EUGENE, Ore. -- The subject of death is not something you hear in Eugene area shopping malls, out at a "Ducks" game or even in schools; it's the elephant in the room when you hear someone such as Steve Jobs had died.
"Nobody knows what to say about death in Eugene or elsewhere," says "Pinks" a local Eugene artist who explores death and dying with his art that was recently on display at the Oregon Country Fair and at various art shops in town.
"I think it's important to have the conversation with people -- especially kids -- that we are not here forever. There is an end to our lives, and that should inspire us to do the right thing and be kind to each other," adds Pinks with a grin and wink of his eyes that he says "have seen a lot of death over the past year.
Death should be viewed as ‘nothing to fear’ because ‘it goes so fast’
“The most important thing about your life’s shape is that it will end in death,” writes distinguished philosopher Thomas Hurka; while the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus wants you to think that “dying isn’t bad at all.”
With an “aw, shucks” look on her face, Harriet told friends during a “Family History Month” event -- here in the central Oregon retirement community of Florence -- that “I’m 83 today, and boy it goes so fast.”
Harriet and others exploring genealogy data bases fully realize the ancestors they’re looking up are long gone, and that they too will join them in death. While Americans shun any talk of death and dying, philosophers view the subject as all important for one’s mental health. Simply put, if you’re reading this -- you know death can come at any moment -- and there’s no amount of money, medical care or technology that can stop the inevitable – in death.
Family History Month reveals when family members died, and you will too
Florence and other communities around the country with local “genealogical societies” are kicking off October as “Family History Month,” with this year’s focus on “Exploring Your Heritage.” While it’s “interesting to explore where my people are buried, I can’t help but think (in the back of my mind) that I might die soon,” admits Harriet who’s more than a bit melancholy on this her 83rd birthday.
However, the distinguished philosopher Thomas Hurka – who’s titles include the “Chancellor Henry N.R. Jackman Distinguished Chair in Philosophical Studies at the University of Toronto – reveals in his new book “The Best Things in Life: A Guide to What Really Matters,” that the answer to the “final question about whether dying is bad,” is that it’s okay. Don’t worry. It’s just like taking off a tight fitting shoe.
Hurka, whose book – “The Best Things in Life” is printed by Oxford University Press in England – is not something you’d usually find online, in your local bookstore or library, “because it’s one of those special books that only university libraries seem to get,” explains Stephanie, a local genealogy expert who’s working with seniors who are facing death and dying.
In turn, an Oxford University marketing pitch for Hurka’s new book states how it explores many topics: four types of good feeling (and the limits of good feeling); how we can improve our baseline level of happiness (making more money, it turns out, isn't the answer); which kinds of knowledge are most worth having; the importance of achieving worthwhile goals; the value of love and friendship; and much more. Unlike many philosophers, he stresses that there isn't just one good in life but many: pleasure, as Epicurus argued, is indeed one, but knowledge, as Socrates contended, is another, as is achievement. And while the great philosophers can help us understand what matters most in life, Hurka shows that we must ultimately decide for ourselves.”
For instance, Hurka writes that “Epicurus and his followers in the ancient world thought dying isn’t bad at all. Once you’re dead, they argued, you can suffer any evil; since you don’t exist, you can’t be harmed. There’s therefore nothing to fear in death, and to do so is to cause you needless pain.”
“Death should be nothing to you because it is, liberally nothing,” writes Hurka in quoting Epicurus who lived between 341 BCE and 270 BCE.
Epicurus would “throw-up if he were alive today and see how people waste their lives”
Stephanie, who’s held the hands of many seniors and others facing their final days in hospice, is a big fan of Epicurus and thinks this ancient Greek philosopher would “throw-up if he were alive today and see how people waste their lives.”
Epicurus was the founder of the school of philosophy called “Epicureanism,” adds Stephanie. “Epicureanism is a view that pleasure and pain are the measures of what is good and evil, and that death is the end of the body and the soul and should therefore not be feared.”
In turn, Hurka concurs in his new book “The Best Things in Life,” when stating that “Epicurus combined this argument with a hedonistic view of what’s good. He thought the only evil is pain, and that dying can’t be bad because when you’re dead you can’t feel any pain. But the same is true of other evils. When you’re dead you can’t have malicious desires or false beliefs or fail to achieve important goals. You can’t be in any bad state because you’re not in any state at all.”
Yes, you enjoy “being in the world,” but philosophers think “death isn’t bad in itself”
Hurka wants people to understand that it’s foolish to not think about death because nobody gets out of here alive. “Though Epicurus was right that death isn’t bad in itself, it doesn’t follow that dying isn’t bad at all. Dying can be bad because of its effects. More specifically, it can be bad because it deprives you of goods you would otherwise have enjoyed. Let’s say you’re killed in a car accident at 25. If the accident hadn’t happened, you would have lived 60 more years full of happiness, understanding, and benevolence, and your death harms you because it prevents your life from containing those good things.”
Moreover, Hurka explains death alone is not as bad as deprivation.
“Imagine there was a terrific TV show on last night but you missed it because you fell asleep. Your sleeping wasn’t bad in itself – it didn’t hurt – nor did it cause anything bad. But it deprived you of the pleasure you would have got from watching the show. Dying can be bad in the same way, by preventing goods you would have enjoyed if only you’d lived,” writes Hurka.
People can’t stop death, but they can share with others and make dying somewhat easier
“Young people should not get sick and die. Most of us do eventually, but how sad it is to learn in your 20s that you have a dangerous cancer and your chances of survival are 50/50,” writes movie critic Roger Ebert in a recent review for the film “50/50” that opened nationwide this weekend.
Ebert, who’s faced his own death many times due to his“salivary cancer complications,” has also evoked the Greek philosopher Epicurus in his movie reviews that deal with subjects of life and death.
In turn, Ebert notes how “50/50 isn’t completely true to life, but the more you know about cancer, the less you want it to be. It creates a comforting myth. That’s one of the things movies do.”
However, real life is different because – as Epicurus point out back in ancient times – “death a migration of the soul from one place to another. Rejoice!”