It’s tempting to blame partisan politics for last summer’s debacle over “death panels” and the very idea of doctors and patients holding conversations about the end of life. But the truth is: these conversations are difficult. Although some people welcome them, others approach the subject of death cautiously. Many of us would rather not explore what awaits us in the final years or weeks of life. Perhaps this reluctance explains why only one in five Americans has completed an advance directive for medical care.
Once upon a time, Europe lived in an age of faith, which found buoyant expression in the massive popularity of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage shrines flourished across Europe, some drawing millions of followers each year, and new pilgrimage destinations emerged regularly to meet the demand.
Apparently insomnia is a family trait. My mother often lies awake at night. Her father (my grandfather) was a man of immense energy who routinely read until 1 or 2 a.m.I recall lying awake as a child, listening to murmurs of the television shows my parents were watching. As an adult I developed the sometime and uneasy rhythm of one night of wakefulness until 3 or 4 in the morning, followed by a night of a full eight hours’ sleep. I decided long ago not to lie awake in the dark. Instead I read or listen to music.
T. S. Eliot once declared—and I agree—that the greatest philosophical poem next to the Divine Comedy is the Bhagavad Gita (“Song of the Blessed One”), the most widely revered of the sacred texts of India.
It is by living and dying that one becomes a theologian, Martin Luther said. With that comment in mind, we have resumed a Century series published at intervals since 1939 and asked theologians to reflect on their own struggles, disappointments, questions and hopes as people of faith and to consider how their work and life have been intertwined.
The focus of geriatric doctors on testing for memory loss, which leads to possible diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s, is part of a war against the old, according to Margaret Morganroth Gullette, resident scholar at Brandeis University. She likens it to educators being preoccupied with testing schoolchildren. “‘Dementia’ is a label that dehumanizes,” she says. What aging people need is social support, which itself can enhance a sense of well-being that contributes to better memory. “In thinking about memory loss, we do well to remember two simple precepts,” she says. “Do not panic about your own. Be gentle toward other people’s” (Interpretation, April).