"He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death," -- from "The Red Badge of Courage," by Stephen Crane.
Touching the great death for many is neither a vicarious nor particularly surreal experience. We who live on "borrowed time" often no longer fear death; yet don't necessarily look forward to it, either. Given a second chance, given any number of chances, those who touched the brink and returned cling still tenaciously to life
There is a vast difference between not wanting to live and wanting to die. At some point almost everyone has had the thought, "I wouldn't want to live if..." But, rarely is such a feeling indicative of any particular desire to die.
My mother once said, "All that lives dies; and nothing lives if nothing dies." It is somewhat fascinating that, knowing death is inevitable, mankind is willing to pay any price in whatever form come those costs:
An aging prison inmate with a life sentence knows he will never escape his monotonous existence, yet fights to stay alive. A majority of death row residents, alone in a cell 23 hours a day, fight the fight for all years available.
A 100-year-old nursing home resident, living an equally monotonous existence, allows well meaning people to keep them alive long after the wanting to live part has passed them by. If care is available to do it, and money to pay, life is pursued until the last dollar exhausted.
Here I present a dilemma: Why does "not want to live" not mean "want to die"?
Do we cling to life because we cannot conceive of non-existence? Individuals only know of touching the great death because of living to tell the tale; to remember, vividly, the details. To have never had another conscious thought is beyond comprehension.
Do we not wish to die because we really do believe this life is all there is, that when it is over it is over? This is almost the unacceptable option. It is still true that if in this life only do men have hope, then we are most miserable.
Do we want to live because we really do believe in an after-life, and know our life falls short of any judgment to come? Even professed Christians -- who set the ethic for preserving life and proclaim assurance of heaven -- usually are the least desirous of going to heaven just this moment.
Or, is desire to live ultimately a matter of feeling needed by someone? In this regard it is useful to have a daughter who, some 30 hours into labor with her first baby, wants to talk with her daddy.
The good news, one supposes, is that few are ever asked to decide upon their own demise. Knowing the inevitability of our passing, the ultimate dilemma we must face is this: How shall we in the interim live? The answer to this dilemma represents the costs of living.
David L. Lewis is an observer of and sometimes commentator on life who may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.