Aging Roundly

An exchange with a reader who wrote in response to yesterday’s post:

Reader: I think “terror of death” really hits it on the head (and the irony of a largely-Christian society being the one that can’t bear to talk about assisted suicide or get serious about good end-of-life care never wears out.) There’s this widespread sense that death is the most terrible consummation possible, to be avoided at all costs, and the longer can avoid it (no matter what the quality of our lives), and the less we talk about it, and the less anybody is allowed to admit that it’s going to happen no matter how well we live, the better. And that’s one of the most commonly cited reasons for hating fat: “But you’re going to diiiiieeeee!” Well, fat-hater, so are you, no matter how much kale you (or I) eat. Neither one of us knows when or how. Eating kale (even though I’m totally a fan of the kale) doesn’t change that.

Suffering is terrible; dying may well be terrible (though there’s some evidence that it doesn’t have to be); but death? Why are we so convinced that it’s the very worst thing that can happen, worse than torture, worse than physical misery? And is it really a good use of our outrage, culturally, to hate fat people for being allegedly closer to it?

Me:

The obsession with, and the need to define and restrain, eschatology have been the plague of Christianity for ages. Thank you, Mr. Alighieri and everyone else who’s been at such pains to enunciate the horrors thereof. Not that Dante and Bosch weren’t reflecting as much as inventing, and certainly St. Paul framed much of his discourse around it. But I don’t think The Inferno or Paradise lost have helped in the sense of moving the issue to the center. And then there are the Puritans, and their horrid suspicions of anyone who looked like he or she might be having too much fun. Having Gluttony as one of the 7 Deadlies (can’t we PLEASE replace it with Fearmongering?) has also not helped. I would, provided that the brain was working decently, like very much to live as long as possible–say, to see the grandkids marry and settle. But then I’d want to see the great-grands enter the picture, and then I could want to see them settle (we’re traveling waaaaaay far out on the actuarial edge here), and then… It’s a kind of greed, I think, this desire to live and live and live, even as it is also clearly hard-wired. And the folks on what my son-in-law called the Zombie Floor at the nursing home my mother was in–that was something other than life. Something sustained artificially by drugs and families’ unwillingness or inability to say STOP. It’s cruel.

All that being said. at one point my mother had an obese roommate. That was a worse version of life because she had to be moved with 2 aides and a lifting machine, so was attended to to a lesser degree by the overworked staff. She frightened me. Her life frightened me. Her lack of cognition frightened me, but the not-so-enthusiastic care (she was also fairly unpleasant, personality-wise) marked my consciousness. And the ugly truth is that none of us knows what parts of our personalities will hang around when the dementia starts eating away at cognition. Very often it’s not the nice parts. But, clearly, being big is also a serious disadvantage in that situation. So there are just practical issues. But it is also true that we tend to shy away from those who are closer to death, for the most part. When I was young, cancer was still treated as bad form on the part of the victim and nearly contagious for anyone around him/her. We’ve gotten a little better about that.

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