of round of mere survival routines that all animals have to engage in, and contribute to ‘the human artifice’ (artefact?) that outlives us and constitutes the human world, as opposed to our mere environment. Thus it’s human to put into the world products that last longer than us and are used rather than simply consumed, which may be anything from tools to abstract entities: buildings, paintings, music, books, ideas and institutions. And she doesn’t say this, but I would add the moral and mental formation of the young -- what we leave in the minds of our successors.

It’s irrational to think that we survive in our works after death; the works may survive, we don’t. On the other hand living our lives as if that were the case seems to lend dignity and meaning to them. It seems inhuman not to care about how we will remembered, despite the fact that, being dead, we’ll never be aware of how we are.

Being old and able to contribute something to the lives of younger generations is satisfying, and even in terms of our own interest as opposed to that of others, seems - though it isn’t -- a good reason to be unwilling to die prematurely. Logically, it’s a bad reason because once dead we experience neither being dead prematurely nor missing the people we loved and liked and the fun we were having; being dead is no loss to us. So there’s no sense, logically, if we’re aware we’re about to die prematurely, in regretting it for ourselves: living a bit longer might have enabled us to make a crucial difference to a grandchild, but we wouldn’t have been in a state to regret that difference not being made. We wouldn’t have been in a state full stop. The logical or rational argument here doesn’t seem enough, though.

It’s clear I find this issue confusing intellectually -- if perhaps only intellectually.

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