Encountering Finitude (Coming face to face with one’s personal death)
Three weeks ago, I almost died. After five days of inability to eat I went to the hospital at the bidding of my close friend, a nationally recognized lung cancer specialist in the USA. It turned out I had the uncommon and unfriendly ‘Necrotizing Pancreatitis’, and at that point I had but two days to live. That I am writing this now is testament to a combination of luck and solid medical care. But each day remains a subtle Damoclean existence. There is no cure and only management by diet provides some vague guarantor against relapse. That this was the seventh time I had confronted my own personal demise may seem astonishing, but this most recent experience was quite different. Each of the previous times was had in a moment, the subito of evil which Kierkegaard discusses, equally abruptly, in his book on anxiety. Mostly automobile related, one does not have time to reflect upon what is happening. The most interesting was me being taken out to sea on an ebbing tide while exploring coral reefs in Hawaii. Growing up on the ocean, I had enough nautical sense to simply begin to hold on to the corals when the swell slacked, and then I pushed along when it flowed towards the shore. It took about twenty minutes or so but I regained land to see my much-relieved girlfriend taking a picture of me straggling up on the beach.
But in all such cases there is either a place, a time, or an event that can in the future be utterly avoided. It may be reckless driving, a specific intersection or stretch of road, or an activity, like ocean snorkelling on an outgoing tide. But with a health condition, that place is you, inside you, and there is no escape from it. One can learn to ‘manage’ it, but this is at best a practice, like yoga or meditation, and not a return to health from being otherwise. Chronic conditions present to the self a new kind of selfhood. ‘This is what I am now’, one must say to oneself, and further, more profoundly, ‘This is what I will be and will continue to be.’ In the hyletic realm, the space of the world and of the social world, health is paramount. One cannot be anything else without one’s health in hand. Even so, in the interior life, that of a consciousness which includes both conscience and self-consciousness, alterations in the vehicle of being do not fundamentally change Dasein’s elemental orientation. If anything, they heighten its proclivities, make one feel that time is short and that life is, after all, solely for the living.
Yet it is a curious mix: one desires to accomplish this or that, but one is also wary of making plans. There is an instant contradiction between the Pauline feeling of anxious pilgrimage, where the next step may well be one’s last, and the futurity which is one of Dasein’s essential conditions of and for itself. Mediating these conflicting sensibilities is one’s presence in the present. This more pragmatic issue says to us, ‘Until and unless you hear otherwise, carry on more or less as before’. At the end of each day, this is the only thing one can reasonably do, for it is a betrayal of the will to life itself to simply stand and wait for death, while it is a mistaken interpretation of anxiety as fear to be driven to work overtime simply to accomplish some personal goal. Just as chronic illness presents itself as a fait accompli, so one must respond with one’s remaining health and reason by attempting to live, not as if one had remained unchanged, but within the full authenticity of Dasein’s unaltered existential lot. This includes resoluteness, anxiety, being-ahead, and the call to conscience, amongst a few others. And if resolute being seeks to take the fore, like the Jungian warrior who vows to protect one at all costs, one must step back a little at this juncture and remind oneself that life is not what illness says it is; in a word, render unto crisis what is critical alone.
What then does it mean to experience finitude rather than become aware of one’s own finiteness? The latter is measurable, and for human life finds its expression in actuarial tables, suicide rates, life expectancies and mortality rates at birth, usually ‘per 100,000’ or some other such denominator. Humans too have a ‘half-life’, on average, given the presence or absence of what social scientists refer to as ‘life-chance’ variables. These include genetic markers, made manifest in family histories such as my father having the same condition, though misdiagnosed, and my maternal grandmother having the same again, diagnosed correctly. But most life-chance variables are what are commonly called ‘environmental’. Taken in its loosest sense, an environmental variable list would include level of education, family composition and birth order, poverty rate, intensity of community, rural or urban, and so on. Finiteness can never be utterly specified for an individual life, but it can be framed in a manner completely distinct from finitude. Finiteness has both an objective probability to it, as well as a fraudulent personal equivalent, as when we say to ourselves, ‘well, we all have to go sometime’. Heidegger is particularly critical of this use of ‘all’. Who is ‘all’?
