Friday, March 23, 2012

The Loneliness of the Dying

Norbert Elias
 Norbert Elias (1897-1990) was one of the great thinkers of the 20th century and is really one of my favorite writers. He was associated with the Frankfurt School of social philosophers. Two of his most influential books are The Civilizing Process ( 1939/2000) and The Germans (1989/1996). He taught at the University of Frankfurt until his exile from Hitler`s Germany in 1933. After a brief stay in Paris he lived and taught for many years in Britain (principally at the University of Leicester). Later he was visiting professor at universities in Germany, the Netherlands and Ghana. 
In the book, The Loneliness if the Dying (written by Elias when he was at the age of 80) he brings forth one of the greatest problems confronting Western societies; although people die more hygienically than ever before, they also remain in almost complete emotional isolation. Emotional distances between people have become greater in our age. By isolating the dying we all lose our direction and life`s meaning before we lose our lives.
We must all deal with the fact that all lives have an end. The oldest and most commom way is mythologizing death through a life after death in Hades, Valhalla, Hell and Paradise. In advanced societies of our day we try to avoid the thought of death by pushing it as far from ourselves as possible. But it is possible to look death in the face as a fact of our own existence and adjust our lives and our behaviour toward other people to the limited span of every life.
How is this task performed? The last hours of our lives are important for many people. But parting begins often much earlier. We isolate the dying, they decline, they become less socialble, their feelings less warm, but their need for others do not go away. This isolating of the aging and dying is one of the weaknesses in our advanced society. The social problem of dying is diffucult to solve because the living find it hard to identify with the dying. Death is a problem for the living, not the dead. All creatures share birth, illness, youth, maturity, age, and death. But humans know that they shall die. They can anticipate their own end and they take special precautions to protect thenselves against the danger of death. It is not death itself but the knoweldge of death that create problems for human beings. Human beings know, as so for them death becomes a problem.
Ideas of death and the rituals we make become an aspect of socialization. Commom ideas and rites unite people while divergent ones separate groups. Life in advanced societies of today have become more predictable. Security, protection against illness and sudden death is greater than in earlier ages. We look at our lives as insecure. Wars bring threat into our lives, but it is our insecurity toward inforeseeable physical dangers and incalculable threats to our existence that has increased most.
Early childhood experiences and fantasies play a considerable part in the way a person comes to terma with knowlegde of his or her approaching death. We often tell children that we are immortal, instead of saying that death is a natural end to all life. Behind the need to believe in one`s own immortality, there usually lie strong repressed guilt feelings, perhaps connected to death-wishes directed to father, mother or siblings. The only escape from the guilt-anxiety surrounding death-wish and the fear of punishment for one`s guilt thereof, is a strong belief in one`s own immortality, even though one may be partly aware of the fragility of this belief. The association of the fear of death with guilt-feeling is already found in ancient myths. Adam and Eve were immortal. Because Adam violated the divine fathers command, thy were condemned to die. Dying would be easier for many if these guilt-fantasies could be alleviated or dispelled.
Repression of death is not just found on the individual level but also in society as such. All aspects of life that spell danger for the communal life of people are regulated by social rules. Breaking these social rules become associated with feelings of shame, disgust of embarrassment. One can also be removed from all social life.
Death is one of the great bio-social dangers in human life. Death is pushed more and more behind the scenes of social life. For the dying themselves this means that they too are pushed further behind the scenes. They become isolated.
Dying can be full of torment and pain. Not even today with advanced medicine is it possible to ensure a painless death for everyone. But medicine allows far more to have a peaceful death. Death and dying were spoken of more openly and frequently in the Middle Ages than is the case today. Literature of the time bears witness to this. The social level of the fear of death rose noticeably in the fourteenth century. The towns grew. The plague became more persistent and swept in great waves across Europe. People were afraid of death all around them. Violence in the Middle Ages was more commonplace, conflict more emotional, war was often the rule and peace the exception. Fear of punishment after death, anxiety about the salvation of the soul, often apprehended rich and poor alike without warning. All in all, life in this medieval society was shorter, the dangers less controllable, dying often more painful, the sense of guilt and the fear of punishment after death an offical doctrine.
Today we know how to ease the pains of death in some cases. Guilt-anxieties are more fully repressed, perhaps even mastered. But the involvement of others in an individals death has been reduced. The primary question is how it was and why it was so and why it has become different. Once we are sure of the answers to these questions, we may be in a position to form a value-judgement.
In the course of a civilizing process the problems faced by people change. But they do not change in a structureless, chaotic way. They change in a specifis order even in the chain of human-social problems accompanying such a process. In earlier times dying was a far more public matter than it is today. The dwellings gave them little choice.
