The
saga of dying computer science Randy Pausch has held the
interest of an attention-deficit disordered world for over a year.
The story began in the summer of 2007 when physicians brought grim
news to the Carnegie-Mellon professor. His treatment had failed. The
pancreatic tumor was invading and destroying his liver. Doctors
announced to the middle-aged husband and father of three
young children that he had the proverbial six months to live.

The
university asked Professor Pausch to give one last lecture before
leaving. Pausch delivered his Last
Lecture
at Carnegie-Mellon
University September 18 last year. He illustrated his condition
with slides of his abdominal CT scan. Anyone could see the multiple
deadly lumps in his liver. He recalled how fulfilling his life had
been and gave some parting wisdom. His academic curtain
call became an overnight internet hit, gathering 10 million downloads
over the following year.

Since
the Last Lecture, Pausch has had a few encores. Friends convinced him
to put The
Last Lecture
on paper. The
book has been on the bestseller lists for six months. Of course, in
America, fame is spelled: O-P-R-A-H. Pausch made the pilgrimage to
Chicago on the queen’s stage. He also gave the commencement address
at Carnegie-Mellon last May. Outlived by his new popularity,
Professor Pausch’s date with fate arrived on July 25, 2008.

The
Last Lecture is a typical motivational talk for young people with a
life full of endless possibilities. Listening with my eyes closed, I
can almost hear the rattling of ice and the clang of forks. In the
old days, progressive pedants would say Carpe Diem! In our world of
Hollywood and Disney, Pausch’s “follow your dreams” message is
as conventional as Buzz Lightyear’s, “To Infinity and Beyond.”

Why did
millions plug into a dying man’s concluding bromides? Those tuning
in due to morbid curiosity would have been disappointed. Pausch
avoided talking about the abyss that he was facing. The professor
recalled fulfilling his dream which included high academic
achievement, consulting with Disney and being on the cutting edge of
virtual reality and the entertainment industry. No wonder that upper,
middle-class professionals around the world would imbibe his message
as easily as drinking great wine.

I can’t
criticize Pausch for not exposing his wounds or allowing us to watch
him peering into that abyss. Pausch has said that the lecture was for
his children. As any good parent, he wants to both teach and protect
them. Others might say that Pausch’s avoiding unpleasant
conversation is evidence for our reluctance to mention the great
mystery.

Our
hang-ups over death may be the last neurosis to conquer. Let’s see.
Sex, we’re saturated with pornography. Religion, cynics have free
reign to mock the Deity. Yep, death may be the last taboo.

University
of Southern California psychologist Herman Feifel began a crusade
against our fears of death 50 years ago. The USC psychologist is
credited for beginning the death awareness movement. In 1959, Feifel
gathered 21 experts in religion, art and science. The result was a
book of essays, The Meaning of Death,
which Feifel edited.

Over
the last four decades, professionals have transformed Feifel’s
death awareness into death education. The Association for Death
Education
(ADEC) was formed in 1978 and recently held its 30th annual
conference in Montreal last May. On the website, ADEC describes
itself as “The Thanatology Association.” The word, “thanatology”
is a 19th century neologism meaning the study of death. Thanatology
covers interests ranging from headstone hunting to hospice care and
grief counseling. ADEC has narrowed the field to death education and
grief counseling.

The
original goal of death awareness was to destigmatise death and
suffering. Explaining Feifel’s argument that we have a taboo on
death, in the Encyclopedia
of Death and Dying
, David
Moller
notes four major social
trends responsible for the taboo: individualism, secularism,
materialism and technology. According to Moller and Feifel, death has
become frightening and meaningless. Moller even asserts that there is
a “widespread pretense that suffering, dying, death and grief do
not exist”. Those who are grieving, dying and suffering are the
lepers of our age. Moreover, Feifel argues that modern man needs to
be delivered from his denial of death in order to have a meaningful
life.

Feifel’s
claim of a taboo against death talk lacks empirical evidence. Feifel
and others note that the loss of faith is a significant contributor
to the taboo on death. Religion still has a hold on our imagination.
But was Feifel right about a completely secularized future? Maybe.
Remember the ghoulish, Jack Kevorkian and his anguished victims who
killed themselves in his old Chevy Van.

Feifel
was naive to believe that secularism could cure itself. Pausch’s
monologue may represent the most that secularism can offer when faced
with death and suffering. In one important aspect, Pausch did prove
that Feifel and Moller may be right. Pausch was dutifully, even
compulsively, cheerful. These days, melancholy is not tolerated even
among the sick and dying. Those suffering from cancer and other
maladies are routinely referred to as “survivors”. Despair at the
end of life is considered a medical disorder rather than one’s
greatest existential crisis. Pausch even did push-ups to convince his
audience that he wasn’t suffering physically. Pausch’s
cheerfulness reassured them that he wasn’t in emotional pain.

We fear
suffering more; and increasingly welcome death to end suffering.
Suffering is a scandal to secularist, a disease for materialist and
an embarrassment for technocrats. To even suggest that suffering may
have meaning would shock many. Suffering, not death, is the taboo for
our modern times.

Theron Bowers MD is a Texas
psychiatrist.

 

Theron Bowers is a psychiatrist living and working deep in the heart of Texas. Life started in Macon, Georgia. However, he spent most of his childhood in the foothills of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has...