Death, mortality, and the conversations we miss

Jeff Tweedy, lead vocalist for the rock band Wilco, reflected on mortality during a recent conversation on NPR. The artist, whose brother had just died and whose wife was recently diagnosed with cancer, was asked to explain the inspiration for a song entitled, “Nobody Dies Anymore.

“[This speaker] was claiming that the first person that will live to be a thousand years old is alive today, and what really struck me was that this guy is really afraid of dying. (Laughter) You know, there’s a great deal more to be gained from our mortality than I would be willing to sacrifice… The notion of living till you forget all of your friends, forget all of your family – I don’t know, this idea of living forever was somewhat horrific to me.”

As of late, there have been a number of interesting conversations on mortality and the question of when life is worth living. Each offered its own gift of provocation of ideas never quite resolved and also left a nagging feeling that something was missing.

An extensive and provocative piece ran in The Atlantic entitled, “Why I hope to Die at 75.”  The author, Ezekiel Emmanuel, challenges a view he calls the American Immortal, a phenomenon of culture and behavior that drives actions towards the prolonging of life, and the denial of morbidity, for as long as possible. After some consideration of health and social productivity, he determines 75 to be the ideal target age.

“American immortals operate on the assumption that they will be… outliers. But the fact is that by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.”

Seeing this age as an endpoint for these things, Emmanuel doesn’t argue for the ending of life at 75 but commits to not take any action that will prolong it after that point.

“75 defines a clear point in time: for me, 2032. It removes the fuzziness of trying to live as long as possible. Its specificity forces us to think about the end of our lives and engage with the deepest existential questions and ponder what we want to leave our children and grandchildren, our community, our fellow Americans, the world.”

Another piece approached the topic from a different angle. In an article cheerfully entitled “I have 46 Thanksgiving dinners left with family. And then, I’ll be dead,” blogger Ben Huh uses an obsessively mathematical approach to mortality to arrive at an appreciation of the finite nature of life and the gifts each experience brings. Huh’s mental exercise brings him to the conclusion that he can only control two things:

  1. Do more of what you enjoy by removing the other items you don’t.
  2. Improve the quality of what’s left.

On this second item, Huh writes that improving the quality of one’s experiences isn’t about spending more money on fine dining or elaborate vacations.

“[The] Quality of experiences is entirely a mental, self-controllable pursuit. There are many ways to attain the skills: meditation, self-help, religion, etc. But at the core of each and every single one is the message “It’s not about grabbing more, but appreciating the now.”

A final story is familiar to millions. Brittany Maynard became a strong advocate for death with dignity and patient’s rights when she publicly shared her decision to move to Portland, Oregon to take advantage of their death with dignity laws. She was suffering from a terminal brain tumor and physician-assisted suicide is not legal in her home state of California.

The 29 year old ended her life on Saturday, November 1, 2014. This also happened to be All Saints’ Day, a day that many Christian churches set aside to remember all saints of the faith, known and unknown.

There are incredibly important and fascinating conversations to be had about mortality, how we assess the value of life, and when it should come to an end. How should people approach their elder years? How much pain is too much? Is prolonging life at all costs really the position of the church? Is the church complicit with a culture that has a death avoidance complex?

The element that was largely missing in the conversations above was the church and how each person engaged with it in coming to their decisions. Now certainly, loud voices in the church stepped forward to insert themselves into the conversation about Brittany Maynard’s decision, but offering a public critique of a personal matter runs the risk of making one look like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. The opportunity to engage gracefully would have come much earlier, or at least more privately.

And perhaps it did, I certainly hope so. But forgive me for doubting it.

Many Christian churches offer surprising clear and stark positions for those experiencing such climacteric and nuanced situations. And while these positions may stem from values that are worth engaging, the way they are wielded makes what is necessary and most redemptive – conversation – very difficult to achieve.

Which brings me back Tweedy’s song about mortality. Every time I hear it, I’m drawn again to think about life in ways that doctrine can never accomplish. Art can do that because there is always an inherent dialogue between the artist’s work and the person experiencing it. The best artists are often deliberately vague about their intent to preserve just such a space.

If only we were artists.

May we strive to preserve a space in the proclamations of what we believe so that people can find their lives held within. 

And let us always engage others with a grace that honors the depth of meaning such conversations hold.

Image Credit: Screen capture of “A New Video for My Friends” by CompassionChoices on Youtube.

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