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That Old Whore, Death

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Old 10-10-2007, 05:27 AM
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This is about a grim subject that Hemingway once called "that old whore, death."

Hemingway was obsessed with death. The obsession was in his writing and in his personal life. He also had other issues related to alcohol abuse, manhood and courage.

At age 62 Hemingway finally killed himself, but he was so sick, he likely had only a couple more years to live anyway. It's the mess he left for his poor wife to clean up that seems inexcusable. A shotgun blast in the mouth took his head off just above the jawbone and deposited a gooey pattern on the wall.

When I was in my early 20s, I developed a morbid fear of death -- possibly from reading too much Hemingway. While other people my age were having fun in their lives, I suffered from psychosomatic illness and recurring nightmares in which I was pursued by various symbols of death.

A few years later I confronted my fear of death and it vanished like a bad dream. For decades after that I was a danger junkie, taking risks that any wise man would avoid. I didn't think about death any longer. I lived without a realistic sense of my own mortality.

All of that has changed with old age. I'm 63 years old and I feel extremely mortal now. I try not to dwell consciously on death because it can ruin my whole day. But it's always there in the back of my mind.

Death during childhood is more than tragic -- it's obscene. This is one reason I don't believe in a God who takes a personal interest in the welfare of every individual. If such a God existed, he wouldn't allow children to die.

I've known a few people who committed suicide in their 20s or 30s and I thought they were stupid because those are the best years of life.

By their 40s most people notice things starting to go wrong with their health. They may slow down a bit, but they still enjoy their lives much the same as before.

In their 50s serious health problems often develop. If they live to their 60s and 70s, they are no longer happy campers. They are geezers who are likely to become objects of pity, ridicule or scorn -- even from family members.

Americans don't respect old age like many other cultures. We worship youth and fear death and old age is an unpleasant reminder of death. I felt the same way when I was young.

Of course I feel differently now. Although my body is turning against me, my mind is sharper than ever and I think I still have much to contribute on an intellectual level.

The problem is a typical man or woman on the street takes one look at me and concludes that I'm fairly useless. I can see it in their eyes and I feel withered every time.

I don't believe in suicide. I think it casts a pall over everything that lives and dies naturally -- in fact, over life itself. I make an exception for terminal illness when drugs no longer work to alleviate pain.

Nietzsche thought it was unworthy of a writer to make his readers doubt the value of life. For one thing we can never know the value of life in any objective way since we are so deeply involved in it. But it's also bad form for a writer, who has a special responsibility not to turn off his readers to the possibilities of life.

Before Socrates was forced to drink his cup of hemlock, he reputedly described life as a long sickness that is cured by death. I think that statement made Socrates an irresponsible philosopher. He was sentenced to commit suicide for corrupting the youth of ancient Athens, a crime of which he knew he was guilty.

I hope I die peacefully in my sleep before I'm decrepit. I have no fear of what happens after death, it's the dying that worries me. I don't want it to be a long drawn-out affair leading up to that final moment when I know I will be afraid. I wish to avoid lingering on the brink in a hospital for weeks, months or years. I just want to get it over with as quickly as possible.

So I have hedged my bets by joining the Hemlock Society in case things go terribly wrong. This doesn't mean I'm questioning the value of life or changing my opinion about suicide in general. Compared to most people I have known, I think I have had a pretty good life and I'm grateful for that.

But I want a quick way out if the final part of my life becomes a horror to me. I think I owe it to myself to follow Nietzsche's advice to "die at the right time, blessing life instead of cursing it."

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Old 10-10-2007, 08:48 AM
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Ooo, death. Fun stuff. Seriously, I don't mind thinking about death, never have. There was a time when I wished for it, but no longer. I am, in general, content with my lot.

I think personal acceptance has a lot to do with how we feel about death. If we feel unfulfilled, we fear death because it can take us before we've had the chance to redeem our worthless self. Whereas, if we feel we have at least atttempted to reach our potential, we die knowing that we have achieved something.

That is why life can never really be about living only for the moment. We need to live for today, yes, but for tomorrow as well. And, even if we have managed to accomplish all our goals, we need to set more. There must always be a brass ring for which we strive, else there is no purpose in living. Hence the idea that a man (or woman) who has it all will never be happy, because there is nothing left to live for.

I must say, Starr, I find your process of aging quite grim. Forties: things begin to go wrong, 50s: serious health issues; people in their 60s and 70s no longer happy campers. Dear, oh dear. I don't think I'm abnormal (well, not in aging standards anyway); I will be fifty in two months and I am in relatively good health. My main problem is back trouble - but I hasten to add that began as the result of an accident when I was ten. Nothing to do with aging then. My husband will be sixty next year; he's a little overweight (all my good cooking), but also healthy (he still plays squash about once a week). My eighty-five year old mother-in-law is a little forgetful these days, but still a happy woman.

As I said before, so much depends on outlook, so if you expect to find unhappiness, you probably will. If you look for happiness, you just might find it. Ditto fulfillment.

Personally, I have no fear of death. I'm not actively seeking it, and I'd like to be around long enough to see my daughter happily settled with a family of her own, but I wouldn't be crushed to discover the clock was ticking faster than I had assumed. Of course, no one wants a painful death, but accidents can never be ruled out, so it isn't worth worrying about the how. Indeed, if I was asked, I don't think I could choose how I would like to go. All I know is that when it comes to death, my feelings are best described by JM Barrie's most famous character: Death will be an awfully great adventure.
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Old 10-10-2007, 12:04 PM
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Originally Posted by Queen of Wands View Post
I must say, Starr, I find your process of aging quite grim.
I think it is for most Americans because of our cultural emphasis on youth. Aging is seen as a sort of disease to be cured rather than a natural process.
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Old 10-10-2007, 12:18 PM
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When did it begin, all this idiocy of adults refusing to grow old? I look at photographs of my parents when they were in their twenties and they are there in suit and dress, full length proper coats, hats and gloves. In their thirties they are wearing jeans and body shirts (remember those?), sneakers and neckchains, and riding mopeds. Parents in the seventies adopted the fashions of their children, was that it? They wanted to be 'cool' but still said 'groovy' when no one did anymore. ::sigh::

And here am I, almost fifty, dressed all in black like an old Italian mama. But then I put on my tartan Converse high-tops, my wristlets and cloak, and there goes civility out the window. Shit.

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Old 10-10-2007, 07:20 PM
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"Suicide only works for you, not the ones left behind."

No idea who said it, but it really is true. A friend told me that once, and it helped me through some rough times. I don't believe in suicide either, but I think I can understand why people resort to that.

I'm not scared of death, but I am scared of how my death will affect those I love.
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Old 10-11-2007, 01:47 AM
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Excellent points, Chloe. A long time ago, a friend of mine celebrated his 17th birthday by doing a Hemingway. Ended his problems but nothing else changed.

About when we die, I have to agree with that as well. For myself, I'm not afraid, but I know my daughter still needs me, so I'd like to stick around a while yet. (And my dogs would miss me. Aw.)
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Old 10-11-2007, 04:42 AM
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Originally Posted by Queen of Wands View Post
For myself, I'm not afraid, but I know my daughter still needs me, so I'd like to stick around a while yet. (And my dogs would miss me. Aw.)
*Starrwriter sticks a finger down his throat and retches*
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Old 10-11-2007, 05:10 AM
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Hold on, Starr, I'll get a fishbone to help you out!
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