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March 2002 -- Among the repercussions of last September's terrorist attacks is a heightened awareness among Objectivists of a phenomenon we, as lovers of life, are sometimes loath to contemplate: our own death. The unspeakable spectacle of the planes in which we fly crashing into the skyscrapers in which we work, the possibility that the envelopes we open might send deadly anthrax spores into our lungs, and the unnerving threat that at any moment we might fall victim to the designs of fanatics have inevitably brought thoughts of mortality to the fore.
Fortunately, death by murder and accident accounts for less than 5 percent of mortalities in the United States, meaning that the overwhelming majority of us will succumb to natural causes late in life. But regardless of when the Reaper comes calling, how shall we greet him? With defiance or serenity? With sorrow or laughter? Will we have prepared our response? Or will we trust to the inspiration of the moment? Such questions have a heightened importance to those of us for whom this life is the standard of value and afterlife a myth.
Because dying and death are inevitable (at least at present), a rational person needs to consider the topic at some point and formulate his approach to it. But this is easier said than done, for few issues can evoke evasion as strongly as one's mortality. In the interests of provoking thought on the subject, I recently conducted an unscientific survey of eleven Objectivist and secular humanist thinkers to ascertain their thoughts and feelings about the subject of human mortality. The individuals kind enough to respond to my survey were: Nathaniel Branden, psychologist and author; David Kelley, founder of The Objectivist Center and currently its executive director; Barbara Branden, author; John Hospers, philosopher; Chris Matthew Sciabarra, author and New York University visiting scholar; Stephen Hicks, associate professor of philosophy and chairman of the philosophy department at Rockford College; William R Thomas, TOC's director of research and training; Paul Kurtz, founder of the Council for Secular Humanism; Carolyn Ray, philosopher; John Enright, poet; and Todd Goldberg, geriatrician at the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. I also received input on the issue of cryonics from TOC members Stan and Timur Rozenfeld and personal reflections on the fear of death from a libertarian radio talk-show host, Scott Schiff.
"In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes," wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1789.
The Objectivist position on taxation is well known. The Objectivist position on death is not. Does the philosophy for living life on earth offer comfort to those facing their own or their loved ones' decline and death? "It doesn't in any way known to me," says Nathaniel Branden. "I've never heard a single thing said by an Objectivist that I thought was especially illuminating or useful on the subject."
In 1979, on The Tomorrow Show, host Tom Snyder mentioned to Ayn Rand the comfort he took in the belief that people enter into some eternal realm after death, "that we're not just corpses in graves when we die." Rand's rejoinder: "But we aren't corpses in graves. We are not there. Don't you understand that when this life is finished, you're not there to say, 'Oh, how terrible that I'm a corpse'?" This retort suggests a view of death as a zero, a non-state rather than a state to be feared.
Todd Goldberg concurs: "Death can't be a bad experience, because it's a void, a non-experience." "I am with Rand," comments Will Thomas, "in thinking that death is not a state we enter. We aren't there when we are dead, so we cannot prepare for it—only for its consequences for our loved ones and important projects. We prepare for unexpected death simply by living well and without regret." Can a rational philosophy help us do that? "Objectivism allows one to face death clear-eyed and make the most of the time one has left. But because it recognizes that we have only the here and now, it doesn't make any less of the loss that death is."
John Enright agrees with this double-edged assessment: "The philosophy offers no illusions regarding death, so in that sense it offers no comfort. On the other hand, it doesn't scare you with visions of an unpleasant afterlife, and it tells you to focus on life, which is where the only real comfort is to be found."
Stephen Hicks adds that Objectivism can temper concerns about death "in the following respect. It is a philosophy that encourages people to get the most out of their lives, and it provides excellent general guidance about how to do so. So when one reaches the end of one's life, one is more likely to feel good about the life one has led and be less likely to feel that one has wasted it."
