Dear President Trump,
Lately, when I learn of very old people’s deaths I have a muddle of thoughts and feelings in response; happiness for them that they’ve been released from our current mayhem right alongside sadness and frustration that they didn’t get to see us come through to the other side. I don’t know what Toni Morrison’s medical/emotional/cognitive state was just before she died yesterday so I have no way of knowing whether she was present and aware that she was dying and thus able to have opinions about the timing of her death. And honestly, even if I somehow knew she was clear and present until the end, I still would have no way of knowing what she might have been thinking. I just hope she wasn’t in pain and that people she loved and who love her were there with her when she died. In other words, I hope she had a good death and I hope she knew she was having one.
I talked about good deaths in a letter to you quite a long time ago, but haven’t thought to focus on them in a while, probably because we’ve been hearing about so many patently awful, violent deaths for so damn long now. Contemplating Ms. Morrison’s death reminds me, though, that despite not hearing much about them, good deaths are precious and it’s important to talk about them, they are so intimately tied to quality of life.
I know it will sound trite and naïve, but wouldn’t it be amazing if we had a culture that worked from the premise that both a good birth and a good death were fundamental rights and we were actually successful at delivering on these promises? I realize that for a culture to prioritize good births and deaths there would need to be a shared understanding of what “good” means in these contexts and arriving at this would be tricky given individual preferences and idiosyncrasies. That said, I wonder if “good” might broadly mean that whoever is being welcomed or is being bid farewell is surrounded with love at those essential transition times. If each life were bookended in this way pretty much everything would be different from how it is now. I’m not saying that some people aren’t fortunate enough to be so welcomed and so released, but rather it’s that we have not, as a people, committed to doing everything we can to ensure that absolutely everyone is welcomed and released with love.
Lately Laura and I have been circling back to Julius Goat’s foundational premise that “every human being is a unique and irreplaceable work of art carrying intrinsic and unsurpassable worth”. We’ve both been testing ourselves and asking whether we believe that even you are such a work of art and whether the three young men who murdered so many people in mass shootings last week are as well. Similarly, I’m asking myself as I write this letter whether I want the four of you to have good deaths (and I could add legions more to the list of those whom I find it hard to extend such mercy). You see, JG’s position is not that if everyone had lives that were rosy from beginning to end they would qualify as unique and irreplaceable works of art carrying intrinsic and unsurpassable worth – it’s not conditional like that. It’s a far more radical proposition, one that requires we take each one as they are and extend that mercy, grace, benefit of the doubt, or whatever you want to call it, no matter what they’ve done.
Phew. How the hell do you do that without invoking some higher power entity to do it for you?
As we’ve talked about it, Laura and I have realized that once someone (anyone) starts drawing lines and saying someone else is or isn’t a unique and irreplaceable work of art carrying intrinsic and unsurpassable worth, we head right into the sort of shitty mess we are currently in. Such line drawing means that someone (or some group) feels empowered to sit on high and judge others, which in turn leads to some people being deemed precious enough to have “good” births and “good” deaths, and all manner of goodness in between, and others not.
May we all be safe from beginning to end.
May we be willing to imagine a world where good births and good deaths are givens.
May we be willing to work for such a world.
May we hold one another kindly and peacefully from beginning to end.