What’s Worse than Death?

It piqued my interest when Dr. Vinay Pasad mention that there are things worse than death. For most of human history, this statement wouldn’t have been remotely controversial. For modern, secular Westerners this is harder to accept.

Dr. Pasad was speaking in particular about medicalized deaths that happen to patients alone in ICU beds. There’s an excellent Frontline documentary about death that touches on both Western society’s unwillingness to accept mortality and the medical profession’s inability to deal with end of life issues well. Both Drs. Gawande and Pasad are questioning whether artificially extending every life as long as possible and minimizing every risk to zero should be the highest good in Western medicine.

We’ve stumbled into this value system accidentally. As religion’s receded, death is the ultimate end. Thus holding death at bay, however artificially and at whatever cost, is the ultimate good in society.

I don’t long for the days of religious wars, burning witches at the stake and honor killings. Certainly, life is a far greater good than any of those deaths. I don’t believe in a personal god nor am I particularly religious in any sense of the word, but I also can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something.

The morphing of the Woke movement into a secular religion is terrifying and only a marginally better guide to society than Fundamentalist Protestants. Both have likely emerged due to the lack of a more reasonable, less doctrinaire but still meaningful faith.

On a personal level, my Buddhist practice gives meaning to my life and informs my ethics and values. But that’s hardly a solution for society. The Stoic revival holds more hope, although the attacks on Stoic metaphysics as not being scientific are discouraging.

I hope that someday society can go back to agreeing on a value system that’s richer than scientific materialism without the pitfalls of radical theism. Careening between Woke and Christian authoritarianism isn’t the answer.