The goal of Radical Decency is to be decent to our self, others, and the world, at all times, in every context, and without exception. But across-the-board decency – as opposed to pick-and-chose decency – is impossible if our habitual beliefs and behaviors are not in tune with our biological realities.
When such a disconnection occurs, the physical realities that define us – and limit of our possibilities – inevitably emerge. And the conflict between our biology and these “unnatural” thoughts and actions brings, with it, a high risk of pain for our self and others.
One the obvious example of this phenomenon is the suppression of female sexuality at so many points in our history. Think of the incalculable damage that it has caused in the lives of countless generations of women?
In this Reflection, I discuss another pervasive and deeply consequential distortion of our innate biology: The way in which we view dying and incorporate that reality into our lives.
There are two events that define us more than any others: Birth and death.
The first just happens, with no awareness or anticipation on our part.
Dying, however, is different. An awareness of our mortality is inescapably with us throughout our lives, and how we deal with it is vital to our quality of life. As Irvin Yalom, one of our foremost psychotherapeutic theorists, flatly states: Whether acknowledged or not, mortality is a key issue in every clinical relationship – every one.
Unfortunately, the values that drive our culture, and mold our choices, deeply marginalize this reality. If asked, we agree that death is inevitable. But the ways in which we compose our lives speak to a very different, if unspoken, operative reality.
We live in a world where the fantasy of dominance and control is pre-eminent. We can do anything if we try hard enough – and are “less than,” losers, if we don’t.
Thoroughly interwoven into this larger message is the implicit belief that, through shrewd choices and sheer force of will, we can make ourselves invulnerable to the effects of time. The right combination of food, vitamins, supplements, exercise, and stretching will allow us to always feel great and never get sick.
And we supplement this fantasy of actual invincibility with an increasingly mainstream regiment of artifice. We dye our hair; surgically alter our faces, breasts, and thighs; inject botox; and consume viagara – all strategies designed to maintain the illusion of perpetual youth, not only for others but for ourselves as well.
Moreover, the mainstream medical profession is fully complicit in promoting this illusion of immortality.
- We will find a cure for cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s – indeed for every malady that can kill us; and
- Patients in their 80s and 90s – in the last stages of their biologically programmed deterioration – are put on experimental drugs.
Death isn’t the natural endpoint of life. It is an enemy to be defeated.
Regular exercise, sensible diets and good medical care are, of course, positive things. But this motivating mindset is not. The unstated goal is never to get old, never to die. Our idealized 40 year-old feels 25. Our 60 year-old role model looks and acts 40.
In this way, the reality of dying never arrives. It is always out there in the future – 10 years further down the road from wherever we are now. Somewhere in this process, of course, we die. But by virtue of this cognitive sleight of hand, it is always premature – an unfortunate stroke of bad fortune.
We pay a high price for this chronic state of denial. A natural rhythm of living is built into our nature. Fully embraced, each stage of life has its own special challenges and rewards. But all that is swept aside when we reflexively seek to freeze our outlook and choices, struggling to maintain the ambition and sexual allure of a 35 year old into our 60s and beyond.
Chronic denial of aging also leaves us unprepared when life’s natural end point becomes imminent. We typically react to a terminal diagnosis with disbelief which, when you think about it, is truly funny. Did we really think it wasn’t going to happen to us?
What is less funny is the fact that we then face this final challenge with little or no psychic preparation. The result? Too many of us die badly, railing against our fate and filled with complaints because our bodies no longer work as they’re “supposed to.”
The more sensible approach is to embrace death and dying in ways that empower us to live more fully and vibrantly. My particular take on how to do this is framed by two stories.
Not long ago I listened to an interview with Nuala O’Faolain, the Irish memoirist, who, living with a terminal diagnosis, was struggling with the fact that all of her wisdom would die with her. Hearing her anguish, I remembered a second story, of a woman whose Berkeley Hills house burned down in the 1980s, destroying all of her possessions.
Shortly after this event, people started contacting her. Years earlier she had copied her favorite recipes and sent them to a friend. That friend called to say that she was re-copying the recipes and sending them back to her. Her children also called to say they were making copies of the family photos she had faithfully sent to them over the years. As these calls continued, the woman realized this: The only thing that was safely hers was what she had given away.
So here, it seems to me, is the answer to O’Faolain’s dilemma. One way to look at the rhythm of our years is to think of it as consisting of two interwoven but distinct paths.
The first – an acquisitive one – starts at a high level, exemplified by the infant who is constantly exploring, touching, experimenting, testing, and learning. This remains our dominant preoccupation into young adulthood as we hone our social and romantic skills, build careers and establish homes, families, and places in the community.
The second path – of giving it away – is always there as well. Indeed, Radical Decency teaches that, in healthy intimate relationships, loving and being loved are completely intertwined. Thus, effective giving is a skill we need to master as we emerge as seasoned adults. But while giving away is an important subtext in the earlier years of life, there comes a point when it needs to become our central focus.
Even into our 60s and 70s, the culture invites us to continue our acquisitive ways: To go on striving in our careers; to gorge ourselves on trips, games and new toys; to remain competitive with younger people, both professionally and socially.
The obvious problem with this approach is that it’s doomed to failure. Even Hugh Hefner eventually becomes a pathetic and laughable caricature: A doddering old man in pajamas. The less obvious – and more serious – problem is that it crowds out the more nourishing promise of our later years. Properly conceived, these years are an incredibly sweet race against time: To give away as much as we can while we can; my answer to O’Faolain’s dilemma.
In making this our priority, we replace the doomed goal of “staying in the race” with a more realistic purpose. Here is a goal for our final years that offers an ennobling, life-affirming challenge; one that requires wisdom, sensitivity, imagination, patience, and persistence.
A serious commitment to “giving it away” also invites us to die well. While it is seldom acknowledged, everyone who loves us will be exquisitely aware — as we grow old — of our death’s inevitable approach and deeply attentive when it finally arrives. Thus, if we are serious about our vocation of loving and nourishing our loved ones, our death is an absolutely vital and formative moment; our final, really big challenge – and opportunity.
What greater gift can we give to those we love than to handle this last and greatest of life’s mysteries with equanimity, acceptance and, even, curiosity and anticipation? Dying well, we give them an invaluable role model that, hopefully, will help to nourish and sustain them as they face their own decline and death.
As I write this Reflection I am 68, ridiculously healthy, feeling great. Knowing that dying can be really tough, I worry that I am being glib and Pollyanna-ish. When my own decline and death arrives, I may not live up to these brave words. But I also know that giving away what I have – now – is not just a nourishing way to spend my next years. It is also the best way I know to prepare for my last, really big moment – when it arrives.
When I die, I hope to kick some serious butt!