Sex and death are the two great force fields of humankind. It is hubris to assume that they are infinitely malleable without moral transgression.
Death has always preoccupied me. The same questions arise, unbidden, sometimes several times a day: When, where, how will I die? I'm not made gloomy by this tic. It keeps my ego in check.
When I was growing up, sex and death were the two great conversational taboos. Both were charged with mystery. For sex, that all changed with the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s.
First the sexologists flung open the closet door, threw sex onto a gurney, and under the glare of high-intensity lamps cut it open, peering and probing into every orifice, nook and cranny. Sexologists recorded sex's parts while its sum — the mystery — died on the table. Then it was death's turn. Mystery is intolerable to the modern mind. We gave up God, but we embraced science — and scientism. Scientism and mystery cannot co-exist in harmony. We are determined to tame, to exercise control over every life experience. So we keep hacking away at death as we did with sex, convinced that, if only we probe deep enough, death will yield up its secrets and we will finally overcome our fear of (as Henry James called it) the "distinguished thing."
Religion was a comfort to the faithful — "death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?" (St. Paul, adapting from the prophet Hosea) — but to our secular keepers of the cultural keys, religion is merely a childish psychological crutch.
Death talk was everywhere in the 1970s, with various death-centred courses in psychology, anthropology, history and english Literature programs. Students were encouraged to write their own obituaries, even in some high schools. I read of one Florida teen who wanted to drop her death course as she found it depressing, but her mother balked. "I can't handle death," the mother told the teacher. "My daughter needs to learn how."
Death stalkers leaped like salmon to embrace the science-y faith of thanatologist Elizabeth Kübler Ross, who codified the grief that accompanies the dying process into her celebrated five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). She proscribed fear. Death was merely a transition to another form of life. Indeed, some new-age types told us that there was no such thing as death. (But isn't that what St. Paul said?)
If we all dutifully walked the five stations of the Via Kübler Rossa, death would no longer have dominion over us, we would have dominion over death. There would be no more need for raging against the dying of the light. We would all go gentle into that good night. The desire for this sort of placidity explains why Kübler Ross became famous, holding death 'n' dying workshops all over the United States.
Health care professionals loved the five stages; it standardized and de-individualized the dying process, making it easier for them, while family and friends of the dying could now view the experience as a kind of five-act theatrical performance.
More recently, the will to subjugate death has shifted from control of our attitude in dying to control over the when, where and how of death itself.
Sex and death should obviously not be taboo subjects for discussion, but there must be a healthy median point between reticence and arrogance.
Greater knowledge of the mechanics of sex coincided with its degradation and the rise of pornography as normative sexual expression. In the same way, one can also sense an unseemly excitement, amounting to voyeurism, in some passionate promoters of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Kevorkian's children.
Sex and death should obviously not be taboo subjects for discussion, but there must be a healthy median point between reticence and arrogance. These are, after all, the two great force fields of humankind, and it is hubris to assume that they are infinitely malleable without moral transgression.
Where there is no awe, no sense of mystery, darker impulses fill the vacuum. (In at least one case, Belgian authorities permitted a paralyzed woman to combine lethal injection with organ donation.) Which is why, although all countries or states legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide begin by solemnly swearing they are for "exceptional cases," the word "exceptional" often is defined down. In The Netherlands, Washington State and Oregon, population growth is minimal, but expanding definitions have legal euthanasias and assisted suicide rates ticking upward. Quebec, Canada's death-delivery bellwether, also pays lip service to "exceptional cases," but a panel of legal experts in that province has recommended the allowance of euthanasia for "psychological pain," which, resistant to any but subjective definition, would open wide the barn doors.
When we succumb (it seems inevitable), we will follow the trends set elsewhere. Soon, even the sight of very old people will quicken the pulse of the zealots.
Memento mori — remember you will die. It is a constructive warning when issued by Fate, but a worrisome warning when issued by the State.
Barbara Kay "'So here it is at last, the distinguished thing'." National Post, (Canada) 26 October, 2013.
Reprinted with permission of the author, Barbara Kay, and the National Post.
Barbara Kay is a Montreal-based writer. She has been a Comment page columnist (Wednesdays) in the National Post since September, 2003.Copyright © 2013 National Post
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