Perhaps it is inevitable that Objectivism, the philosophy for living life on earth, does not address at length a state defined as the absence of life. Perhaps it is predictable that, while religious believers confront mortality with an elaborate set of beliefs (albeit false ones) and an organized support system, Objectivists have only a few reflections and a general injunction to get on with life. At any rate, for many Objectivists, knowing that death is a non-state evidently suffices to steel them against the fact of their mortality. Others, though, yearn for more discussion about the psychology of facing one's own demise or the decline and death of a loved one. Personally, I agree that these subjects deserve more development in the Objectivist oeuvre.
"I think of death from two different perspectives that are not always easy to integrate," says David Kelley. "From one perspective, life and death are opposites, posing an alternative we face on an ongoing basis. This is a familiar perspective to Objectivists because our entire moral code is based on this alternative. From this perspective, we see death as a disvalue, a threat we confront in the form of the risk of illness or accidents that can kill us. If you value life, death represents the ultimate failure. From another perspective, however, death is a part of life. We all know we will die at some point, no matter how rational, productive, virtuous, or fortunate we are. In this sense, death cannot be considered a failure, unless and until we discover some way to extend the lifespan indefinitely. Most people, Objectivist or not, seem to integrate these two aspects of death perfectly well in a practical sense. We try to avoid dying before our time by minimizing risks [Perspective #1], but we also prepare for the time we know is coming [Perspective #2]. The harder task is integration at the emotional level. How can the love of life that is so characteristic of Rand's heroes, and that we seek to cultivate in ourselves, accommodate the acceptance of death as an inevitable fact?"
The answer to Kelley's question may perhaps be found in two poems, which express two different strategies for dealing with death. Many Objectivists applaud Dylan Thomas's famous villanelle, which begins:
"Do not go gentle into that good night.
Old age should burn and rave at close of day.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
This poem presents death as the ultimate enemy, to be fought vigorously despite the inevitability of the outcome.
A less confrontational attitude is found in the short poem "Finis," by Walter Savage Landor:
"I strove with none, for none was worth my strife.
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art:
I warm'd both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart."
In a 1999 lecture about his favorite poems, philosopher Leonard Peikoff suggested that Landor's poem (with its mellow reflection on a life well lived) is superior to Thomas's, because he interpreted the latter as an angry defiance of reality. Upon reflection, though, one may interpret "Do Not Go Gentle" as tantamount to David Kelley's Perspective #1: viewing death as a disvalue to be avoided, up to the last breath; and "Finis" as akin to Kelley's Perspective #2: seeing death as a natural part of life to be accepted, and also a motivator to savor life while it lasts.
William R Thomas, in his recent Navigator commentary, " American Heroism ," defined death as a sort of integration of these two approaches. Death, he wrote, "is the end we struggle against all our lives, but it is inevitable and must be faced with rationality and dignity."
Perhaps the duality of these perspectives is responsible for the divided emotional reactions that thoughts of death provoke. Thinking of our eventual mortality makes us feel "sadness, regret, and a tinge of fear at the possibility of great pain" (Barbara Branden); "solemnity when it is merely contemplated as eventual, sadness when I specifically imagine being gone and 'missing everything,' fear if my doctor sees a funny bump and wants it biopsied" (Enright); and "sometimes apprehensive, sometimes indifferent, sometimes relieved, sometimes serenely accepting" (Nathaniel Branden).
These varying reactions stem from several difficult issues related to dying and death.
In Act II, Scene II of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Caesar remarks to Calpurnia: "Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once."
For many, fears of death may intrude into the course of daily life decades before old age arrives, detracting from quality of life by fostering debilitating anxieties, neuroses, and depression.
Scott Schiff, a Kansas City radio talk-show host and a libertarian, is candid about his own fear of death and its deleterious effects upon his life. "I have been fearful of death ever since I became an atheist at the age of 12. For many years afterwards I had trouble sleeping at night, lying there imagining the moment when I would lose consciousness forever. In later years I found myself worrying excessively about my health: 'Do I have cancer?' 'Does this chest pain mean I'm having a heart attack?' I also tend to procrastinate and worry a lot, both of which I think are caused deep down by my fear of death. I've gone to therapy for this problem, but it didn't help significantly. On the positive side, in response to this fear I've sought out belief systems which stress life, such as Objectivism and life extension, and I believe that laissez-faire capitalism is the best system for encouraging medical technologies that will extend human life."
