David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
from the world's big
Start Learning

Is there such a thing as a heroic death?

Question: Is there such a thing as a heroic death?


Ira Byock: I think some deaths are indeed heroic, the person who steps in front of a gun to save a another innocent person, there’s so many examples of heroic deaths. I think though that both the heroic death and the tragic death as intrinsically valuable as they maybe culturally in giving us role models or examples that emulate the highest of human value selflessness and values. That’s all there, but they also can suddenly be another way of avoiding the reality of dying some of even the mundane reality of dying.

That is part and parcel of this time of life for the large majority of human beings. I think healthcare can teach us a lot and certainly the discipline of palliative care and palliative medicine that I am part of, can certainly contribute a lot, not just from within healthcare but culturally in reintegrating this time of life within a notion of full and healthy living. I think though that really we have not paid enough attention to the anthropology of this time of life, not only across the world in different countries and cultures, but even within the United States in North America, and what we can teach one another within our own regional culture and our own faith communities and ethnic subcultures, and I think we have a lot to teach, one another.


Question: Is there such a thing as a pointless death?


Ira Byock: I am not sure that there are any deaths that aren’t pointless in the sense, I do this and as much as I value this time of life we call dying, I also on a very personal and fundamental level rage against the fact of death, it feels inherently meaningless. Frankly I don’t understand in some sort of fundamental cosmologic way why it needs to happen. I just know it does happen, and that’s what we have been given, it’s like why, what’s gravity after all? What is gravity, what does that mean?

And why does that happen and why does gravity happen? Well I don’t know but it’s there. And, from my experience frankly death happens. I think so often having practiced emergency medicine for 15 years, there are some deaths that are so tragic and utterly devoid of meaning, in my ability to understand anything that, all I can do is remember to breathe I can’t make sense out of it that, the two-year old who a grandfather backs over in pulling out of the driveway or the infant who dies of sepsis at three days of age or any number of utterly meaningless deaths from my perspective. I am thankfully as a physician I am just there to serve and to try to comfort and do what I can at these point at times.


Recorded on: March 21, 2008


Is there such a thing as a heroic death?

LIVE ON MONDAY | "Lights, camera, activism!" with Judith Light

Join multiple Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Judith Light live on Big Think at 2 pm ET on Monday.

Big Think LIVE

Add event to calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo

Keep reading Show less

The mind-blowing science of black holes

What we know about black holes is both fascinating and scary.

  • When it comes to black holes, science simultaneously knows so much and so little, which is why they are so fascinating. Focusing on what we do know, this group of astronomers, educators, and physicists share some of the most incredible facts about the powerful and mysterious objects.
  • A black hole is so massive that light (and anything else it swallows) can't escape, says Bill Nye. You can't see a black hole, theoretical physicists Michio Kaku and Christophe Galfard explain, because it is too dark. What you can see, however, is the distortion of light around it caused by its extreme gravity.
  • Explaining one unsettling concept from astrophysics called spaghettification, astronomer Michelle Thaller says that "If you got close to a black hole there would be tides over your body that small that would rip you apart into basically a strand of spaghetti that would fall down the black hole."

Space travel could create language unintelligible to people on Earth

A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.

Credit: NASA Ames Research Center.
Surprising Science
  • A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
  • Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
  • This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Keep reading Show less

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
Keep reading Show less

Your emotions are the new hot commodity — and there’s an app for that

Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Personal Growth

Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.

Keep reading Show less