Monday, October 31, 2016

The Sensation of Dying By Edward Mercer D.D. 1919

The Sensation of Dying By Edward Mercer D.D. 1919

See also Suicide and Philosophy - 50 Books on CDrom or The Mysteries of Death - 250 Books on DVDrom

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It is difficult for a man in full health to divest himself of what health brings with it—vivid feeling and quick-moving thought. Life under normal conditions asserts itself with conviction, and with similar conviction shrinks from all that threatens or negates it. And thus when a healthy man tries to imagine what it is to die, he supposes that the ordeal is undergone with sensations and emotions as keen as those he himself possesses. In this he greatly errs. For, generally speaking, along with waning of the bodily powers goes dulling of nerve sensitiveness and loss of mental vigour. The lamp burns low. And thus it is true to say that "the pains of death" exist almost wholly in the imaginations of those who are not dying.

The error is not however altogether without excuse. For it is easy to misinterpret the real significance of what is not infrequently seen at a deathbed. The clammy brow, the convulsive twitching of muscles, the contorted features, the gasping for breath— these and other like signs ordinarily indicate suffering that is consciously felt and more or less consciously expressed. It would seem to argue a lack of sympathy to regard them otherwise when a man is dying. And yet there is little doubt that, in such a case, these bodily processes, though the result of nerve-currents, seldom rise into the sphere of genuine sentience. As life ebbs, so does the threshold of consciousness fall, until it sinks into the unconscious, and the actual dying is painless both to body and mind.

Even when the space between healthy life and death is brief, it is not at all certain that the case is otherwise. Naturalists who have defended Nature against a charge of cruelty, have argued that the victims of beasts of prey do not suffer much. They use the well-known account given by Livingstone of his sensations when seized by a lion. "Starting and looking half round, I saw a lion just in the act of springing on me. I was upon a little height; he caught my shoulder as he sprang, and we both came together to the ground below. Growling horribly, he shook me as a terrier does a rat. The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It causes a sort of dreaminess in which there was no sense of pain or feeling of terror, though I was quite conscious of all that was happening. It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe, who see all the operation but feel not the knife. This singular condition was not the result of any mental process. The shake annihilated fear, and allowed no sense of horror in looking round at the beast."

A hardly less well-known case, also frequently quoted, is that of Whymper's accident on the Matterhorn. He fell nearly two hundred feet in seven or eight bounds. Here is his footnote in the fifth chapter of the "Scrambles Amongst the Alps." "As it seldom happens that one survives such a fall, it may be interesting to record what my sensations were during its occurrence. I was perfectly conscious of what was happening, and felt each blow; but, like a patient under chloroform, experienced no pain. Each blow was naturally more severe than that which preceded it, and I distinctly remember thinking, 'Well, if the next is harder still, that will be the end!' Like persons who have been rescued from drowning, I remember that the recollection of a multitude of things rushed through my head, many of them trivialities or absurdities, which had been forgotten long before; and, more remarkable, this bounding through space did not feel disagreeable. But I think that in no very great distance more, consciousness as well as sensation would have been lost, and upon that I base my belief, improbable as it seems, that death by a fall from a great height is as painless an end as can be experienced."

From such experiences as these we may conclude that sudden and violent death preceded by a shock to body or mind, is easy and painless. So also, normally, is the death that succeeds long illness; still more that which is the result of debility and decay. It would be going too far to maintain that there is never pain at the time of death. The struggle for breath is probably the most consciously trying, and for the longest time. But severe pains are exceptions to a general rule. "Even in the most awful death known (says a writer on this theme), death by burning, mortality is rendered painless at an early stage by suffocation. It is the first moment of experience of the heat that is so terrible; we think, in imagination, that we could never endure it, and wonder how the martyrs faced it with such calm. But, apart from that state of spiritual ecstasy, their sufferings were soon ended by Nature herself, which appears to set very real limits to physical torture."

The pains of death, then, are much exaggerated. But, as has been already hinted, strictly speaking death has no pains at all. When life and death contend, it is life that is the positive agent; death is simply its negation. If we rightly discriminate, therefore, we should speak of "the pains of life."

It is the will-to-live which struggles and, in struggling, suffers. Death marks the time when the will-to-live yields to its conqueror. Hence the strength of the position taken up by pessimists, eastern and western, when they maintain that if we would escape pain, we must crush down the will-to-live. Schopenhauer's whole system turns on this thought; and his followers are neither few nor unfamed. A controversy on pessimism is not now our concern; we are only seeking to get to the right standpoint for a study of death; and the doctrine is thus far useful to us in that it helps us to draw a distinction which clears the issues. On the physical side, accurate thought will not attribute pain to death but to life. Our problem, then, is this —Why should life-processes have to wage a conflict? Why should they not be immortal?

It is possible in certain cases to go further still. For there is abundant evidence that dying may not only be painless, physically and mentally, but may even be occupied by a pleasant sense of restful peace. Nay, there are some who have undergone the experience but have been brought back to life at the last moment, and who assure us that they were possessed by a feeling of ecstasy. Pope had some such idea in his mind when he wrote his seriously intended, though characteristically artificial "Ode on Dying": "Lend, lend your wings, I mount, I fly."*

The more closely, therefore, the sensation of dying is judged by the experiences available, the more are we led to conclude that, while the anticipation of it may stir emotion, it need not cause dismay.


1 Vital spark of heavenly flame!
    Quit, oh quit this mortal frame:
    Trembling, hoping, lingering, flying,
    Oh the pain, the bliss of dying!
  Cease, fond Nature, cease thy strife,
  And let me languish into life!
2 Hark! they whisper; angels say,
    'Sister Spirit, come away!'
    What is this absorbs me quite?
    Steals my senses, shuts my sight,
  Drowns my spirits, draws my breath?
  Tell me, my soul, can this be Death?
3 The world recedes; it disappears!
    Heaven opens on my eyes! my ears
    With sounds seraphic ring!
    Lend, lend your wings! I mount! I fly!
  O Grave! where is thy victory?
  O Death! where is thy sting?

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