Friday, August 03, 2018

In the shadow of death

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.

The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.

Many of them have asked me how it is possible to face death without the certainty of an afterlife. I can only say that it hasn’t been a problem. With reservations about "feeble souls," I have the view of a hero of mine, Albert Einstein: "I cannot conceive of a god who rewards and punishes his creatures or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I—nor would I want to—conceive of an individual that survives his physical death. Let feeble souls, from fear for absurd egotism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoting striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature." Carl Sagan, “In the Valley of the Shadow,” Parade Magazine (March 10 1996).

That's boilerplate secular humanism. But was Sagan really that nonchalant about oblivion? 

Some aspects of the treatment were extremely painful, but there’s a kind of traumatic amnesia that happens, so that when it’s all over you’ve almost forgotten the pain. The Hutch has an enlightened policy of self-administered anti-pain drugs, including morphine derivatives, so that I could immediately deal with severe pain. It made the whole experience much more bearable.

"I’m afraid I have some bad news for you," the physician said. My bone marrow had revealed the presence of a new population of dangerous rapidly reproducing cells. In two days, the whole family was back in Seattle. I’m writing this article from my hospital bed at the Hutch. Through a new experimental procedure, it was determined that these anomalous cells lack an enzyme that would protect them from two standard chemotherapeutic agents—chemicals I hadn’t been given before. After one round with these agents, no anomalous cells—not one—could be found in my marrow. To mop up and stragglers (they can be a few but very fast growing), I’m in the midst of two more rounds of chemotherapy—probably to be topped off with some more cells from my sister. Once more, I have a real shot at a complete cure.

In fact, he underwent three bone marrow transplants, despite the excruciating pain of his treatment. Isn't that the behavior of someone terrified of death? Someone desperately clinging to life? His brave words say one thing, but his actions send a different message. 

1 comment:

  1. > The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence.

    What tragic blindness. He concedes that the world is actually full of the things he names... but then fails to see that he has stated good evidence for the thing he says that there is none for. Actual love and moral depth throughout the world point towards a loving, moral being as the author of the world and the lives in it.