By Victor Piccininni
A humanist looks at the end of life and death. A few paragraphs to define a theme that covers millions of pages in the literature of different cultures and civilizations. Let’s try.
A look, as opposed to simply seeing, implies an intention, an action committed to that which is observed. What defines that gaze is that which gives it foundation, that which sustains it.
Let us mention some principles and values that support this humanist look at the end-of-life and death:
- We define the human being as an integral being whose existence includes at least three aspects: physical, psychological and spiritual. We affirm that in physical death a biological cycle ends (the life of the body ceases) and a psychological stage closes (the biography), but the possibility of spiritual transcendence is latent as part of a process that consciousness and habitual knowledge cannot capture but can suspect, imagine, intuit and in some cases begin to experience.
- This view differentiates mental suffering from physical pain and acts on both aspects differently.
- It observes the evolution of life as a process, with cycles, rhythms and stages. Each stage has meaning and significance. Each stage has a function within the entire life process. The stage at the end of the physical life is one of them, as important as birth, childhood or youth and must be treated with the same affection, care and attention.
- The Humanist view totally rejects the materialistic conception that reduces life to the body or to the capacity to produce or consume objects. This anti-humanist outlook rejects and degrades the stages of old age by considering them not very “utilitarian”. Old age is not an expense to be minimized. The human being is not an object to be discarded when it cannot fulfill a certain function of usefulness to a social system dominated by this inhuman vision of life itself. Therefore, a humanist view must demand that the social system allocate sufficient resources so that all health centers can provide comprehensive and quality care for people who are at the end of their lives.
- Finally, what is essentially human about the human being is its intention always to be directed towards the future, the always latent capacity to open the horizon, to transform its life, to make contact with the profound and essential aspects of its interiority, to overcome the apparent limits imposed on it by nature. Within these apparent limits is the finitude of the body. Why should it stop before this apparent limit if its essence indicates exactly the opposite?
Based on these fundamental principles that we have mentioned, what are the actions that define this “humanist outlook” as the end of life of the physical body approaches?
They are the following:
- Learning to differentiate between physical pain (which can be minimized by medical care), and mental suffering (which is a reflection of fear, of attachment to the body and to the more superficial aspects of the personality).
- Understand and assist in the biographical closure of the person who is passing through the physical end-of-life. This means that there is a need for a deep reconciliation of the person with himself, with others and with life in general. How do we help that process of integration and reconciliation that allows that biographical closure in calm, in peace with oneself, with others and with life?
- To understand that beyond the life cycle of the body, and the biographical closure, there is a third process that opens up and that does not depend on the body. It is the possibility of transcendence beyond the usual time and space. It is the possibility that the intangible that sustains the body and the mind, achieves unity and transcends into other evolutionary states.
This Humanist view of the end of life (physical) and of death implies a paradox. While we say goodbye to the body and close our biography with affection and love, at the same time, we witness the possibility of spiritual birth opening the possibility of transcendence. What a sublime moment that of death! How many things are happening inside that person that we accompany…
A look that re-signifies death as a transition between times and spaces not only modifies everything that happens in that person, but also transforms his or her entire family and social environment.
We are talking about a change in the way we look at things that implies a change not only in our personal and family lives but also in our culture. To leave a culture of fear, denial and taboo of death in order to move towards a culture of compassion, reconciliation and transcendence.
This Humanist view is transformative of the process of dying.
If we act on it, we will help to transform the mental suffering of those moments into compassion and reconciliation, the attachment to the body into surrender and gratitude, and the coldness of death into warm accompaniment before the possibility of spiritual transcendence.