The Blessing of Death

Although I will not in the end recommend Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, Should We Stay or Should We Go, it is a brilliant and devastating literary portrayal of the problems with that basic human desire to control our own death. The book’s premise is of a married couple who decide, when they are about 50, that they will commit joint suicide when they are 80. They make this decision for the usual reasons: avoidance of living a painful life without control, not wanting to drain precious health care resources, and so on.
    Their plan brings them unexpected blessings. As they draw closer to age 80, they find themselves savoring each day in a more precious way. After all, they know they have specific, finite number left to live. Yet while she loses interest in following politics and other news, he discovers he is all the more passionately committed. (Their death date turns out to be a date fixed for Brexit.) Nonetheless, in the end their plan is just a mess. The fateful evening comes, and she decides not to go through with it. He does; she lives on to be 92 and one day is hit by a bus.
    You, dear reader, are now at the end of chapter 2. There are lots more chapters to come. What gives?
    It turns out what you just read is only one possible ending. Shriver goes on to give nearly a dozen alternatives, each wilder than its (ahem) predecessor. You are in the hands of a wickedly funny satirist, and you wonder: what will the author throw at us next?
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    There are two things going on here.
    One is, we humans don’t want to lose control over our lives. For this reason we desire to master the details of our death. This is the basic motivation to legalize assisted suicide.
    The other is, we don’t want to die. Hence, scientists are working on ways for people to live forever, or at least for a long, long time. There is a lot of money and effort in this “immortality” project.
    What Shriver shows is how the first leads to the second, with consequences that are unexpected but, in retrospect, really rather predictable.
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    Thus, in one of the fantastic alternatives, both the husband and wife forgo suicide and live on and do well, make a ton of money, and become able to enter into a program to have their bodies frozen. They have incurable ailments, but they figure that by the time they are awakened (or thawed out) cures will have been discovered for their diseases. In the event that is true. But the future human descendants who thaw them out are very strange. They communicate by thinking, by entering each others’ minds. And they cannot stand to be inside the minds of these two people. In further irony, the husband and wife discover that they aren’t that impressed with themselves either.
    They have managed to finesse death and come to life in a fantastic future world, only to realize too late that (in Christian terms that Shriver does not use) their sins have made the journey with them.
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    Death is a blessing in disguise for human beings. It seems not to have been in the original design, and it is always a sorrow. Nonetheless, it needs to come to each of us, someday, sometime, not in a manner of our engineering, certainly not as an object of our own actions, but as something we accept will happen to us in some unplanned and perhaps messy way.
    There is nothing worse than imagining myself, as I am today, going on living forever. Hell is the unending continuation of what is right now. I remember figuring this out as a teenager; I wrote: “Our deepest fear is not that there is nothing after death, but that after death nothing will be different.”
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    Thank God for Jesus Christ!—who has gone ahead, through death, into the realm of light and life, where we can awaken and find our sins have been done away with.
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    Out & About. But does Father Austin know his left hand from his right hand? Last week I announced that “Philoctetes,” a play by Sophocles about solitude and humanity (the title character is exiled to live alone on an island), will be discussed at the next Good Books & Good Talk seminar. I gave the date as Sunday, October 6. Lots of you noticed (which is at once encouraging and embarrassing). I meant to say: Sunday, February 6. The conversation is to begin at 5 p.m. at Incarnation in Dallas. “Philoctetes” is a short read, and I commend it, no matter what you think about them highfalutin Greeks. (Bonus points for catching the cultural reference.)
    On that same day—Sunday, February 6—I am to preach at the same Incarnation in Dallas at 7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m., at the traditional services. February. I got it.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."