Category Archives: Death-Personal

Bertrand Russell: “How To Grow Old”


Perhaps no one has spoken more clearly on growing old than the great philosopher Bertrand Russell in his essay “How To Grow Old.”

The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

This is one of the most beautiful reflections on death I have found in all of world literature.

Oliver Sacks Died This Morning

9.13.09OliverSacksByLuigiNovi.jpg

(Reprinted as “Oliver Sacks Has Died in Peace,” in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, September 2, 2015)

I have written previously (here and here) about the impending death of the great author and neurologist Oliver Sacks. Now his death is no longer impeding. Sacks died this morning at his home in New York City. (Here is the link to the story from the front page of the New York Times.)

In both of my previous post I commented briefly on opinion pieces Sacks had written in the Times. His last piece, which I read with great interest, was published in the Times just a few weeks ago and I almost wrote about it yesterday. It had a simple and yet surprising title for an atheist. He simply called it “Sabbath.”

Sacks had an Orthodox Jewish upbringing so childhood memories of the sabbath were vivid. How special the Sabbath was, with the ritual of the evening meal and the sound of the Hebrew prayers in the Synagogue. How his entire extended family met after the service at an aunt or uncle’s home. But after the Second World War members of that extended family emigrated to other parts of the world or became more secular. “Our synagogue, which would be packed to capacity when I was a child, grew emptier by the year.”

Sacks found that he too was losing his faith. And at age 18 made a shocking revelation to his father—he was attracted to other boys. He asked his father not to tell his mother.

He did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a look of horror on her face, and shrieked at me: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.” … The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.

After becoming a doctor in 1960, Sacks moved to the United States where he eventually he found meaningful work in a chronic care hospital in the Bronx.  (He is referring to the hospital that he wrote about in his 1973 book Awakenings, which was made into ayhr wonderful film Awakenings starring Robin Williams and Robert Di Niro. ) As Sacks put it:

I was fascinated by my patients there, cared for them deeply, and felt something of a mission to tell their stories — stories of situations virtually unknown, almost unimaginable, to the general public and, indeed, to many of my colleagues. I had discovered my vocation, and this I pursued doggedly, single-mindedly, with little encouragement from my colleagues … It was a lonely but deeply satisfying, almost monkish existence that I was to lead for many years.

Many years he became good friends with his cousin Robert John Aumann who received the Nobel Prize for economics in 2005. Aumann spoke frequently of  how observing the Sabbath improved the quality of one’s life. When Sacks found out he had cancer that same year, Aumann came to visit. As Sacks recalls: “He … made a point of saying that, had he been compelled to travel to Stockholm on a Saturday, he would have refused the prize. His commitment to the Sabbath, its utter peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns, would have trumped even a Nobel.”

And then just last year “hearing that my cousin Marjorie — a physician who had been a protégée of my mother’s and had worked in the field of medicine till the age of 98 — was nearing death, I phoned her in Jerusalem to say farewell.” She asked him to come to her 100th birthday and Sacks agreed, going back to his roots after almost 60 years.  He was embraced by all, as was his partner. The two were invited to the family Sabbath meal where he found a peaceful nostalgia. I’ll let the last few published lines from his prose speak for themselves.

In December 2014, I completed my memoir, “On the Move,” and gave the manuscript to my publisher, not dreaming that days later I would learn I had metastatic cancer, coming from the melanoma I had in my eye nine years earlier. I am glad I was able to complete my memoir without knowing this, and that I had been able, for the first time in my life, to make a full and frank declaration of my sexuality, facing the world openly, with no more guilty secrets locked up inside me.

In February, I felt I had to be equally open about my cancer — and facing death. I was, in fact, in the hospital when my essay on this, “My Own Life,” was published in this newspaper. In July I wrote another piece for the paper, “My Periodic Table,” in which the physical cosmos, and the elements I loved, took on lives of their own.

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

Thank you Dr. Sacks for living a good life. Your well-lived life has enriched many others.

___________________________________________________________________________

On the Move: A Life

The Mind’s Eye

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales

A Leg to Stand On

Hallucinations

Oaxaca Journal

Awakenings

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition

Cemeteries

Above is the only picture I can find on the entire internet of Zion Cemetery in St. Louis. Although the picture is of poor quality, I can identify the cemetery as the one next to the subdivision where I grew up. We often played football or baseball in the grassy areas next to the cemetery and, in the summer, we would get drinks of water from the spigots in the cemetery. I have vivid memories of specific baseball and football games we played there. I also rode my bike in that cemetery, and first started jogging on its roads.

I remember my mom telling me not to step on the graves out of respect for the dead. To this day I obey my mother’s directives. If I accidentally step on one, I feel as if I ran over an animal with my car—squeamish. But for some reason I feel peaceful in cemeteries. I enjoy them. I like to read the headstones, especially the ones with pictures, sayings, or brief descriptions of the dead. I still enjoy walking through the cemetery in the neighborhood I live in now.

