In Time Enough for Love, Robert Heinlein wrote about something he referred to as the competent man, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
I dunno if I agree specifically, but I agree in general. Allow me to explain my equivocation. I don’t necessarily buy, for example, the utilitarian every-man importance of writing sonnets … I definitely get Heinlein’s general point on the necessity of one’s competencies being diverse and well-rounded, but I am not one of those who takes such admonitions literally. In other words, there’s nothing particularly magic about sonnets. Although it is vitally important to be able to appreciate different types of sonnets, their structure and something about what makes a great sonnet great, but I don’t if everyone is going to write a worthwhile sonnet [that any other human being should be forced to consume] … it might be more practical [for survival or independence] to be able to do something such as save heirloom seeds and preserve food from the garden or brew a decent pale ale or be able to communicate via ham radio in times of emergency … on the other hand, maybe nowadays mastering a topic like Kubernetes to navigate well on the high seas of cloud service providers like AWS, Google Cloud and Azure is more important than conning a ship … because doing so is an entirely different BUSINESS than just programming a computer. But Heinlein’s point stands. His Lazurus Long character got it right about the problem that has developed with narrowness and specialization … particularly when it comes to things that everyone HAS TO DO … everyone has HAS TO DIE.
It’s up to all of to figure out what gallantly dying means for us, not for anyone else. For us. Dying is an intensely personal experience. I have made up a basic living will that specifies that although I wish my pain to be minimized, my wish is that NO measures be undertaken to save my life. So that I’d be allowed to die, I used to try to make sure that I was always wearing DNR/DNI tags … but I realized those tags or my living will wouldn’t necessarily be obeyed by some idiot who thinks he knows better than I do, so I stopped worrying about it and just focused more energy on being more productive and living extremely well until I’m 120.
I eschew conventional medical care on principle … to avoid ever being kept alive in a state of fear about my healthcare. I make exceptions for things like broken bones and wounds with lots of stitches … I certainly would fix these things myself if I had to, but I am not inclined to opt for amateur hour on some things, ie I’m not that big of a fan of pain. Basically, I just try to remember that I only have NOW and that I should be ready at any time for the end.
I have had a great life, much better than I deserve; but I still enjoy a great life, but I happen to think it is a lot better or more enjoyable than other lives because I am focused on NOW and do not care to extend my physical/mental life by even one second. I am reminded on what seems to be a daily basis that I live in a psychotically hypochondriacal culture that is pathologically terrified of death and, accordingly, being allowed the privilege of death on one’s own terms is not as easy as it once was. We now cannot simple die on our own … death in America now increasingly demands permission from a professional … there are huge obstacles to DIY dying.
The practical obstacles of being allowed to die [that our driven by our culture’s perverse aversion to spending any time with someone dying] builds upon my own experience with imminent and likely death, my experiences of being with several relatives and close friends as they died and my lifelong spiritual investigation and anthropological studies of various cultural texts such as the Tibetan Book of the Dead [TBOTD]. Although the accounts of death [including the mystical, mythical, magical or even “sacred” TBOTD] are not REAL, but rather nothing other than [hopefully useful] stories by people who might have a lot a lot of familiarity with death but [obviously] did not actually die [before telling the story], death itself is very real, it cannot be escaped.
Aside from the constant fear-mongering and politicization of issues like healthcare … or even just the assumption that EVERYONE needs or wants professional healthcare … there are numerous examples around us of how we really do not understand life [or death] at all… if you imagine, for example, that someday you’ll be able download your consciousness or soul to an artificial man-made “brain,” you should realize that you have such a pathetically impoverished understanding of death that you cannot begin to understand what others know — the realization that you are carrying this burden of arrogance is the only the start of path to awakening, but you must first understand the supreme ignorance of views expressed in texts like The Singularity is Near, Where Humans Transcend Biology.
If you do not have an understanding of death and the transition of death [or the bardo] … if you do not understand that the dying process is about more than just an event … you really cannot begin to understand life … you’re just watching an under-sampled, poorly-digitized crappy movie of life; you are not fully experiencing your life … it is sort of like being able to understand what $1M is worth requires one to have personally earned $1M; if you just inherit the money or win it in a lottery, you don’t really “get it” in the same way that you do if you earn it, sticking at a job, advancing in your career. EXCEPT, of course, life is about far, far, far more than just money, even if it’s all of the money in the world … which is why the bottom line is that any culture made of people who do not know how to die does not deserve to exist.