One of the questions that the Bioethics textbook I am using asks at the end of chapter two refers to the film Million Dollar Baby - a film about a paralyzed boxer who wants to end her life while she can still remember the sound of the successes she has had only recently in life. Interested in the question of end of life decisions, I decided to go see the new Liam Neeson film, The Grey today. It is a film about a man who works as a wolf killer on oil rigs in the Arctic (or Alaska or somewhere). In the opening scene of the film, he is contemplating taking his life. There is a moment of decision in which he decides not to and then, his plane crashes in a frozen wolf-infested wilderness. Seven men survive the crash and the film is all about their various responses to the coming of what seems to be a certain death (and after all, what is death if not certain?)
In a way, the film serves as something of a parable about the choices of attitude that we all have available to us as we face death (and though that will come in the form of a wolf for few of us, the film makes a clear linkage between the ways that these men may die and the ways that we are likely to). Among those options we see denial. We see fear. We see courage. We see greed. We see selflessness. We see anger. We see indifference. One man dies because he does not have a healthy enough fear of the wolves. Another dies because has bad luck. Another dies because he cannot keep up. Another dies because he loses his mental capacity to function and care for himself. Another, because he surrenders to death. Another, because he cannot see enough meaning in his life to make it worth the effort to go on. In a way, I believe the director has essentially used the various characters as tokens of a menu of choices.
Liam Neeson’s character harkens back to his wife’s face saying to him that he does not need to be afraid and to his father’s poem telling him that life, is essentially to be lived tenaciously.
Once more into the fray.
Into the last good fight I'll ever know.
Live or die on this day.
Live or die on this day.
It seems to me that the law can no more legalize our attitude towards death than it can our attitude towards the Superbowl or taxes. In The Grey Liam Neeson’s character accepts the decision of one of the men to sit down in the presence of a beautiful mountain range and let himself die there. But he does not accept easily the death of a man who is unconscious at the time he is dying. Another man who is bleeding to death, he comforts, asking him not to fight but to surrender in the comfort of peaceful thoughts. Another man, he demands face his fear and stop pretending. In a sense, his character reveals a flexibility towards death that says to us that maybe each person and each death will be a different transaction that must be met differently, whether it be our own death that is threatened or someone else’s. Neeson is able to calculate a number of factors into his responses. What was this man’s life like? How likely is it that he will survive long? How conscious is he that he is dying? What does the man want? How does he feel about dying? Etc.
In the book, Cultural Changes in Attitudes Toward Death, Dying, and Bereavement by Bert Hayslip, Cynthia A. Peveto, the authors contend that this ability to contextualize and provide flexibility may be the essential objective for a truly human approach to death and dying. As with education, one size may fit nobody. We all die. We do not all die well. The secret may well be to surround ourselves with people who will help us make that transition in precisely the way that leaves us with a maximum amount of human dignity, whether that be by helping us to fight or helping us not to.
Question for Comment: Is there an approach to dying that is as unique to you as a person as your way of pursuing education or matchmaking or home making or parenting?