None of this makes much sense, especially since I hate death and believe it should be optional. Still, I like cemeteries. Perhaps this is because I am a philosopher, and Socrates said that to philosophize was to practice death. Or perhaps it is the congruence of life and death, of being and nothingness, that I find in cemeteries that transfixes me. All this life, all these dreams, all this caring for parents and children, all this love and sex, all this anxiety and anticipation, all this concern and consciousness … gone.

I don’t know what all this means, but I do know the dead are dead. And now it seems as if the dead had never been. Death seemingly makes life seem pointless. Still I like to walk in cemeteries. I just don’t know why.

Adam Smith on David Hume’s Death

David Hume died August 25, 1776. Here are some details from Wikipedia:

Diarist and biographer James Boswell saw Hume a few weeks before his death, which was from some form of abdominal cancer. Hume told him he sincerely believed it a “most unreasonable fancy” that there might be life after death.[42] … Hume asked that his body be interred in a “simple Roman tomb”. In his will he requests that it be inscribed only with his name and the year of his birth and death, “leaving it to Posterity to add the Rest”.[44] … Adam Smith later recounted Hume’s amusing speculation that he might ask Charon to allow him a few more years of life in order to see “the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition.” The ferryman replied, “You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years … Get into the boat this instant”.[45]

On November 9, 1776, shortly after Hume’s death, the great economist Adam Smith wrote a letter to Hume’s good friend William Strahan, Esq. Here are some excerpts:

DEAR SIR,

It is with a real, though a very melancholy pleasure, that I sit down to give you some account of the behaviour of our late excellent friend, Mr. Hume, during his last illness.

Upon his return to Edinburgh, though he found himself much weaker, yet his cheerfulness never abated, and he continued to divert himself, as usual, with correcting his own works for a new edition, with reading books of amusement, with the conversation of his friends; and, sometimes in the evening, with a party at his favourite game of whist. His cheerfulness was so great, and his conversation and amusements run so much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding all bad symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying.

Mr. Hume’s magnanimity and firmness were such, that his most affectionate friends knew, that they hazarded nothing in talking or writing to him as to a dying man, and that so far from being hurt by this frankness, he was rather pleased and flattered by it. I happened to come into his room while he was reading this letter, which he had just received, and which he immediately showed me. I told him, that though I was sensible how very much he was weakened, and that appearances were in many respects very bad, yet his cheerfulness was still so great, the spirit of life seemed still to be so very strong in him, that I could not help entertaining some faint hopes. He answered, “Your hopes are groundless. An habitual diarrhoea of more than a year’s standing, would be a very bad disease at any age: at my age it is a mortal one. When I lie down in the evening, I feel myself weaker than when I rose in the morning; and when I rise in the morning, weaker than when I lay down in the evening. I am sensible, besides, that some of my vital parts are affected, so that I must soon die.”

But, though Mr. Hume always talked of his approaching dissolution with great
cheerfulness, he never affected to make any parade of his magnanimity. He never
mentioned the subject but when the conversation naturally led to it, and never dwelt
longer upon it than the course of the conversation happened to require: it was a subject
indeed which occurred pretty frequently, in consequence of the inquiries which his
friends, who came to see him, naturally made concerning the state of his health. The
conversation which I mentioned above, and which passed on Thursday the 8th of August,
was the last, except one, that I ever had with him. He had now become so very weak, that
the company of his most intimate friends fatigued him; for his cheerfulness was still so
great, his complaisance and social disposition were still so entire, that when any friend was with him, he could not help talking more, and with greater exertion, than suited the
weakness of his body. At his own desire, therefore, I agreed to leave Edinburgh …

On the 22d of August, the Doctor wrote me  the following letter:

“Since my last, Mr. Hume has passed his time pretty easily, but is much weaker. He
sits up, goes down stairs once a day, and amuses himself with reading, but seldom sees
any body. He finds that even the conversation of his most intimate friends fatigues and
oppresses him; and it is happy that he does not need it, for he is quite free from anxiety,
impatience, or low spirits, and passes his time very well with the assistance of amusing
books.”

I received the day after a letter from Mr. Hume himself, of which the following is an extract.

“MY DEAREST FRIEND, I am obliged to make use of my nephew’s hand in writing to you, as I do not rise to-day. . . .

“I go very fast to decline, and last night had a small fever, which I hoped might put a quicker period to this tedious illness, but unluckily it has, in a great measure, gone off. I cannot submit to your coming over here on my account, as it is possible for me to see you so small a part of the day, but Doctor Black can better inform you concerning the degree of strength which may from time to time remain with me. Adieu, &c.”

Three days after I received the following letter from Doctor Black.

“DEAR SIR, Yesterday about four o’clock afternoon, Mr. Hume expired. The near approach of his death became evident in the night between Thursday and Friday, when his disease became excessive, and soon weakened him so much, that he could no longer rise out of his bed. He continued to the last perfectly sensible, and free from much pain or feelings of distress. He never dropped the smallest expression of impatience; but when he had occasion to speak to the people about him, always did it with affection and tenderness. I thought it improper to write to bring you over, especially as I heard that he had dictated a letter to you desiring you not to come. When he became very weak, it cost him an effort to speak, and he died in such a happy composure of mind, that nothing could exceed it.”