Nathaniel Branden addresses fear of death in his book Honoring the Self: The Psychology of Confidence and Respect, in a chapter entitled "Death Anxiety." In the book, Branden mentions that many of the patients he has seen in his psychotherapy practice over the years have exhibited signs of a subconscious fear of death, which led many of them to deny their mortality in ways harmful to personal growth and self-esteem. In his book, he proceeds to recommend exercises that can help people face this fear.
Such anxieties can spring from a multitude of psychological and existential factors. Carolyn Ray points out one factor that recalls Rand's injunction in the Snyder interview not to confuse the non-state of death with a negative-value state in life. Writes Ray: "Many people fear death because they think that being dead is a state they will be in. I know people who are terribly afraid of death, and upon my questioning, they will frequently say something like, 'I'll miss being alive,' or, 'It'll just be so sad not to see any of my friends anymore,' or even, 'I'll hate not being able to move,' as though after death they will still in some sense be alive and be able to experience loss or fear. But of course, they're really alluding to a state more like paralysis or solitary confinement than death."
"Objectivism so far is woefully inadequate on the topic of grief," writes John Enright. Many others I interviewed for this article echoed Enright's sentiment.
"Nothing," adds Barbara Branden, "not Objectivism, not anything, offers comfort for the loss of loved ones. I think it is the worst thing that happens in life. One does not stop loving a person because he or she dies, and so the sense of loss, though it diminishes over time, never fully goes away. My brother died ten years ago, and I think of him almost every day with a pain that still feels fresh."
Chris Matthew Sciabarra suggests that psychologists need to develop what he terms "a technology of grief," a more effective, more systematic method for helping people come to terms with loved ones' deaths.
Nathaniel Branden believes psychology "can help us get over grief by helping us understand that grieving is how the organism heals itself. It should be understood and accepted and not fought. Grieving is intended ultimately to facilitate acceptance of the loss, eventually returning one to an embrace of life."
Another problem is the fear many people have of a long and painful decline in health preceding death, during which the quality of life drops precipitously. Nathaniel Branden worries about "difficulties like strokes, decreasing physical or mental capacities, a progressive helplessness and dependence on others. I can't stand the thought of putting my caretakers in that kind of position." What is the solution? "If I would ever reach a point where I could see that I was completely helpless and dependent on other people, that life were no longer meaningful to me in any way, then the impulse for me to self-destruct would get very strong, and I'd wish to God there were some graceful method of self-exiting." Branden, like many people, has taken the step of drafting a living will to guard against the pointless prolongation of his life, should he reach the point to which his comments refer.
Echoing Branden's concerns, Paul Kurtz writes: "I support voluntary euthanasia as a way to avoid unnecessary suffering in the dying process."
Unfortunately, legal assisted suicide in the United States is possible only in the state of Oregon, and perhaps not even there for much longer. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft is currently attempting to block the state's assisted-suicide law, which was overwhelmingly passed by Oregon voters.
In the rest of the country, the lack of access to legal physician-assisted suicide leads many elderly people to take their own lives, sometimes with unfortunate results: undue suffering, an unpleasant scene for those who discover the bodies, or a lack of success in the endeavor due to wrong medications or other botches. Fortunately, resources such as Derek Humphrey's how-to manual, Final Exit, are available to guide those intent upon a foolproof and comfortable suicide. On January 2, rear admiral Chester W. Nimitz Jr. committed suicide with his wife, Joan, after meticulous and informed preparations. The couple, 86 and 89 years old, respectively, suffered from a battery of medical problems including osteoporosis, painful back and orthopedic problems, and blindness. While their family members supported their decision, the inevitable armchair quarterbacks have weighed in with comments like the following from a January 12 New York Times letter to the editor by Ann Korner of Hamden, Connecticut: "I hope that no married couple will consider following the example set by Chester W. Nimitz Jr. and his wife.…Suicide is the ultimate selfish act, no matter whether the person who chooses to die this way is 18 or 80 years old." An Objectivist reader will likely agree that the Nimitzes committed "the ultimate selfish act"—the final, properly egoistic act—for the exact reasons Korner deplores the act: the couple, in full possession of their mental faculties but in failing physical health, made a choice based on their own sovereign judgment and carried out their plan despite social and religious taboos.
