BY MATTHEW HERBERT
In Lionel Shriver’s 2010 novel So Much For That, two of the main characters are financially ruined by medical disasters. And what Shriver has in mind by “medical disaster” is something virtually all of us will eventually do–die non-suddenly.
How can this be? in the world’s richest, most developed country, how have we created such a rigid formula for impoverishing people for being mortal?
One of Shriver’s best-drawn characters in in So Much For That is Flicka, a 16-year old girl with a wasting, terminal illness whose life is a 24/7 schedule of intense, often humiliating medical therapies. Statistically speaking, she is bound to die before the age of 30.
Flicka refuses to pretend she will ever have a normal life. She resists doing algebra, and the rest of her homework. All the fine things meant to decorate the human soul are meaningless in the face of her daily miseries and her fast-approaching mortal horizon. The role of the game child-patient, Flicka believes, is a construct whose purpose is exclusively to buoy up everyone around her–not herself. When her mother, aching for a moment of normalcy, prepares a nice dinner party, Flicka takes care, in front of the guests, to blend the meal’s components in the food processor and inject the resulting slurry into her stomach tube. Shriver is excellent at depicting this kind of performative acerbity.
Flicka’s parents persist, of course, in trying to get her behind the idea of life even if her particular version of it hovers chronically at the level of pure misery. What else can they do?
In this passage, Flicka puts a sharp edge on her objections to having to pantomime a meaningful existence:
There’s no point in training me to be a productive member of society when I’ll barely make it to being a grown-up. My having to go to school at all just exposes the whole thing as a big baby-sitting service. I don’t need to learn about the causes of the Civil War, and you know it. What’s gonna happen to all those facts? They’ll be cremated. They’ll literally go up in smoke.
It’s a striking observation. With variations allowed for our individual funeral arrangements, all of us will ultimately face this realization. The facts in my brain will be cremated, too. So will the memories, the attachments, and everything else that made this mortal vessel of mine and its penumbra of experience worth nourishing. Flicka’s question, Why stuff our brains with perishable facts? gives way to a broader question, Why stuff our lives with any organized content at all?
As it turns out, being a productive member of society is not a bad first stab at answering this question. We want our successors to have a decent, prosperous society in which to live out their lives. It appears, though, that some lives can hardly factor into this equation when we put them to Shriver’s severe test. Flicka seems to be correct in her assessment that she can neither contribute to nor benefit from society’s “productivity.”
I propose that the thing most of us are aiming at when we say “productive member of society” is actually the idea of a loyal member of society–someone who stays true to society’s essential purposes and discovers a role for oneself in service of those purposes. There is a stream of human experience that we are born into, from which we absorb the elements of our self, and which will go on after our deaths. That is the proper object of our loyalty.
This is not my own idea. I came across it several months ago as I was reading Atul Gawande’s excellent 2014 book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. It is a hard read, but a highly useful one. Being Mortal is a call to do the hard work of envisioning not just one’s death, but one’s mortal demise. The process of dying can go on quite a long time, and it can rob you of the resources a person needs to make rational decisions (not least, money, as Shriver illustrates amply in So Much for That). Make as many of your hardest decisions about end-of-life care now, counsels Gawande, and you will do your family and your medical care givers an enormous service. Don’t wait till you’re a wreck.
But the passage I have in mind today is one in which Gawande identifies a service we can do for ourselves as mortal beings: read the American philosopher Josiah Royce on the subject of loyalty. As all our lives slip toward some version of Flicka’s demise (more merciful, we hope, but who knows?), we all face the same question she did–why bother standing up to life’s miseries and indignities by developing a structured, purposive self? The crematorium will surely send that structured self up in smoke. Drawing on Royce’s 1908 book The Philosophy of Loyalty, Gawande put his response this way:
What more is it that we need in order to feel that life is worthwhile? The answer, [Royce] believed, is that we all seek a cause beyond ourselves. This was, to him, an intrinsic human need. The cause could be large (family, country, principle) or small (a building project, the care of a pet). The important thing was that, in ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth making sacrifices for, we give our lives meaning. Royce called this dedication to a cause beyond oneself loyalty.
You can pick up Royce’s 1908 book The Philosophy of Loyalty cheap (I got my Kindle copy for 99 cents), or you can read it for free on Google Books. Either way, read it if you can. It’s great.
Gawande gets the thrust of Royce’s idea about right, but he leaves out a key part. Royce sees life as following a kind of arc, a progression of development. Early on in life, people have experiences that expose them to all kinds of potential causes. Even if we regard ourselves as strict individualists, we are all born into this ecology of ideas, traditions, institutions, and a whole host of other social constructs. It’s the idea that Kurt Vonnegut was having fun with anytime he would say, “Hey, I just got here.” He meant that, experienced as he was, all the world’s foibles, indecencies and crying shames were already here before he came around.
But so were its glories and beauties–the things worthy of our passion, discipline, and sacrifice: what Royce called causes. This is the key part of Royce’s idea that Gawande leaves vague. All the elements that go into making up our cause predated our existence. Wherever we got them from–parents, school, church, Boy Scouts, the Army, books–they were gifts to us, and we helped ourselves to them. Part of living a loyal life is to keep one’s faith that such things will go on, for our successors to seize on. I guess Vonnegut has subverted me, because I cannot help being slightly jokey about my own cause–it is “serial mortality.” You need not live forever to be useful. It is enough to live in a way that makes your own loyalty contagious–to cause others to want to cultivate their own loyalty.
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