Thursday, March 09, 2006

Atheists In Foxholes Syndrome

On the medical front, Lesley had her gall bladder removed today, and we are waiting to see if this will allow her other systems to return to normal. While she sleeps off the effects of surgery, I have time to do some writing.

In a comment made to yesterday’s post, Derek Scruggs asked the following question:

…recently, I've wondered how I would respond if my own death were imminent (i.e., a terminal disease during which I'm lucid). I'm very committed to my beliefs (or actually lack thereof), but I wonder how I'll react emotionally at the moment of truth. (And, for that matter, whether my reaction even matters.) Have you ever thought about this?

Yes, I have.

Now, before I get too far into this, I want to start by addressing a different question relevant to the overall theme of this blog. This blog is concerned with ethics -- with what ought and ought not to be the case. I do not think that a discussion of my own personal psychology would be all that interesting. Yet, I do think that it is interesting to look at how we ought to react to the prospect of our own deaths.

On this matter, some of the elements of the desire utilitarian theory that I use as the foundation for my writings has some relevance.

Namely, our desires are malleable. They are not perfectly malleable. However, within certain ranges, we can choose what we like and dislike in the same sense that we can choose what to have for dinner or which college to go to. To the degree that we have the capacity to make that choice, it makes sense to ask, "What should we like or dislike?"

One example of choosing a desire is the person who chooses to use or not use drugs. One of the effects of using certain drugs is to strengthen the desire for that drug. If one does not want to become addicted to a particular drug, one can choose not to use it and, thus, not to acquire the addictive desire.

This is just an example to explain the concept of choosing a desire.

Another way that we can choose our desires is to rehearse. An individual imagines himself in a situation where a particular desire comes into play and imagines the reaction he thinks that he should have. In some circumstances, the more effort that one puts into this type of exercise, the closer an individual can come to matching his actual response to the ideal response.

I walk over a foot bridge on my way home from work every day. Honestly, every time I have left for work with my wife sick in bed, I have crossed that bridge on the way home thinking to myself, "What if I find my wife dead or terribly sick when I get home?" I thought about and mentally rehearsed my reaction every time that happened. I thought, "What should I do if this ever happens?

When I discovered Lesley in such bad shape, I was pretty badly shaken. However, I was able to remember the mindset that I had chosen in thinking about that situation and get into it. There were a couple of times that I remember where my thinking got fuzzy. However, a minute later, I thought about what I had done and was able to give a calmer, more rational response.

I have also "rehearsed" the scenario in which a doctor tells me that I have a short time to live. At first, this thought would fill me with an overwhelming emotional wave of grief. However, I responded to this by saying that this reaction would be a waste of the time that I would have left. What I would want to do was to make productive use of that time.

This blog (or, actually, my writing in general) is the most important thing that I do. If I get news of my imminent death, and I was lucid, I would ask for whatever tools I could use to write my next blog entry. I have imagined being in a hospital where the doctor objects by saying, "You must rest and preserve your strength." My response will be, "Two weeks of doing what is important to me is worth two months doing nothing but waiting to die."

My first blog entry after I got that news would be something like, "The doctors say that I have a short time to live, so I want to start summing up what I have tried to say in all of my writing. The most important thing that I have tried to communicate is . . ."

I am confident that there will be no last-minute grasp at the straw of religion and an afterlife. I will not fall victim to "no atheist in foxholes syndrome" (if I may coin a phrase) in which the threat of imminent death brings about an instant conversion to the nearest religion. To suddenly pursue those options would be to waste the little bit of time I would have left.

What a tragedy it would be to have such little time left and to waste it. No . . . I have already mentally rehearsed a response that I hope will ensure that those final days will not be wasted.

This type of rehearsal is useful in a wide range of areas. What would you do in case of a fire in your home? How would you handle a situation where somebody was choking on food? What if you were walking down the street and there was this terrible automobile accident right in front of you?

It is one thing to have a vague idea of how to perform the Heimlich maneuver. It is another to have actually taken the time to mentally (or, better, physically) rehearsed the procedure vividly so that, if the need ever arose, you would be more likely to react appropriately.

So, Derek, if I were to offer advice, I would suggest that you do not waste time wondering how you would react in such a situation. I would recommend that you go through the effort of choosing your reaction. Then, imagine that situation as vividly as possible and "role play" in your head the reaction you have selected. Do this until the reaction you have chosen is natural.

I am not saying that all of our desires are subject to this type of control. Everything I have written applies only to those desires that are within our control and only to the degree that they are within our control.


Derek Scruggs said...

Nice response and good advice. The Heimlich maneuver comparison is especially relevant to me because I once saved a co-worker's life on an airplane using the Heimlich maneuver. I could've panicked but somehow remained cool. It took three tries before it worked. On the third one I remember thinking that if this one didn't work I would push her into the aisle ( I was in the window seat, she in the middle) and yell for a flght attendant. Thankfully that wasn't necessary.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I am glad that you found my advice useful.

The way we react to news that we are about to die is not so much a moral choice. However, when (by definition) there is little time available, it is useful, at least, to have already made those choices.

I think it is important to take a bit more responsibility for our reactions. Indeed, we can hold people morally responsible for the reactions that they choose -- whether it be a rage that causes a parent to beat a child, or a President who continues to listen to a children's story after being told that our nation is under attack.