Todd Goldberg, who in these pages wrote in support of assisted suicide (Navigator, March 1998), has worked with thousands of senior citizens and terminally ill patients during his fifteen years as a geriatrician. In his practice, he sees a division between terminal patients who yearn for death when they conclude that life is no longer worth living and those who cling to life as precious no matter what ills befall them. Interestingly, Goldberg says he has seen no evidence that one's philosophic worldview plays any role in determining into which camp a given person falls. Individual psychology and the particulars of a patient's medical condition seem to be the determining factors. "Some people are simply more prone to depression and hopelessness, while others are more disposed to optimism, acceptance, and enjoying what they can without complaining," he says.
Many cultures express the wish "may you live a thousand years"—or "ten thousand years," which is the meaning of "banzai." Yet it is only since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that advances in medical technology have extended the average human lifespan from around forty years to upwards of seventy-five. And even that towering achievement has meant only a small extension in the "natural" lifespan of Biblical times: three score and ten. Today, however, developments in anti-aging research promise further improvement in the length and quality of our lives. In recent years, anti-aging has grown beyond a research specialty and emerged as a cultural movement, with breathless "Fountain of Youth" segments on the evening news magazines and cover articles in national publications as recently as the January 21 issue of Time ("The Science of Staying Healthy: Can We Learn to Beat the Reaper?"). Some anti-aging researchers believe it may one day be possible for people to exceed the current age limit (roughly 120 years) and live to 150, 175, even 200. Other scientists are studying human chromosomes, focusing on components called telomeres that regulate a cell's internal clock. Researchers hope to develop techniques to re-set this clock and fool the cells into never deteriorating. Such a development could produce lifespans of 300, 500, or even thousands of years. (See http://www.sciencemag.org/feature/data/telomerase/telomerase.shtml )
While some may find the prospect of Methuselah-like lifespans unnatural and undesirable, the people in my survey group say they would be happy to fill a thousand years with all sorts of adventures. "Think of what you could do!" William R Thomas exclaims. "Whole vistas of human experience and achievement would open up. Family-raising and career development could be entirely distinct phases of life. One could explore different careers, take up new educational opportunities mid-stream." Barbara Branden adds: "I'd love to have a hundred different lives, hundreds of different loves, a thousand different friends, many lifetimes in which to learn, a few thousand different careers."
Many people in the life-extension movement are availing themselves of vitamin supplements and hormone injections, and are exercising and restricting caloric and fat intake in order to live long enough to see the benefits of future anti-aging breakthroughs. Carolyn Ray, an avid bodybuilder, says that while she may not qualify as a die-hard life extensionist, she fully intends to live to the age of 150, if not longer.
A different approach to life extension through technology is the process known as cryonics. In a cryonic suspension, medical personnel rapidly cool a person's body immediately after death, then reduce the body temperature further until it approaches the state at which all appreciable molecular activity ceases. The body is next stored and continually cooled with liquid nitrogen. The hope is that medical science will one day be able to thaw out, resuscitate, and cure the person of whatever killed him, restoring him in the process to youthful health and vigor and guaranteeing a long, perhaps indefinite, lifespan. A handful of organizations offer cryonic suspension at costs ranging from $35,000 to $120,000.
As it happens, though, when the body is lowered to extreme temperatures, ice crystals puncture cell membranes, causing serious damage. Cryonicists believe that, in the future, science will not only be able to cure the person's underlying malady but will also be able to correct the cellular damage.
Stan Rozenfeld, a TOC member and communications technician in New York, is not only a cryonics enthusiast, he is a paid-in-full client of Cryonics Institute, a Michigan cryonics service founded by author and cryonics visionary Robert Ettinger. "Life is a value to me, the ultimate good," says Rozenfeld, "so it's natural that I want to extend life's quality and quantity. Cryonics is an opportunity to do that. Of course, the opportunity has many costs. You have to jettison the familiar life framework (you are born, you live, you die) with its combination of comfort and terror. You have to be willing to be viewed as a cuckoo by people who think cryonics is science fiction. You have to do your homework and put up money to make sure your suspension is legally and scientifically doable. But I, for one, am willing to pay those costs."
Rozenfeld's brother, Timur, a software manager at a New York hospital, is also a TOC member and Cryonics Institute client. He acknowledges that cryonics offers no guarantee of revival: "No doubt, it's a gamble. We may never have the technology to revive people. New findings in science may disprove the possibility of repairing the cellular damage caused by freezing. Cryonics is experimental, but as the biologist Ralph Merkle said, 'Would you rather be part of the experimental group or the control group?' With the control group you rot in the ground or get burned to ashes, with zero-percent chance of revival. With cryonics you get a chance—maybe a remote one, maybe not so remote—to live again someday."
Detractors dismiss cryonics as pseudoscience. John Hospers calls it "fantasyland….I don't think it's viable, plus I wouldn't want to outlive my friends." Paul Kurtz goes further: "Much of the fixation on it strikes me as morbid." And Nathaniel Branden comments: "Quite a few people have tried to get me interested in cryonics over the years, but it's never interested or tempted me. I don't know whether it's scientifically valid or not, but the whole project is not one that arouses my interest. I'd like to live a long, long time, but once I'm dead, don't bring me back. I want undisturbed rest. No wake-up calls."
Among the oldest questions related to death is: What, if anything, happens to our consciousness after we die? Various religions offer a hereafter or reincarnation, but secular philosophies offer neither.
When Ayn Rand appeared on The Phil Donahue Show in 1980, Donahue asked her whether, given the death of her husband, she hoped for a reunion with him in an afterlife. "I've asked myself just that," she replied, "seriously. And I thought if I really believed that for five minutes, I'd commit suicide immediately… to get to him."
Most members of my survey panel believe that the human soul passes into complete non-existence after death. This is the hypothesis one would expect from the atheist perspective. But a few respondents expressed a slightly more agnostic view about the human afterlife. Chris Matthew Sciabarra says: "Who knows? I've not experienced it yet." Nathaniel Branden replies: "What happens? Well, I really don't know, do I? But I'm inclined to believe it's pure non-existence."
Barbara Branden confesses: "I would love to believe in reincarnation, so I could come back and live again and again and again, as long as it was as a human being like myself. But since there are so many contradictions in the idea of reincarnation, I suppose I'll have to do without it. And I would love to believe in an afterlife, so that I would once again be with the people I love who have died. But apparently I'll have to do without that, too. Yet, since energy is not destroyed, perhaps one's soul is not utterly destroyed; perhaps it continues to exist in some form; it is so wondrous a possession that it seems wasteful of reality to allow the soul to cease to exist. But that would be of no use to me unless the form in which it continues to exist remains myself. So perhaps the best answer is, 'Who knows?'"
David Kelley, in discussing his personal views on the life-to-death journey, notes that he sees his life as "a kind of narrative over time. The lifespan perspective has an aesthetic dimension for me, like a good story. One can be the reader as well as the author of one's story. When I was young, there wasn't much in the narrative yet, just a couple of chapters. Now the story is much further along. We're well into the action, the development, the strands of plot that weave together in interesting ways. Though I don't tend to dwell on the past, my memory of a meaningful past does contribute more and more to this developing narrative, and it affects my sense of current goals and actions. In addition to the value these goals and actions have for the present and future, I also see them as contributing to a life of which I am the author, a story that began years ago, which I want to have coherence and significance, and which will come to a close at some point."