Nothing is more characteristic of the present-day attitude to death than the unwillingness of adults to make children familiar with the facts of death. But the danger for children dies not lie in their knowing of the finiteness of every human life. The difficulty lies in how children are told about death, rather than in what they are told. Undoubtedly, the aversion of adults today to teaching children the biological facts of death is a peculiarity of the dominant pattern of civilization at this stage.
Only when we become capable of greater detachment from ourselves, from our own stage of civilization, and aware of the stage-specific character of our own threshold of shame and disgust, can we do justice to the actions and works of people of other stages.
The sight of decaying bodies was more commonplace before. Everyone, including children, knew what they looked like, and because everybody knew, they could be spoken of relatively freely. Today everything is different. Never before in the history of humanity have the dying been removed so hygienically nehind the scenes of social life. Never before have dead bodies been expedited so odourlessly and with such technical perfection from the deathbed to the grave.
There is today a peculiar embarrassment felt by the living in the presence of the dying. They often do not know what to say. The range of words available for use in this situation is relatively narrow. Feelings of embarrassment hold words back. We meet the dying with the expression of strong emotional participation without loss of  self-control. We do the same with love and tenderness.
In the presence of the dying we see with particular clarity a dilemma characteristic of the present stage of the civilizing process. The task of finding the right words and the right gestures fall back on the individual. The way people live together, which is fundamental to this stage, demands and produce a relatively high degree of reserve in expressing strong, spontaneous affects. Taboos prohibit any axcessive show of strong feelings, although they may be present.  At present those close to the dying often lack the ability to give them support and comfort by proff of their affection and tenderness. They find it difficult to press dying people`s hands or to caress them, to give them a feeling of undiminshed protection and belonging. Civilization`s overgrown taboo on the expression of strong, spontaneous feelings ties their tongues and hands. Living people involuntarily draw back from the dying.
Norbert Elias
The fear of dying is no doubt also a fear of the loss and destruction of what the dying themselves regard as significant and fulfilling. Many fantasies discovered by Freud are grouped around the image of death, such as guilt-feeling and the notion of death as punishment for misdeeds one has committed. Suppressed death-wishes and death-anxieties, summed up roughly in the question: “Could I be guilty of his of her death? Did I wish them dead by hating them?” The death of a father or mother frequently stirs up buried and forgotten death-wishes with the associated guilt-feelings, and in some cases fear of punishment. Such fantasies have grown more frequent in conjunction with the sharper social individualization of recent times.
“Your Grandfather is in heaven now.”
“Your Mummy is looking down on you from Heaven.”
“Your little sister is an angel now.”
These examples shows how firmly established in our society is the tendency to conceal the irreversible end of human existence, especially from children, with collective wishful ideas, and to secure the concealment by a strict social censorship.
With regard to death, the tendency has most likely increased to isolate and conceal it by turning it into a special area in the last century. The defensive attitudes and the embarrassment with which people today often react to encounters with dying and death fully bear comparison with the reaction of people to open encounters with aspects of sexual life in the Victorian age.
If we realize that people`s relation to death is not just biological, the sociological problem of death appears in sharper relief.
1.                          One aspect is the length of individual life in different societies. To die at the age of twenty of thirty whem the average life expectancy is seventy-five is more remote than in a society where life expectancy on the average is forty.
2.                          The experience of death as a final stage of a natural process has gained significance through progress in medical science and in practical measures to raise the standard hygiene. We take this security of nature and natural process for granted in our scientific society.
3.                          We picture dying a peaceful death in bed resulting from illness as the natural and normal way to die, while violent death, particulary at the hands of another person, appears as exceptional and criminal.
4.                          The image of death in a person`s memory is closely bound up with his image og himself, of human beings, prevalent in his/her society.
We quest for meaning, a meaning of an individual person in isolation. When they fail
to fail this kain of meaning, human existence appears meaningless to them.It is easy to understand that a person who believes himself to be living as a meaningless being, also dies as one. What we call “meaning” is constituted by people in groups who are dependent on each other in this or that way and can communicate with each other. “Meaning” is a social category. The subject corresponding to it is a plurality of interconnected people.
            The idea of having to die alone is characteristic of a comparatively late stage of individdualization and self-awareness. Tolstoy tries in Master and Man to make clear the connection between the way a person lives and the way a person dies. The way a person dies depends not least on whether and how far he or she has been able to set goals and to reach them, to set tasks and perform them. It depends on how far the dying person feels that life has been fulfilled and meaningful – or unfulfilled and meaningsless. Meaningsful death, meaningsless dying receive too little public consideration. When something that has a function for the life of a person or group ceases to exist, becomes unrealizable or is destroyed, we speak of a loss of meaning.
Kaare T. Pettersen
Elias, Norbert, (1982) 1985. The Loneliness of the Dying. New York: Continuum.

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