Thus died our most excellent, and never to be forgotten friend; concerning whose philosophical opinions men will, no doubt, judge variously, every one approving, or condemning them, according as they happen to coincide or disagree with his own; but concerning whose character and conduct there can scarce be a difference of opinion. His temper, indeed, seemed to be more happily balanced, if I may be allowed such an expression, than that perhaps of any other man I have ever known. Even in the lowest state of his fortune, his great and necessary frugality never hindered him from exercising, upon proper occasions, acts both of charity and generosity. It was a frugality founded, not upon avarice, but upon the love of independency. The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened either the firmness of his mind, or the steadiness of his resolutions. His constant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good-nature and good-humour, tempered with delicacy and modesty, and without even the slightest tincture of malignity, so frequently the disagreeable source of what is called wit in other men. It never was the meaning of his raillery to mortify; and therefore, far from offending, it seldom failed to please and delight, even those who were the objects of it. To his friends, who were frequently the objects of it, there was not perhaps any one of all his great and amiable qualities, which contributed more to endear his conversation. And that gaiety of temper, so agreeable in society, but which is so often accompanied with frivolous and superficial qualities, was in him certainly attended with the most severe application, the most extensive learning, the greatest depth of thought, and a capacity in every respect the most comprehensive. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.

I Ever Am, Dear Sir,
Most Affectionately Your’s,
Adam Smith.

My Friend’s Mother Has Died

Last week I wrote a post about the impending death of my good friend’s mother. Unfortunately she died on October 13, 2014. Here is an excerpt from my friend’s correspondence informing me of the event. (Remember this is a native French-speaker writing in English. How beautifully and movingly he writes.)

Hi John,

… Mum has passed away (oh what it is to write this!) last night. I was with her and I think she did not feel anything thanks to the morphine. Although how could we know exactly what a brain feels when breathing stops? I can’t believe there was no fear but the drugs probably make it softer.

It’s a huge loss. She was an exceptional lady, radiant with goodness and always trying to make others feel good. A humble and generous person and I can’t really imagine how the world is going to be like without her, without its pole, without gravity. I am going to miss her terribly. I am so lucky that I could have her and now I look at my kids who give me the call of the future.

On Thursday she was starting to feel very uncomfortable and dizzy and it was beginning to be complicated to keep her at home. It would have been necessary to arrange a full 24 hour nursing at home and most of all I knew that she didn’t want to appear to the kids in a pitiful condition. So the doctor arranged her transfer to a hospital of palliative care.

On Saturday driving back home from the hospital (where I was to stay overnight with mum the next night and again the next when she died), I heard on the radio, while I was driving along the dark lake, a lovely poem by Emily Dickinson in a French translation. I felt it was as if mum herself would have sent it to the radio for me to hear at the dusk of her life. Back home I looked on the internet and found the English original:

If I shouldn’t be alive
When the robins come
Give the one in red cravat
A memorial crumb.

If I couldn’t thank you,
Being fast asleep,
You will know I’m trying
With my granite lip!

I am lucky I have Marina and the children who help me to look toward the future and give me peace, serenity and joy. I will keep my sweet mum with me in dear memories and pleasant remembrances all my life, as it was she who cared and nurtured me in my early life, and together with my father, taught me how to live. And why would parents do this if not for the day when they can no longer be with us, so that we can live well without them!

And here is my response.

Dear Louis:

I hope things are going as well as can be expected. I will admit that I often believe that life is basically tragedy and any meaning it has eludes us. But there are oceans and mountains and sky, and there are friends and family and food. The things that make life worth living. There is also the hope that somehow it all makes sense. I wish I could say something more profound but we are small minds in a vast, impenetrable universe (or multiverse!) Still I won’t resort to metaphysical fantasy which, while comforting to some, is nonetheless fantasy. Instead, as you know, I fervently believe that death is an evil that should be eradicated, and which our science and technology will do if left to proceed unabated.

In your hour of grief perhaps Camus might help. He saw that abstract ideas bring about a distance from the world; they draw us away from the actual. But we must always come back to the commonplace for meaning, to what surrounds us, to what we I call the ordinary extraordinary. No theory or abstract truths mitigate existential realities, only our complete engagement in our lives can temporarily do that.

Camus made these points clearly in his essay “Summer in Algiers.” (Your forthcoming vacation by the Aegean made me think of this.) There amidst sea, sun, sand, and sex he mused: “Between this sky and these faces turned toward it, nothing on which to hang a mythology, a literature, an ethic, or a religion, but stones, flesh, stars, and those truths the hand can touch.”

Perhaps that is all we have, but perhaps also it is enough. Find peace on your island my friend. Find it in the sound and smell of the sea, in that vastness from whence we came.

The Greek Island of Naxos