Ayn Rand's own incredible narrative came to a close on March 6, 1982, and while she never dwelled on death in her philosophy or personal life, she had prepared for it as a purely practical matter. As Harry Binswanger wrote in his message, "To the Reader," inThe Objectivist Forum: "Miss Rand had long considered it a point of honor to have her affairs in order in the event of her death, and she left explicit instructions with Leonard Peikoff concerning these matters, down to the music to be played at her funeral."
Toward the conclusion of Honoring the Self, Nathaniel Branden sums up his feelings about death in this way: "I do my best to stay connected to my mortality and that of those I love, and I find that it is not a morbid thought, but an enriching one. It is an awareness that increases my appreciation of the preciousness of life. If we are to live fully in the present, we need the context of our mortality. We need to remember that we do not have unlimited time. The ticking of the clock is not a tragedy. It is essential to the meaning and excitement of life, to the intensity of love—indeed, to the intensity of any joy. The glory life is inseparable from the fact that it is finite."
To put the matter theoretically: Just as a significant expansion or contraction of the money supply lessens or increases the value of a monetary unit, so would a significant expansion or contraction of time (that is, lifespan) lessen or increase the value of a temporal unit. If a person knew that his "appointment in Samarra" lay far in the indefinite future, the value of a minute or an hour or a year would be proportionately less. In the memorable phrases of "To His Coy Mistress," by
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
"To His Coy Mistress"
But if the finitude of life makes life dear, it may also keep life from being too dear and in this way bring together Kelley's two perspectives. Consider: Death is the failure against which we struggle all our lives. Yet, just for that reason, it is no less the background against which our life can constitute a triumph. Could death serve that purpose if it were inevitable?
Well, suppose it were not inevitable. Suppose that we might live eternally, barring missteps. Then the incredible alternative of eternal existence and eternal non-existence would lie in our every act. Would we, in such circumstances, dare to live boldly and to take chances? Would we not instead cling "for dear life" to the most risk-free environment, always treading warily along the safest course, lest we throw away eternity? Perhaps the inevitability of death is what allows us to approach life with courage and joy rather than with fear and trembling. And perhaps that is what Swinburne had in mind when he wrote in "The Garden of Prosperine":
From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sear.
For better or worse, life today is finite. But the thoughts of my survey-group members demonstrate the diversity of attitudes toward death and dying that are found even among people sharing core beliefs.
These differing views, for all their richness, seem to boil down into a few choices: We can, with Dylan Thomas, "rage, rage against the dying of the light" or sit before the hearth with Walter Savage Landor, warming "both hands before the fire of life," ready to depart when the flames sink. We can try to cheat death with anti-aging regimens and cryonic arrangements or welcome it when it approaches as the satisfying denouement of our life-drama. We can view the absence of an afterlife with certitude or hold out agnostic hope that perhaps something, somehow, exists after death snuffs out the candle. Some of these choices are compatible with one another, such as David Kelley's suggested integration of death-as-disvalue/death-as-fact. But other choices are mutually exclusive. For example: Do we opt for cremation or cryonic suspension? In light of the either-or nature of many of the choices, it behooves us to reflect upon the alternatives and choose a perspective with which we are truly comfortable.
That is not easy. Dying and death are not among the more joyous topics for contemplation, and many people therefore lock the issues away in the basement of the subconscious. But Rand has warned us of the dangers of letting unexamined premises rule our subconscious. To conquer our deepest fears we must muster the courage to face them.
Although we may reasonably anticipate that death will arrive in the twilight of old age, it can arrive unexpectedly through tragedies as common as car crashes or as uncommon as murders and terrorist attacks. Under whatever circumstances the bell tolls for us, no indecisiveness ought to sully our last moments. Death is dramatic enough without the burden of contradictory hopes and fears. If we have chosen to face death serenely, we will simply acknowledge that the time has come. If we have chosen to go down fighting, we will know that the time has come to resist. In either case, resolving our feelings about dying and death without delay can free us to face dying with dignity. Most importantly, putting death in its proper place allows us to return with unmitigated resolve to all that awaits us in life.
Richard Speer is a writer, public-relations consultant, and speaker based in Portland, Oregon. For more than a decade, he worked in radio and television journalism.
This article was originally published in the March 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.