How to Die Well
Born in England in 1944, Karen Armstrong is a TED Prize-winning scholar of comparative religion best known for her bestselling 1993 volume "A History of God." A Catholic nun from 1962 through 1969, she left the order to become a student of English literature at Oxford amidst a struggle with then-undiagnosed epilepsy, a period of her life discussed in her 2004 autobiography "The Spiral Staircase." In 2008 she called for a council of world religious leaders to draw up a "Charter for Compassion" based on the moral principles embodied in the Golden Rule. In November 2009, she unveiled the Charter in Washington, DC and online.
Question: Can religion help people die well without deceiving them?
Karen Armstrong: I think there are two examples which show – I can think of many examples, which show how to die well. One is Socrates, who is condemned to death, unjustly, by the Athenian democracy and is forced to swallow the hemlock. But there is no rage in Socrates; he could have escaped; he chooses not to escape. He swallows the hemlock, he is thinking all the time of other people. He washes his body to save the women the trouble. He jokes kindly with his jailer, he doesn't rail against him. And he sits and accepts the loving companionship of his friends as he drinks the Hemlock. There is no rage, there's a big accepting kindness. And that was not just because Socrates got a blast from God at the end, but because his whole life had been about facing the unknown, preparing for this moment, sitting loose to life and ego, and emptying himself compassionately in dialogue with other people. In a Socratic dialogue, the kind of conversations he had without other people, nobody won the argument, everybody realized that they knew nothing at all and it always had to be conducted throughout with gentleness. There must be no anger or malice. And that endless discipline throughout his life enabled him to face this unjust death.
And the other one is Jesus, who on the cross in the depths of agony is presented by the gospel writers as having time to have a kindly word for one of his fellow victims, to make provision for his mother, and forgive his executioners. But again, we don't know much about Jesus' disciplines. But he had lived a compassionate life.
It won't just come at the end. I've just seen my mother through her last years and a lot of the distress that she experienced in her life came to the fore in the end, things that she hadn't really dealt with. Now is the time to prepare for death. A lot of the religions say that life is a preparation for death, which sounds morbid, but extinction, something we find very, very difficult to cope with, the idea that we're not going to be here anymore and that we've got to go through as the Buddha always said, "Sickness, old age, and an undignified death." He himself suffered a death of dysentery in some jungle miles from his friends and died comforting his followers saying,” Don’t worry about me. You have got in yourself the means to go on." Thinking of them.
And I'll tell you one personal story if you'd like of somebody who was dying and who made an immense impact on me and has remained an icon with me. When I was a young nun, we were trained quite abrasively. People who have read my story always think it reminds them of boot camp in the Army, and you don't expect your Sergeant Major to be full of compassion towards you. He's supposed to be training you to face fire and to be tough.
But I had one Superior who was kind. And she had had a grim life. At the age of 29, she'd gone deaf and had a very good mind, but spent all of the intervening years I think something like 30 or 40 years, sewing and mending sheets in the laundry. You'd think a waste of a life and anybody else would have become rageful and bitter. But she didn't. And at the end of her life, she was dying all the year that she was training me. She was dying of cancer. When I arrived in her community, she had been given three weeks to live, but she lasted the whole year and she refused to take any pain killers because she said they would make her head muzzy, and she was dealing with young people and had to be alert for them. Now, you couldn't put her on a pedestal, but she was really quite eccentric in many ways, had many, kind of quirky eccentricities. She used to get furious if we broke things. As a result we were also nervous. I had never broken so many things in the whole course of my life, but I was beginning to realize that I was going to have to go. My body was telling me, all ready. I was starting vomiting, sickness, nose bleeds, all psychosomatic symptoms that I was going to have to leave the convent. But she was always so kind.
Then came the day when they were going to take her away to the Mother House to die and she was in bed, full of pain, skin and bones. We all went in, us young nuns to say goodbye to her and she smiled, rather like Socrates, and joked with us. And said she'd be looking down on us from heaven and she'd be dead soon and all the rest of it. Sent us out, and she asked me to come back. And I went and knelt by the bed and she said, "Sister, I was told that you would be a troublesome young woman. I want to tell you, you have never been a trouble to me. You've been a good girl, sister. And always remember I told you so. You are a good girl." And then she put her hand on my head and blessed me and I went out.
Now, for someone in extreme of agony to take notice to no doubt a rather annoying young woman, troubled young woman, in that moment of that extremity. I've never forgotten that. But that's—she had trained herself, through all those difficult years, not to become bitter, not to think, why me? Why am I deaf? Why am I wasting my life? And as a result, she has remained in me as an icon of what a good person should be.
Recorded on November 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen
Historian of religion Karen Armstrong cites three models of a "good death": one from history, one from religion, and one from her own experience as a nun.
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