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january 8, 2011


When Heidegger explicated “being toward death” as not about an ending, but as finding one’s ownmost potential for life, he implicitly brought into philosophical thinking a shared experience of persons who somehow thrived after The Great War. Being and Time emerges on the other side of any magic mountain, but in full cognizance of Europe striving to make sense of its new century, having suffered enough for its bourgeois triumphalism, one would think—though, they would later find (or youth later read) that the world hardly knew what suffering can be. Heidegger’s point was, in part, that great potential is implicit to the worst of times, if only to appreciate the value of who a life has been as the value of who one is still anticipating, thus showing potential for whatever time is given.

All that one may yet be is implicit to what one’s been, whose “not yet” was emerging and is as presently deep dissatisfaction with who one so far is—a dissatisfaction not possible without implicitly already being the potential suffered as not yet. An insufferable lack of complacency may be proof against presumptions about what one is not yet.

We do not have to rage against the dying of the light. We can use it to our advantage.

The past few months, I’ve been reading a little each Saturday morning from a wonderful book written to physicians who lack good enough empathy, about how to gain empathy, especially toward persons chronically suffering or persons facing immanent death. I’m not an intensive care physician, so I have to imagine the courage, but also callousness, that comes with facing death after death after death. It drains one who must remain lucid and in control of critical care. Indeed, it may seem best to not feel at all, rather to bring all feeling wholly into oneself, into one’s solitude, maybe even being less available for one’s loves, as if it’s all one can do to recover oneself and be minimally available for family.

Jodi Halpern, author of From Detached Concern to Empathy (Oxford, 2001), is a PhD philosopher, as well as an MD; a professor of public health and philosophy at UC, Berkeley, as well as a practicing psychiatrist. She is endeavoring to teach young physicians empathy, based on her clinical experience with critical care (though her book is quite conceptually elaborate, which practicing physicans might not find useful—which she appreciates, but which makes her book all the more engaging for a philosophical psychologist). I finished the book today (having read very little each weekend, in a café before grocery shopping, but living through effects of that each week for months now). The last section is especially compelling—so much so, that I want to discuss some paragraphs in detail. But not now.

I mention the book because I’ve been properly stunned by lessons in others’ deaths, and I, like any of us, will increasingly face my own at least as some need to come to terms with the life I’ve lived.

If only we had a way to assuredly bring youth to appreciate how it’s already always preparing for the good death, at best. The mixed feelings that cause one to stay on an unhappy course of life, as if somehow, magically, it will just get better may destine one to mid-life unhappiness—but what can others say? A life has to find its ownmost way in its own time, its own terms. The most that others may do is remain an insistent presence, the good friend, accompanying what can be accompanied (this is primary advice that Halpern would teach physicans to take to heart), and be there if wanted otherwise. There being one’s fidelity to another’s authentically chosen path, despite one’s own readings, is integral to real love. One life should not blame the other for reflecting one’s anxieties when having been given no other way to understand. But the other should recognize just that and trust that one truly is on the path that’s their own.

I think youth is often mystified by elder claims to learn from them. Yet, the question implicit to youth’s strident sense of being unprecendented is others’ taking to heart an obvious uniqueness of younger lives, being, say, in one’s 20s at the turn of a millennium; or being 10 now, 16 now. One of the joys of deeply appreciating decades past is its role in appreciating Time now, the inevitable Now-Time (the original meaning of ‘modern’) of another life. (Good reason to have children, as long as it’s truly for their sake, not adults’ need to have children make their parents happy.)

So, I’m 25 again in appreciating someone else. So, I’m more-easily 25 again in appreciating myself. So, one reaches old age finding inspiration in the scale of one’s appreciability, that the times have been such a part of my passage, that I have today to appreciate it further, to learn from—a dying Tony Judt calls it—“the memory chalet.”

Surely Judt designed to be a good example of dying by living as richly as he could until the end.

Last week’s NY Times Book Review of Judt’s Memory Chalet begins: “Impossible — and not even desirable — to disassociate this book from the circumstances of its composition. Tony Judt’s plight before his death last August was not as extreme as that of Jean-Dominique Bauby (who communicated The Diving Bell and the Butterfly a letter at a time, by blinking an eye), but by any reasonable standards, it was devastating.”

“The essays in this little book,” Judt begins, “were never intended for publication. I started writing them for my own satisfaction.”

The reviewer ends: “It used to be said—maybe still is—that in the instant of death, your life flashes before your eyes. By prolonging Judt’s life the miracles of medical technology effectively extended the process of his dying over several grueling years. So what we have is that instant of compressed recollection expanded and expounded upon. It is the furthest cry imaginable — not a cry at all — from The Death of Ivan Ilyich. You can almost sense the soul of the historian leaving his body, leaving the still-living body of work behind.”

Halpern mentions Tolstoy’s story near the end of her book, in the context of highlighting a virtue of non-communication. She wants physicians to appreciate the importance of non-communication as a way to recover the integrity of one’s damaged self, to “regain the capacity to be ‘alone’” and thereby “wander inside one’s own imagination” (143). Halpern is discussing insights of psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, who discovered so much about the heart of human potential through working with children. In releasing imagination, we find a royal road to finding, building, broadening, and consolidating what it means to be through what remains to be in what we have been. Ivan Illych’s suffering is “accompanied” by his servent whereby

to his astonishment, Illych finds in this simple companionship the alleviation of his suffering, yet it inspires him, not to communicate, but to withdraw into his own being and die his own death. His last act is to refuse to occupy his social persona, saying only “I won’t.” Yet, in so doing, he regains a feeling of being real that had eluded him since early childhood (143-4).

All along, social persona is a protection against the vulnerability of a fragile self, but the difference—persona and self—is a validation of the integrity of oneself that can be built and broadened through imaginative play (which was Winnicott’s theme). The Inner Child is already always seeking vivacity. Overt devotion to enriching creative individuation is an extension of our intrinsic desire to expand ourselves first through imaginative means, then aspirations, idealizing, and explicitly project-ive engagements.

Judt’s example continues to amaze and inspire me. He was wholly alive all the way to the end.





  Be fair. © 2017, gary e. davis