Did you see Tim Kreider’s straight-shooting entry in the NY Times’ Anxiety series, “You Are Going to Die”? Kreider exposes a few of the predominant illusions that we embrace as a culture/species when it comes to dying, and while none of it may exactly be breaking news (or a laugh riot), his candor is deeply refreshing. It should come as no surprise that our hardwiring for control informs both of the top entries on the list: 1. the necessity to conceive of our life as a self-propelled narrative of progress (law) and 2. the absurd but no less widespread fallacy that death is something we can control (rather than the definition of what we cannot). I think it was a certain father figure of mine who once said that “life often feels like an organized assault on our sense of control.” Christianity, of course, is at its most urgent and comforting when addressing people whose lives have not gone as planned and whose sense of control, especially in the face of death, has utterly failed them. But that’s another post:
At all times of major life crisis, friends and family will crowd around and press upon you the false emotions appropriate to the occasion. “That’s so great!” everyone said of my mother’s decision to move to an assisted-living facility. “It’s really impressive that she decided to do that herself.” They cited their own stories of 90-year-old parents grimly clinging to drafty dilapidated houses, refusing to move until forced out by strokes or broken hips. “You should be really relieved and grateful.” “She’ll be much happier there.” The overbearing unanimity of this chorus suggests to me that its real purpose is less to reassure than to suppress, to deny the most obvious and natural emotion that attends this occasion, which is sadness.
Segregating the old and the sick enables a fantasy, as baseless as the fantasy of capitalism’s endless expansion, of youth and health as eternal, in which old age can seem to be an inexplicably bad lifestyle choice, like eating junk food or buying a minivan, that you can avoid if you’re well-educated or hip enough. So that when through absolutely no fault of your own your eyesight begins to blur and you can no longer eat whatever you want without consequence and the hangovers start lasting for days, you feel somehow ripped off, lied to. Aging feels grotesquely unfair. As if there ought to be someone to sue.
Because of all the stories we’ve absorbed, we vaguely imagine that our lives will take the shape of a narrative — the classic Aristotelian ramp diagram of gradual rising action (struggle and setbacks), climax (happy marriage, professional success), and a brief, cozy denoument (kicking back with family and friends, remembering the good times on a porch someplace pretty). But life is not shaped like a story; it’s an elongate and flattened bell curve, with an attenuated, anticlimactic decline as long as its beginning. Friends have described seeing their parents lose their faculties one by one, in more or less the reverse order that their young children are acquiring them.
Another illusion we can’t seem to relinquish, partly because large and moneyed industries thrive on sustaining it, is that with enough money and information we’ll be able to control how we age and die. But one of the main aspects of aging is the loss of control. Even people with the money to arrange to age in comfort can die in agony and indignity, gabbling like infants, forgetting their own children, sans everything. Death is a lot like birth (which people also gird themselves for with books and courses and experts) — everyone’s is different, some are relatively quick and painless and some are prolonged and traumatic, but they’re all pretty messy and unpleasant and there’s not a lot you can do to prepare yourself…
But we don’t have a choice. You are older at this moment than you’ve ever been before, and it’s the youngest you’re ever going to get. The mortality rate is holding at a scandalous 100 percent. Pretending death can be indefinitely evaded with hot yoga or a gluten-free diet or antioxidants or just by refusing to look is craven denial. “Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through,” Conrad wrote in “Typhoon.” “Face it.” He was talking about more than storms.
Joseph Conrad, theologian of the cross – who knew?!