Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Each of the links below are recommended, but for the sake of brevity, a few take-aways to frame today’s material.

The opening line is brilliant: “We live like gods, and we don’t even know it.” The next paragraph shares a few examples of things that are fairly common for many living in the U.S., but which would have been unimaginable for even kings a scant century ago: flight, eating tropical fruit in the winter, ipods.

Although styled as a critique of the Pope’s view of the state of poverty as far too myopic, for our purposes, it is sufficient to note that the article reviews some historical trends regarding GDP, crime, disease and life expectancy and notes that never before in human history have we had it so good.

Scott Adams shares the plight of his father, dangling painfully to life, unable to access assisted suicide to end his life which is described as: “His mind is 98% gone, and all he has left is hours or possibly months of hideous unpleasantness in a hospital bed…[he is] in this state of perpetual suffering…I’d like to end his suffering and let him go out with some dignity. But…for all practical purposes, the government is torturing my father until he dies.”

Many of those living in developed countries live in luxury unparalleled in history. Even I, so far from “the 1%” decried by the Occupy crowd, would have to rank my quality of life in the top 0.01% of all humans to ever have walked the earth. I never before thought I lived like a king, but by broadening my view to include the proper historical context, I don’t think I can now refute the assertion.

Not only is the quality of my life unparalleled in human history, the quantity of my life (and my entire cohort) is likely to be unparalleled. War is not likely to take me, given that I’ve avoided it so far and I’m not likely to be the first drafted in any future scenario requiring that. Childbirth complications, starvation, polio, bacteria, influenza, malaria, HIV/AIDS, cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, tetanus, bubonic plague, measles and likely dozens of other diseases have been or can be prevented, cured or managed by modern medicine, sanitation and agriculture.  Even the new killers of the developed world, which are mainly lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, certain cancers and heart disease, can be held at bay for long periods of time. As a result, I can expect – EXPECT! – to live for 70+ years.

Notwithstanding this abundance of life, it hasn’t made us more accepting of the inevitable. Perhaps the most famous lines capturing our instinct to recoil upon the verge of our (or a loved one’s) death are these lines penned by Dylan Thomas:

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.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

This raises a serious question: just because we are repulsed at the thought of our own death and we have the tools to delay it much beyond our “natural” lifespan, is it wise to choose, as a default, to “rage, rage against the dying of the light”?  It almost seems as if the guiding assumption of medicine, and government, is to extend life. But what exactly does it mean to extend life?  Extend it compared to what?  More importantly, for what purpose? It appears that we have no purpose – we extend life merely, and thoughtlessly, because we can, on the assumption that it is the “moral” thing to do.  But what about when we’re wrong?


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