Children naturally learn some things. A baby figures out crawling, eating, and talking while older children can learn to build block towers, complete puzzles, or ride bikes. Humans have an amazing drive and capacity to learn.
Oscar Wilde astutely opined: “Education is an admirable thing,” although I disagree with his conclusion: “but it is well to remember … that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” There are certain things people should be taught, whether by parents or teachers. Although you might learn from watching role models, how will you know if they are setting the right example? (which leads to another discussion about discerning between facts and falsehoods–see “Trust or consequences.”)
Having “the Talk” about the facts of life, learning about the connection between sex and babies, is one essential topic. For those who are pregnant, there is an abundance of guidance, such as the bestseller What to Expect When You’re Expecting. The book’s website promises to reveal “What to Expect, every step of the way… We’re all in this together.”
Not everyone will get pregnant, but everyone who is alive will die. Why is there is no instruction on “the Other Talk”? What manual prepares people for life’s terminus? Why is there no What to Expect at Life’s End OR Dying for Dummies. While contraception can prevent birth, humankind has found no lasting death prophylaxis.
Because of discomfort with discussing sexual relations, some people use a euphemism: “the birds and the bees.” Maybe the other fact of life–death–also needs a cute phrase. Perhaps “caterpillars & butterflies” would work? Caterpillars change from crawling insects into butterflies, a process called metamorphosis. Isn’t that an intriguing metaphor for how human life ends?
If we don’t face facts, many may find themselves on “life” support in an intensive care unit. Even when the ending is certain, loved ones and professionals hesitate to address this fact of life. Who are we fooling when we ignore and avoid life’s conclusion? The better question may be: who are we hurting?
In our culture, “dead” is the ultimate four-letter word, even as our lives run on death. In the course of a day, we consume and produce death, ranging from the foods we eat to the fuels that power vehicles and generate energy. For many, the only lives that count are human, with younger generally better. Aging and end-of-life are stages to avoid, with encroaching dissolution masked by makeup, hair dye and face lifts. We hold death at arm’s length; keeping the elderly institutionalized and dying segregated, as if by ignoring expiration, we’ll be granted a personal exemption from the certainty of cessation. Death is the unwelcome elephant in the room, that which must not be named.
We can’t change the fact that life ends in death, but we can change how we approach “The End.” Medical science has made wondrous strides with diagnostic tools, antibiotics, vaccines, therapies, and surgery. Despite the discoveries and advances, we still die. Many people live longer than ever, although the shadow side to longevity is that years are back-loaded, applied at the end.
We’re all in this together. At birth, our countdown timer starts. While the outcome is certain, the timing and causes are unknown. Is dying a medical event, or is it something more? Something has got to change. We need a metamorphosis of attitude so that we mindfully address life in its entirety, including its final phase.
© Joan S Grey, 14 JUNE 19