Rethinking Death and Vulnerability
By Iva Apostolova
Any first-year philosophy student is familiar with the oldest syllogism in the book, “All men are mortal, Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” Rather logical, is it not? But when it comes to our lived experiences, do we really know how to face our mortality and finitude?
We treat death as the most undesirable but yet, unavoidable event in one’s life, the ultimate evil. Dying is, more often than not, associated with ageing and the natural disability that comes with it – two of the things our culture fears the most. Western aesthetics worships youth. What is more, youth equals beauty. By association, the visual imagery of ageing recreated by numerous painters of the past few centuries is as an unkind wrinkly old woman. The message: loss of youth is loss of beauty, is undesirable. We seem to be thrashing between two attitudinal alternatives: succumb to a quiet resolve and drown in sorrow, or become defiant: “Old age should burn and rage at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light” wrote the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
But we forget that death, just like old age, is not just an event, it is a process. From the moment we are born, we begin to die. Ageing is not only about losing some of the abilities we enjoyed earlier in life, it is about acquiring new ones. So, why not honor it by learning how to relate to one another as ageing and finite beings? Grieving is a skill, among many other important skills we learn as we progress in life. We tend to associate grief with loss and pain. But it is so much more than that. Grief points us in the direction of our physical, cognitive, and emotional limitations. Knowing one’s limitations is half of the work, and a necessary groundwork in any (epistemological or other) inquiry. It is precisely on the backdrop of the (potential) loss which grieving anticipates that we appreciate the importance of forming human relationships. We are all dependent on those around us. Natural disability that comes with age should not lead to the loss of dignity and be treated as an imminent disadvantage.
We are all vulnerable and helpless when brought into this world. This vulnerability does not just magically disappear as we mature; it simply shifts and manifests itself differently. Isn’t then disability and dependence just a matter of degree, not of kind? And isn’t it time that we shed the ableist accounts of autonomy and existence-in-the-world that we still seem to hold on to?