Frank conversation a life’s end … and beginning

In the last post we mentioned the “frank talks” at life’s end, when sometimes one has to decide between life-extending therapies, and pain palliative care. The question was about how much are we willing to go through to have a shot of being alive and what level of being alive is acceptable. ¿What would we answer if we were told that we would be mentally aware, able to read, hold a conversation, but walking or normal feeding would be impossible and we would be dependent on pain relievers?

Let’s imagine that this kind of talk would be possible at life’s beginning, before birth, as if we were a indeterminate non-being that can choose about going into existence (let’s forget for an instant the paradox of an indeterminate identity having to choose).

We would be informed about the equipment and conditions of our earthly stay, our genetic code, the strengths and weaknesses: “If you want to enter into existence now, those are your options, you will be a male, medium height, medium intelligence, not exactly an athlete, nor a genius.” We would be informed too about the social environment, in what kind family and in which country are we going to be raised, whether it is  in the developed world or the undeveloped. ( the TV series Quantum Leap proposed a similar approach ).

(from Dürer’s Dresden Sketchbook on Human Proportion)
Perhaps we would not be satisfied with just that piece of information, the cards that are dealt out to us. Before betting on the game of life we would inquiry about whether we are going to have a happy life, or an interesting one, whether we are going to experience pain, or frustration; how long are we going to live. Probably a honest answer would not be a completely  reassuring one. Some amount of confusion, pain and disappointments are guaranteed. But the list of possibilities of knowing, discovering and enjoy is endless. Saul Bellow said it wonderfully in Ravelstein. If we can, for example, feel the fresh, cold morning air when we open the window to ventilate the bedroom, or the taste of olive oil on a toast, talk with a friend, is that enough?

We could imagine that we are buying the tickets for a certain kind of life trip. Success is not guaranteed and it’s really the ultimate adventure trip, engaging into existence in a particular time, place and human condition. If this was like planning a hike, a hypothetical guide could certainly tell that along the way we are going to find traps, injuries and at the same time, delicious fountains, unexpected views, wonderful presents. But no map with white or black points is given. We can miss wonders placed along the way just because we are still recovering from our last misstep.

We could also imagine that instead of having the choice of entering into existence or not, we would be able to choose what kind of life. This is what Plato considers at the end of the Republic in the myth of Er.

After death, souls are given the chance of choosing a particular kind of life for another cycle, a tyran, an animal, a normal man. Before being born again, souls pass through the plain of Forgetfulness and drink the water from the river of Unmindfulness, so that they don’t remember the process. I wonder what could I choose for my next cycle, or what was I thinking when I opted for my present life.

Hear the word of Lachesis, the daughter of Necessity. Mortal souls, behold a new cycle of life and mortality. Your genius will not be allotted to you, but you choose your genius; and let him who draws the first lot have the first choice, and the life which he chooses shall be his destiny. […] When the Interpreter had thus spoken he scattered lots indifferently among them all, and each of them took up the lot which fell near him, all but Er himself (he was not allowed), and each as he took his lot perceived the number which he had obtained. Then the Interpreter placed on the ground before them the samples of lives; and there were many more lives than the souls present, and they were of all sorts. There were lives of every animal and of man in every condition. And there were tyrannies among them, some lasting out the tyrant’s life, others which broke off in the middle and came to an end in poverty and exile and beggary; and there were lives of famous men, some who were famous for their form and beauty as well as for their strength and success in games, or, again, for their birth and the qualities of their ancestors; and some who were the reverse of famous for the opposite qualities. And of women likewise; there was not, however, any definite character them, because the soul, when choosing a new life, must of necessity become different. But there was every other quality, and the all mingled with one another, and also with elements of wealth and poverty, and disease and health; and there were mean states also. 

Let each one of us leave every other kind of knowledge and seek and follow one thing only, if peradventure he may be able to learn and may find some one who will make him able to learn and discern between good and evil, and so to choose always and everywhere the better life as he has opportunity.
[…] A man must take with him into the world below an adamantine faith in truth and right, that there too he may be undazzled by the desire of wealth or the other allurements of evil, lest, coming upon tyrannies and similar villainies, he do irremediable wrongs to others and suffer yet worse himself; but let him know how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible, not only in this life but in all that which is to come. For this is the way of happiness. …]

The soul which obtained the twentieth lot chose the life of a lion, and this was the soul of Ajax the son of Telamon, who would not be a man, remembering the injustice which was done him the judgment about the arms. The next was Agamemnon, who took the life of an eagle, because, like Ajax, he hated human nature by reason of his sufferings. About the middle came the lot of Atalanta; she, seeing the great fame of an athlete, was unable to resist the temptation: and after her there followed the soul of Epeus the son of Panopeus passing into the nature of a woman cunning in the arts; and far away among the last who chose, the soul of the jester Thersites was putting on the form of a monkey. There came also the soul of Odysseus having yet to make a choice, and his lot happened to be the last of them all. Now the recollection of former tolls had disenchanted him of ambition, and he went about for a considerable time in search of the life of a private man who had no cares; he had some difficulty in finding this, which was lying about and had been neglected by everybody else; and when he saw it, he said that he would have done the had his lot been first instead of last, and that he was delighted to have it. […]
and when they had all passed, they marched on in a scorching heat to the plain of Forgetfulness, which was a barren waste destitute of trees and verdure; and then towards evening they encamped by the river of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold; of this they were all obliged to drink a certain quantity, and those who were not saved by wisdom drank more than was necessary; and each one as he drank forgot all things. Now after they had gone to rest, about the middle of the night there was a thunderstorm and earthquake, and then in an instant they were driven upwards in all manner of ways to their birth, like stars shooting.

Plato. Republic. Book X