If you’ve sat by the bedside of a dying friend or relative, or recovered from a terminal illness yourself, you may know too well: the concerns of yesterday—career anxieties, political high stakes, personal grudges—can slip away into the rear view, becoming smaller and more meaningless as hours pass into final days. What takes their place? Maybe a savoring of the moment, maybe regrets over moments not savored, maybe a growing acknowledgment that gratitude matters more than being right. Maybe a willingness to let go of prior ideas—not to adopt new ones, but to open to the questions again.
Sometimes, this experience is bewildering and frightening, especially when coupled with the pains of illness and old age. Whatever insights one might have at the threshold of death, they cannot easily overcome “lifelong habits,” says Herbert Fingarette in the candid short film Being 97, a documentary made in the last months of the contrarian American philosopher’s life. By the time of his death,” notes Aeon, “Fingarette (1921-2018) had lived what most would consider a full and meaningful life. His marriage to his wife, Leslie, was long and happy. His career as a professor of philosophy at the University of California was both accomplished and controversial.”
By this time, his wife of seventy years had been gone for seven. And at 97, physically frail and his career long over, Fingarette was coming to terms with “loneliness and absence” as well as with his need for help from other people to do simple tasks. After 42 years of teaching—and writing on subjects like self-deception, Confucianism, ethical responsibility, and addiction—he was also grappling with the fact he had been wrong about one particularly pressing matter, at least.
Fingarette became infamous when, without undertaking any scientific research himself, he claimed in the 1988 book Heavy Drinking that alcoholism was a problem of self control, not a disease. But he does not speak of the political furor in this minor controversy. Eleven years later, he took on an even heavier subject in Death: Philosophical Soundings. “What I said was in a nutshell,” he recalls, “is there’s no reason to be afraid or concerned or anything about death because when you die, there’s nothing. You’re not going to suffer, you’re not going to be unhappy… you’re not going to be…. It’s not rational to be afraid of death.”
He admits, “I now think that is not a good statement, because I think it’s important to figure out why it is then that people are afraid of death. Why am I concerned about it?” His best thinking aside, “my sense of realism tells me, well, no good reason or not, it is something that haunts me. I walk around the house and I ask myself, ‘What is the point of it all? There must be something I’m missing in this argument.’” He asks, he says, knowing “that there isn’t any good answer.” But that doesn’t stop him from looking for one. We see Fingarette’s lifelong habits as a thinker push him forward in pursuit of what he calls a “foolish question,” although he intuits that “the answer might be… the silent answer.”
It’s a painful existential realization for a man so devoted to logical argument and pronouncements of certainty. This film of Fingarette in his last months is both a personally moving portrait and a drama in miniature of a universal human dilemma: why is it so hard to accept the inevitable? Why do we have minds that struggle against it? The multitude of possible answers may be far less meaningful than the experience of the question itself, painful and transcendent as it is, whether we are grieving the loss of others, facing our own mortality, or, as in Fingarette’s case, both at once.
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