Life is a finite thing. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Sometimes life is all too short, and sometimes it’s way too long.
Australian botanist Dr David Goodall felt his had taken too long. According to Charlotte Hamlyn, at 104, his declining physical condition and failing vision forced him to give up the things he thought made life worthwhile one by one; tennis, amateur theatre, and finally his academic research. Many of his friends were already dead, and when he recently fell, he had to wait until his cleaner arrived a couple of days later to help him get up off the floor. He was almost completely reliant on others to meet his needs – something that most of us fear deeply.
Without the choice to end his life in Australia, Dr Goodall travelled to Switzerland and ended his life yesterday. And as you can expect, there are a lot of people who believe they know what was best for him, and that doesn’t generally include the ability to choose to end his life. In fact, some go so far as to say that “we” should be doing more to make sure that old and infirm people like him feel their life is still worthwhile.
Which is a little funny. As a middle-aged woman, I already feel disrespected so I can’t imagine what he must have felt. But it begs the question of what an independent active mind housed in a feeble dependent body would find worthwhile. Perhaps “they” would teach him how to finger knit. Or to paint like a Thai elephant. Charlotte Hamlyn and Briana Shepherd say that during his last press conference, he delighted the assembled reporters with a spirited rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, so perhaps they would have created an Andre Rieu playlist for him on Spotify.
Anyway, this post is not actually about assisted death, I’ve done that before. It’s actually about the briefness of life.
Matt drew my attention to the oldest known song taken from an Ancient Greek tombstone; the Seikilos Epitaph. You can listen to the song on his website, but he notes the English translation:
While you live, be happy have no grief at all.
Life exists only for a short while, and time demands an end.
For 112-year old Japanese Masazo Nonaka, life is all too short. According to Renae Reints, hot springs, the limited mobility provided by his wheelchair and cakes are worthwhile enough to keep going. Not to mention reading the newspaper after breakfast and relaxing with a samurai drama on TV.
There’s some incredible wisdom on tombstones. Like when Clearchus (perhaps the one from Soli) copied some from Delphi and placed it on the tomb of Kineas:
As a child, learn good manners.
As a young man, learn to control your passions.
In middle age, be just.
In old age, give good advice.
Then die, without regret.
I can’t remember which museum exhibition I copied it from.
Which reminded me a bit of Beardie Scipio, who seems to have lived large, yet died pretty – a feat that still appeals. Except these days we say something like live hard, die young and leave a beautiful corpse.
And this, in a way, brings us full circle – is 100 years all too short or way too long? It doesn’t matter much, either way, Memento Mori – you will die.
So make the best of whatever brief span you have in this place – live a life worth living whether that’s botanical research or cake and a samurai movie marathon.
Start today – what one thing can you do that will make the rest of the day’s suffering worthwhile?