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Lessons of the Angel of Death

Lesson 5 - America's Need for "Rituals of Withdrawal"

I've titled lesson five: America's need for "rituals of withdrawal." Over the past decade America has been dealing with "Outlaw Jack" in Michigan and a huge cultural convulsion, which reached its zenith in the State of Oregon when they passed legislation allowing for physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. It seemed that large numbers of Americans were buying into the notion that if you want to have a good death, you either have to join the Hemlock Society and "off" yourself; or work to pass laws that would allow your doctor to give you the assistance you need to off yourself

I found myself asking: "Isn't this a symptom of some deeper problem?" Why is America convulsed with this technological quick fix? I came to see it as a manifestation of what some philosophers call hyper-modernity. Not just "Better Living Through Chemistry" which would be modernity, but "you can only live (and die) if you get good chemistry," which is hyper modernity. The idea that in order to get dead, you need to either kill yourself or find somebody to assist you in killing yourself is bogus. People in other societies, in other cultures and in other times have been getting dead without suicide or without physicianassisted suicide for a long damn time. As a matter of fact, you can get dead whenever you're ready. All you have to do is withdraw from the world and you'll die as predictably as the sun will come up tomorrow. It's interesting that a lot of old folks in nursing homes and extended-care facilities are discovering this and it's sort of spreading in a counter-cultural movement. Often in whispers, they tell each other: "All you've got to do is keep your mouth shut!" Don't let them put anything in your mouth! Tear out any tubes that they try to stick in you and you'll be dead. It works. It's a wonderful solution. Why don't we in almost Twentyfirst Century America have rituals of withdrawal to support people who are ready to get dead?

Why can't hospice say to people, "If you're ready to die, come to us and we'll help you die"? Hospices don't say that, do they? They say, "We neither prolong life or shorten life." When you're sick of life and ready to go, you want to get dead. You want to go. You've had enough. The burdens are intolerable. Do you have to kill yourself or find a doctor, or can we have in this highly-evolved society some of the rituals that so-called primitive or underdeveloped societies all over the world have to support people who are ready to withdraw? In not so enlightened eighteenth and nineteenth century America there was such a ritual. Your great-grandmother may very well have engaged in the ritual. It was called "taking to bed." Granny came out and announced to the family, "This is it, folks. I'm taking to bed." And, she went in bed and stayed in bed until she was dead. And everybody knew what that meant and how to behave around a person who had taken to bed. Some old people who had taken to bed died in days or a few weeks. Some old people who took to bed got comfortable with it, and ended up spending years in bed!

It was about this time that I wrote my second meditation: "STILL/HERE Above Ground." In it, I reflected on what we had learned during our second year of living with dying. I wrote out my own "ritual of withdrawal," how that was going to work for me. I also introduced the idea of "living by the calendar." I don't know about the rest of you, but when I read Buddhists talk about live each day as if it was the last day you were going to be alive, and when you go to sleep at night be prepared for not waking up in the morning, I can't do that. That makes life really hard for me. But what I did discover was that I could live by the calendar method. I could live each day on the calendar as if it was the last time I would be above ground on that day. I could live each birthday that way, each wedding anniversary, each spring, each Christmas.And it not only worked, it actually made each of those days more special than they would have otherwise been.