Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Patience, Courage, and Facing Death

(Another excerpt, along similar lines as the most recent previous post.)

[In reflecting upon the ability of the courageous to face death...] we should think not only of those who risk death for a noble cause, but also of those who struggle against suffering and affliction even though death is inevitable. We attribute courage to those who contend with terminal illnesses without despair, who seek to live out the remainder of their lives as best they can, who, as Dylan Thomas urged his father, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” There is of course a way of reading Thomas’ poem such that raging against the dying of the light reflects a refusal to accept one’s mortality (or such that Thomas’ advice reflects his own refusal to accept his father’s mortality). Let us, for now, not read it that way, but rather see Thomas’ poem as a celebration of life, of the idea that even in one’s dying hour, there is life to be lived, words to be said, gestures to be made which can have a significance that death cannot invalidate. To acknowledge that is not to deny death; it is instead to call to mind that one is not yet dead, that dying itself is part of life, and that one can continue to live even as one is dying. In this way, it is possible that dying itself can, in the terms set forth by Callan, take the form of a moral task.

I make these suggestions with some hesitation. What do I know about dying (or, for that matter, suffering, really)? Rather than pushing the argument, again, it is surely better to let those whose examples inspire us speak for themselves. [Note: I make this same suggestion in connection with the idea that I would rather defer to the witness of Viktor Frankl than simply provide a priori arguments that great suffering can be endured with patience.] However, perhaps we can also get some glimpse of how the strengths that inform our ideas about courage, fortitude, and patience are related to the possibility of dying well by considering our desires about death, about what kind of death we would prefer. Perhaps many of us hope that death will come swiftly, unannounced, like a bolt of lightning—that in such a swift death we might avoid the task of enduring a protracted, slow march to death, and thus not have to confront the question of how we ourselves might hold up in the face of such a task. Palliative care can manage pain, we know, but presumably not eliminate it, and reflecting upon the gradual loss of our physical and cognitive capabilities can be frightening, or at least disconcerting. It is in this sense—and not only in the hero’s sense—that we can say that facing death well requires courage. And while “raging” against the dying of the light presents us with heroic imagery, reflecting upon the prospect of a slow death reminds us that this is not the courage of the charge, but rather the courage of endurance and fortitude.

The[se] considerations [...] suggest that growth in fortitude, in courage, cannot be entirely isolated from growth in patience. Here, I disagree with one claim that Callan makes about the blind man he imagines, when he suggests that as long as this man has no patience for the moral task of accepting his blindness, “no amount of courage or fortitude can compensate for the absence of that virtue.”[1] To distinguish fortitude from patience in this way seems to assume that fortitude is primarily toughness of mind or a kind of imperturbability, but then we can ask what it is that underwrites this mental toughness. Then we must either say that fortitude involves a kind of insensibility, which explains why provocations and pains don’t disturb the individual, or that fortitude involves a kind of tolerance of such provocations and pains in which the person really does feel them, but is not unsettled by them or, in other words, maintains him or herself in a state of self-possession. If fortitude is insensibility, then it seems hard to say that this is a virtue, since the insensible person does not actually endure anything—he simply does not feel what most of us would.[2] (Think for example of a person who is incapable of feeling pain.) And in many cases, such insensibility would be crippling rather than enabling. But if, on the other hand, we say that fortitude is a function of one’s ability to tolerate provocation and disturbance, then we seem to be speaking about one of the aspects of patience. What looks to us like fortitude, if not underwritten by the patient tolerance of such adversity, might just be inner deadness. And in that respect, we can agree with Callan that the blind man cannot come to terms with his blindness by simply making himself numb to the psychological pain that the fact of his blindness causes him. This, we might say, is a way of avoiding the problem, rather than confronting it. Coming to terms with his blindness, exposing himself to that psychological pain, will no doubt take courage—to face the fearful. But it should now be clear that since facing what is fearful in such cases is itself an activity that takes place in time, over time, and which cannot be separated from the pain and suffering that such a confrontation may involve, the courageous act itself cannot be undertaken without patience.

[1] Eamonn Callan, "Patience and Courage," Philosophy 68, (1993), p. 526. [2] REF Scarre and my stoicism paper.

[2] Cf. my discussion of Scarre's (I think failed) attempt to distinguish fortitude and patience in "In Defense of Patience."

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