Any time we generalize death we are participating in what he calls Uneigenlichkeit, inauthenticity. We do so in order to avoid the intimate confrontation with ‘the death which is mine ownmost’. In fact, we die only our personal deaths, and indeed cannot experience death itself at all. That is, an objective death is beyond our being, and it can only indirectly be understood through the deaths of others coming before our own. Transposing finiteness as if it were an expression of human finitude is one of modernity’s’ great self-frauds. Heidegger makes intimate the confrontation between Dasein’s being-in-the-world as a thrown project and the completion of being in death. Surely, I desire to remain in this sense incomplete for as long as reasonably possible. And just as we cannot experience our own deaths – dying, yes, but this too is a life process and represents also a phase of life, not of death – we can also never understand completed being. Only the Being of the world and of the wider cosmos is of this marque.
Coming face to face with one’s own finitude is a moment wherein the call to conscience can no longer be ignored. For me, I had to come to terms with the looming potential of no longer being, not only not alive, but being at all. My chief concern was for my wife; that she could, would, and should live on and attain a new life without me in it. But I also had to confront the part of conscience which leveled an indictment upon my character. This part literally told me that I deserved to die. This may seem outlandish, but each of us accumulates a litany of litigious libel over the life course. All of the mistakes I have made, all the others I have hurt, all the chances passed by or wasted, all of the time spent doing nothing of merit. For me, it felt like a lengthy list, and if each of us is our own St. Peter – who, we are told, himself knew very well what remorse and regret meant – then we appear before the mysterious limen before being able to pass over its threshold. In such a moment, evaluation comes to the fore and one hopes for a deeper self-understanding through its unfailing interrogation. That objectively one neither deserves nor does not deserve to die is bracketed, not as unmeaning or yet a fraud, as the cowardly use of ‘all’ connotes, but rather as a reminder that the world is itself value-neutral, and that ‘deserves got nothing to do with it’.
Finitude is our authentic existential condition. It is both shared by all and intimately experienced by the self. Because we are historical beings, beings of language and ‘social animals’, my ownmost expression of the zoon politikon reaches back into the world, not for justification any more than for judgment, but rather in the hopes that the perspective of the world, which we are said to love as we love life, will allow us to come to terms with our own mortality. Ideas of legacy through work, of continuance through children, even of memory through the ongoingness of others whom we had known, all come from this worldly perspective. Together they make up our idea of a human future, whether or not I am to be part of it anymore. Joined to this, for many yet, is a second perspective which can legitimately be called otherworldly. This otherness to the world speaks also of a future, but a non-historical one, wherein some version of myself persists and thus exists apart from the purely human ambit. Can it be any more called speculative than its worldly counterpart? Perhaps the less so given the travails of said social world, the evils of its politics and the wider Damocles of its dark technologies and elite desires alike. However this may be, it is clear that on two fronts do we set our faces and step forward toward the unknowable Otherness which is completed being.
It is a sign of ongoing health that we do so. The human imagination, the harbinger of all futures, is coupled with its curiosity, the presage of the present. Not that which Heidegger also includes within his analysis of entanglement, the curiosity that ‘tarries along’ and distracts, but rather that by which we involve ourselves in the world as a child of its own Being. In spite of any fear, or in my case, bad conscience, we remain curious, even about death. Our imagination seeks to frame it, not to make it less potent, but rather to come to know it in some manner, since it already and always seems to know us so well. One is given to say that death has the drop on us, which is a residue, if you will, of the Promethean gift to humanity of hiding from us the precise moment of each of our personal ends. Without this absence of perfect knowing, nothing would be possible; no human project would be begun let alone completed. In this sense, the Promethean trickster in all cultural traditions was a paragon of pragmatism. The apical metaphor is clear: I live on in the face of not living on, and I will continue to do so until or unless I hear otherwise.
G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, health, social theory and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.