As promised in my earlier post, I decided to weigh in some more on the late Christopher Hitchens’ denying Nietzsche’s maxim about being made stronger by that which does not destroy us. First, I note that Hitchens was the best contemporary practitioner of the extended essay, and reference his determination to live “dyingly.” I quote a book review quoting his denial of Nietzsche’s point, and then express my disagreement. From my biweekly On the Square, “The Importance of Living Dyingly:”
But Nietzsche was referring to strength of character, not physical vitality. Indeed, watching Hitchens from afar as he valiantly defied his illness — writing and lecturing as he went along—it seemed to me that he personally demonstrated the verity of Nietzsche’s maxim, to the point that he seemed to grow larger than his own impending death.
From there, I segue into my dad’s experience of living dyingly:
Dad suffered from an inferiority complex that probably came from being beaten by my grandfather as a child and never graduating high school. This led to an embarrassing (for me, especially as a teenager) braggadocio that amounted to self-apology. You could always count on Dad to go a step too far seeking the approval of others.
But when he became very sick, things changed. As Dad contemplated leaving this life, he spent hours sitting in his backyard overlooking his beloved cactus garden. He discarded the need to call attention to himself and grew very quiet. He found a fortitude that I think was more profound than even his valor during World War II, for which he had been awarded a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars. And he began to see life from the perspective of others, never his strong suit previously.
I provide an anecdote of that process and then explain why, regardless of what may or may not come next, it matters. I conclude with a shot at assisted suicide:
This is one reason I find the assisted suicide movement so subversive. It rejects the ideal that those who go toe-to-toe against terminal disease uplift the human experience. It seeks to alter our cultural expectations from “Do not go gentle into that good night . . . rage, rage against the dying of the light,” to “Do yourself, your family, and society a favor by getting it over with.”
Promoting suicide devalues its targets; the ill, disabled, and elderly. Living dyingly is better. In some cases, as with my dad, it is a great gift.