Here’s an interesting piece by Peter Popham in the Independent, first published in May. I’ve only just found it.
He begins by talking about Christopher Hitchens, who has oesophageal cancer, and how impending death has reconfigured his identity:
“…when the bitter laughter dies away, there is Hitch, locked away from healthy us, in a land where, he discovers, the powers of argument and invective that have made him so widely loved and feared and admired are no longer of any relevance.
“That will be a massive but passing frustration for him, because he has other, more weighty problems on his plate. But it should be a matter of reflection for the rest of us, because we have made of Hitch a modern sage, one of the people we turn to to put us right about things. And suddenly, with death breathing down his neck, what he has to say is of no use to him, and is no use to us, either. He has failed us, and in his blunt way he comes clean about the fact. We treated him like a wise man, but it turns out he was just a clown.”
Which brings him to his point:
“Death is a problem for our age as it was not for ages past, precisely because (speaking of the non-religious majority) we behave as if it were a problem we had already solved.”
But we haven’t, of course.
“Church-goers are confronted week in week out with images of agonising death, talk of the “mystery” of death, exhortations to prepare for it, prayers for those approaching it … But in spurning all that we also spare ourselves the weekly dousing in the fact of mortality. And this allows us to go through life as children and animals do, giving the ugly fact that we won’t be here very much longer only the occasional fleeting glance. Then comes the stroke, the aneurysm…”
He then considers those unbelievers and atheists who confront their own demise with equanimity and courage,
“who face the fact of their dying calmly and soberly and treat the disposal of their own life as if it were merely another item in the will … But there is a delusion at the heart of this activity … And the delusion lies in believing that the self is a fixed, unchanging entity, while one’s life is something distinct and separate from it which we can enjoy like an ice cream when it is in good shape but may discard like poison when it turns bitter.”
He quotes the example of a woman who tried to kill herself rather than suffer a long and horrible death. She failed. Popham draws this conclusion:
“Her error lay in having arrived at a commodified view of life, as if it were a piece of property whose disposal was entirely her own business: exactly the sort of mad idea that our materialistic society breeds. Whereas the truth is that the self, to the extent that one can speak of such a thing, is in constant flux, one’s expectations from life are in constant evolution, and nothing we do is “our own business” – everything impinges on everything else in the universe.
We needed to rouse ourselves from the sleep of superstition, but in doing so we have collapsed into the narcosis of materialism. And waking from that to the reality of death is a far nastier matter.”
Read the whole article here.