Posted by: Harold Knight | 02/12/2011

Abraham Lincoln, Egypt, and a More Sensible Fear

Abraham Lincoln
was born on this date in 1809.

I’d love to teach my writing course using the Gettysburg Address as the only primary source for research and writing. Abraham Lincoln understood as no other President has the moral, ethical, and spiritual power of language.  Most Americans understand that our support of and empathy with the people of Egypt is informed by our collective memory of Abraham Lincoln’s words,

“. . . that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Can our hopes for the Egyptian people—indeed for all people—be more clearly articulated?

I use the Gettysburg Address to explain rhetorical devices, for example, antistrophe—therepetition of a word or words to end successive clauses or phrases. “. . . of the people, by the people, for the people. . .” I can use the Gettysburg address to demonstrate formal structure as well as specific devices. I have a 19th-century print of a portrait of Lincoln hanging in my office (1)

of the people, by the people, for the people

of the people, by the people, for the people

Now one of those breaks in logic (in continuity of subject?) which characterize my writing here.

Yesterday I posted an odd bit of writing, the kind of writing I do when I have to write (obsession, neurological kink?) and cannot organize my thinking. Hypergraphia? Dunno. Some strange lack of control over my mind. My writing was stream of consciousness, which is the way I begin when I first wake up and must write. Usually that writing fetches up an idea. Yesterday it didn’t.

I know why. I did not want to write about what was on my mind. I had been reading and thinking about the process of preparing for death. Yes, that again. I had read an article I stumbled upon looking for something else entirely (the way I find the best articles I read). The article put me in mind of the process of caring for our 96-year-old father my family has been in for several years.

Talking about synchronicity is one of those Jungian games that has firmly taken root in pop culture. I’m sure some kind of synchronicity is at play in the universe. It is known to many of my closest friends, in the words of one of those sturdy Anglican hymns, “God is working his purpose out.” There’s probably a New Age synchronicity hymn, too.

God or synchronicity or coincidence or something is probably working out some purpose. Yesterday after I made the (mostly unconscious) decision not to write about the process of preparing for death, my own or anyone else’s (I still don’t want to write about it, and I’m not going to—exactly), my sister called to tell me that our father is once again in the hospital. Our family, not unlike a growing percentage of families in these days of medical miracles, has had the difficult but joyful work of caring for our father to greater age than we imagined we would when we growing up and our grandparents seemed very old. (I must say publically here that we are more grateful than we can ever show that my sister has taken on the most burden of his care.)

Like many families, we have tried to prepare for these times of illness in old age. We have all of the legal orders in place. Palliative care as opposed to invasive care, for example. We have all talked about all of the possible processes of treatment and the outcomes. We have even talked with our father about his dying—and we have conversation, however cursory, about our own deaths. But that I should read an article titled, “Going to Meet Death: The Art of Dying in the Early Part of the Twenty-First Century,” the evening before my sister’s phone call is almost too much synchronicity to handle.

I am not saying that our father is near death. He has had several very serious illnesses in the last three years and come through all of them. The synchronicity is that I have been trying to think about preparing for my own death—rather than being terrified of it or feeling desperate about it (or thinking of bringing it about in one period of my life) as I have felt for much of my life. It’s time to think about it.

John Hardwig, in the article I read two evenings ago says,

When the sensible fear is that death will come too soon [in all of human history until now], the reasonable course is to flee it—try to postpone it or put it off. We know we cannot avoid dying, but we do what we can to avoid it for as long as possible. However, many of us now worry that death will come too late—long after life has lost its usefulness and its savor, long after we have ceased to have a “life”. . . When the more sensible fear is that death will come too late, the reasonable course is to make death come sooner (2).

I would not suggest that you read Hardwig’s article. It is too direct, too demanding. But what synchronicity brought me last evening was thinking about the meaning of death.  I doubt anyone who is much younger than I can understand the profound beauty of what he says.

I must not, then, succumb to the temptation to tarry because I wish things had been different or find things I wish I had done. If there are still a few important things I can accomplish, I must hasten to do them. Having recognized that I am in the end game and having tied up what loose ends I can, I need to evaluate and come to accept the life I have lived, or failing that, at least acknowledge that it is now beyond my strength to significantly alter the course of my life. Some measure of self-forgiveness will be required (3).

This is, of course, the process of evaluation that all of us—old or young—might well engage in constantly. At 66, I think it’s pretty foolish not to be thinking about these things whether you’re a billionaire tycoon or a modest non-tenured university lecturer.

In an article I also read two evenings ago, Beverly J. B. Whelton makes the connection between one’s tying up loose ends and the medical prolongation of life. She says it’s a matter of autonomy.

Autonomy is an ethical principle requiring noninterference with the life-plans of others. . .Autonomy is closely related to knowledge and freedom. . . The individual ‘knows’ they want to avoid suffering, but they do not know what lies beyond the grave. . . This does not mean that life must be preserved at all costs . . .  As death is a natural part of life, there is no moral obligation to postpone an imminent death. Rejecting futile medical interventions prevents additional suffering. This is not rejecting life (4).

So may I point out a synchronicity? I began with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Surely what he stood for was autonomy. Both he and the “brave men living and dead” who struggled at Gettysburg believed they were protecting autonomy. All kinds, I believe, of autonomy. Especially the autonomy that does not reject life—in Egypt or anywhere.
(1) The print in my office is an antique color print made from one of the well-known Lincoln portraits. The one at the top of this post is closest I could find online to showing Lincoln at the age and with the affect of the portrait I own.
(2) Hardwig, John. “Going to Meet Death: The Art of Dying in the Early Part of the Twenty-First Century,” Hastings Center Report 39. 4 (2009): 37-45.
(3) Idem.
(4) Whelton, Beverly J. B. “Human nature: a foundation for palliative care.” Nursing Philosophy (2008), 9, pp. 77–88.


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