I recently saw I’ll Be Me, the documentary that chronicles singer and guitarist Glen Campbell’s decline from Alzheimer’s disease. An iconic musician who took country mainstream, Campbell’s long string of crossover hits include some of the loveliest songs I’ve ever heard, including the memorable “Wichita Lineman”:
While the erosion of Campbell’s memory and cognitive capacity became noticeable before his 2011 diagnosis, his ability to make music — arguably his first and certainly his most deeply embedded language — endured longer. But the disease has now largely destroyed that, as well.
Sad? Yes. Heartbreaking, really. Talents like his are rare, and the beauty he gave us is immeasurable. Yet I left the theater unable to embrace the movie’sfunding for Alzheimer’s research. Instead, I left feeling more strongly that humans need to quit trying to “fix” the fact of death and instead create a culture in which we can better understand and accept dying in its myriad forms.
Everything that lives eventually dies. This is the natural order of things, difficult as it may be. It is especially hard when the person dying is young, or suffering from protracted or debilitating illness, the proverbial death by a thousand cuts. My grandmother died of Alzheimer’s; I’ve lost friends to mesothelioma, multiple myeloma and other forms of cancer. From the outside, dying can look agonizing. For those left behind, it can feel excruciating. But dying is not a problem to be fixed.
Rather, the problem is the largely unconscious and uniquely human notion that we are each entitled to a certain (generous) number of years, which undergirds the assumption that we should attempt to artificially prolong our lives. The prime purveyors of this perspective are allopathic medicine and the pharmaceutical industry, which make boatloads of money propping us up long past the point at which we might naturally die, though the quality of our doctored and drugged lives often leaves much to be desired.
But each of us bears responsibility, too, for choosing emergency medical intervention and/or life-prolonging treatments because we fear death, and pressuring loved ones to do the same because we fear their loss. We have colluded to create a society in which it is considered normal — heroic, even — to struggle against dying in the manner of other species, as we become too ill or too old to meet our own basic needs. Conversely, we obstruct — and sometimes demonize – people who choose to hasten the inevitable when they wish to end suffering. Aligned with such a skewed moral compass, we often exacerbate not only our own hardship, but that of our beleaguered planet, which needs more humans clinging to life about as badly as it needs more of us being born.
So I left the Campbell film wishing not for more aggressive Alzheimer’s research, but for a cultural paradigm shift. I left wanting us – not just Americans, but all humans– to engage a dialog about death and dying that will reconcile us with the natural order of all flesh. I left wishing we, as a species, would quit looking for ways to extend our lives, and focus instead on learning how to more consciously and cooperatively embrace our dying.
I’ll let Glen sing us out: