“Death” is the end of life. “Dying,” on the other hand, is life’s last task. I have heard it is a difficult task; difficult, at least, to do well. On the supposition that we are likely to die as we lived, the best preparation for dying well would seem to be living well.
Here is the quote that started me thinking along this line: “The most critical task among the very old is to retain a sense of identity when confronting physical decline and the loss of loved ones…” Today, I’d like to unpack that quote a little. What is meant by “the very old?” What is a “sense of identity?” Why are “physical decline” and “the loss of loved ones” chosen as the important categories?
I’m somewhere between “the days of a man are three score and ten” (70) and “by reason of strength, four score” (80), so I don’t think I am what Professor McCarthy meant by “very old.” On the other hand, if dying is a task you can practice and, over time, get good at, I want to get started. I’ve never been a quick learner and being “very old” would not make me any quicker.
So, what is “a sense of identity;” the sense I have of who I am which it is important to retain. There are two important things to say about identities. The first is that they are largely fictions. The second is that they are extremely important.
I might have gone a little too far in saying that they are fictions. The fact is that they are constructs. An identity, in other words, is not something you find; it is something you make. On the other hand, you don’t always have the material to make the self you would really like to make. We all have to build with the materials we can find, earn, or scavenge. A child who wants to think of himself as lovable would do well to surround himself with people who love him, for example.
So, clearly, “a self,” an “identity” is not something that is true or false. It is true and false. The best two questions about a self are: a) is it useful and b) is it plausible? Those two questions are my version of the criteria employed by Snell and Gail Putney: an accurate and acceptable self image. I have turned “accurate” to “plausible,” as you see. I think that is really the best we can do. And I have turned “acceptable” to “useful.” My sense of who I am, in this formulation, needs to help me do what I am trying to do. In this post, “dying well” is what I am trying to do—or “living well,” if you want to contrast the rehearsal with the performance.
We try to “retain,” says the quote, a sense of identity. We had it once, in other words, and we want to keep it. We want, at the very least, not to squander it. On the other hand, a substantial part of the materials we used to build this identity consisted of things we were good at and those materials tend to slip away from the very old. You can’t retain the identity you have built without the materials you need. Even identities get soiled and frayed and eroded and substantial pieces of an identity will need to be replaced, like so many shingles. So you can keep on being the person you have the materials to repair and expressions like “physical decline” suggest that the repairs you once made without thinking much about it, may no longer be possible.
What to do?
You can be the self who does remarkable and innovative work with the materials available. That’s my goal. Every morning, usually in the shower, I consider what I need to do or would like to do that day. Above is the team meeting I would like to have; below, the team meeting is more often have. I huddle with my team’s members and call a play. Some of my team’s members are not happy. The feet say they are fine if they can do it in stages; the legs say they could manage if I wear my compression socks; the eyes say somebody else is going to have to read the fine print on the warranty, and so on. Most often, I have to modify the play I first called so that it calls on the present abilities of my teammates.
Over the years, I’ve gotten really good at that. I have a better and better grasp of what they are capable of. I invent new offenses and new defenses to take advantage of their abilities. In this way of thinking of it, “I” have “retained a sense of identity” while confronting “physical decline”—an expression that now refers to the team members. I can’t run faster than anyone else any more or throw harder than anyone else. I can’t even outwork everyone else, which was my default strategy as a younger man. But I know my team better than ever. I trust them to do what they can and I am smart enough not to ask them to do things they really can’t do.
The second element—the loss of loved ones—is harder in some ways. The loved ones I have had have served—this is Putney and Putney again—as “mirrors, models, and receivers of my action.” As mirrors, they have reflected back to me who I am. As models, they show me what I could be or, sometimes, what I am going to be if I don’t shape up. As receivers of my initiatives, they accept, reject, modify, accept with conditions, and any number of other kinds of responses. To pick the simplest example, I love my wife dearly. That means she has to be willing to be loved dearly. She also has to teach me what loving her dearly, her in particular, means to her, but that is a topic for another post.
You lose the people who knew who you were. The loss of those loved ones is an irreparable loss. The saying that best captures this reality for me is “You can’t make new old friends.”
On the other hand, you will always be surrounded by people who know—or could know—who you are. To take advantage of that resource, you will have to be willing to be who you are, not who you used to be. If you fall into the trap of thinking that “the person I once was” is the person I “really am,” the resource of the people you have will not be adequate. They, who know you as you are and who are looking for a chance to like you as you are, never knew you as you were. Telling them who you used to be won’t get the job done for very long.
But if you think back, you will remember that the best friends you ever had were not discovered by telling them who you used to be. You got those friends by telling them who you were at that time and by living the life that made that identity make sense to them. That is what you did and I hope you got good at it because that is what you need to do now as a “very old person,” whatever Professor McCarthy means by that. You need to look, as a good teacher does, at just who is actually there, rather than who you wish were there.
In any case, focusing on the task at hand is going to be a good idea. This dialogue if from the movie Lion in Winter, but it isn’t the way the script has it. It is the way Toby Zeigler and President Bartlet of The West Wing remember it.
TOBY: Hey, your favorite movie was on TV last night.
BARTLET: “By God, I’m 50, alive, and the King all at the same time.”
TOBY: I turned it on just as they got to the scene when Richard, Geoffrey and John were locked in the dungeon and Henry was coming down to execute them. Richard tells his brothers not to cower but to take it like men. And Geoffrey says, “You fool! “As if it matters how a man falls down.” And Richard says…
BOTH: “When the fall is all that’s left…
BARTLET: …it matters a great deal.”
And so it does. But if you understand that dying well is only the last part of living well, you can practice.
 It is cited by David Matzko McCarthy in his article, “Generational Conflict: Continuity and Change.” He found it elsewhere, but I suspect that in the elsewhere he found it, it was a quote attributed to yet another where.
 The age markers come from Psalm 90. I’ve fiddled with the wording to improve the meter in English and I have completely ignored the point of this passage, which is that as long as it lasts, it is going to be hard.
 The Adjusted American: Normal Neuroses in the Individual and Society.