Is it Better to Die or to Pass Away?

Whispered euphemisms obscure the difficult finality of death.  When people die, they are gone forever.  This is tragic and true.  But it’s better to confront hard truths than to sweeten them up with fragrant words.

A couple of months ago, we had our dog euthanized.  He had been sick for a while.  During the last few days, he suffered terribly.  The polite way to speak of this is to say, in the passive voice, “our dog was put to sleep.” 

This may be suitable for parents breaking sad news to children.  But adults should be honest and forthright among themselves.  More than one person has said, “I’m sorry your dog passed away.”  They are trying to be compassionate.  But the dog did not gently “pass away.”  He was suffering and we asked the vet to kill him. 

This was not easy.  But it was the right decision.  It was very sad.  But the dog was better off dead.  It sounds cold to say it.  But it is true.

Euthanasia is Greek-based jargon that avoids the old-fashioned phrase, “mercy killing.”  Euthanasia seems less blunt.  But “mercy killing” honestly admits that this is a kind of killing.   

One problem is that killing seems evil.  But killing is not absolutely wrong.  It is not wrong when it comes from a place of compassion and respect.  It is more honest to admit this than to confuse ourselves with euphemisms. 

Death is veiled by euphemisms.  Consider phrases like “passed away,” “passed on,” or simply “passed.”  There is a kind of cloying phoniness here.  Indeed, “passing” connotes a kind of fakery.  We use this verb to describe what happened when counterfeit money is passed or when someone passes themselves off as someone or something else.

“Passing on” makes death out to be a transition to some other state.  The Bible teaches that this form of life passes away (see 1 Corinthians 7:31) and that “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

“Passing” is also passive.  We pass footballs and kidney stones.  The object passed is passive in the process.  To say that a person passed away takes away agency.  To my ears, it sounds more respectful to say “he died” than that “he passed away.”  It is nobler to imagine dying as something we do—our last and final act—than to imagine being passed around by fate or the gods. 

If we must speak this way, I suppose “passed away” is preferable to “passed on.”  To say that Jane Doe “passed on” assumes she went somewhere else.  That might be true.  But we don’t know where Jane has gone.  She may be in a worse place or a ghost trapped in limbo. This spookiness can freak you out.  The idea of “passing away” is simpler.  It tells us that Jane is gone without asking us to speculate about where she went.

Sometimes this expression is shortened and people simply say, “Jane Doe passed.”  This phrase seems to require an object like a kidney stone.  And it is ambiguous.  To say Jane passed might mean that she got a C on an exam.  One recent newspaper article used the expression twice to refer to two different deceased persons.  The author is trying to be polite.  But the phrasing is annoying.  Jane Doe is dead.  Let’s not beat around the bush.

For some, there is a taboo or phobia involved in saying words like “dead” and “death.”  Maybe folks fear that these words will somehow conjure up the Grim Reaper.  But honesty is the best antidote for fear.  It is the whispers, the speculation, and the innuendo that causes the shadows to grow.  Dying is a part of life.  Everyone we know will do it someday—including you and me. 

Sometimes it is even better to be dead, as in the case of my dear suffering dog.  It is better to affirm our mortality than to pretend that we merely pass away.  It is better to shed light on death than to pass over it with euphemisms that obscure its sadness and its finality. 

Honesty and Loyalty in the Trump-Comey affair

Pledges are empty promises.
Honest, loyal people don’t have to swear that’s what they are

Fresno Bee, June 16, 2017

James Comey swears President Trump asked him for a pledge of loyalty. Comey offered honesty. Trump said he would accept “honest loyalty.”

After Comey testified before Congress, the president accused him of lying. Trump said, “I hardly know the man, I’m not gonna say I want you to pledge allegiance, who would do that, who would ask a man to pledge allegiance under oath?” Trump has offered to testify under oath about his version of things.

What is “honest loyalty”? And what lessons can we learn from this fascinating piece of political theater?

One lesson is to be suspicious of oaths and loyalty pledges. Perjury is not prevented by promising to tell the truth. In some cases, the more a person swears to God, the less we ought to trust them. Nor is loyalty guaranteed by a pledge of allegiance.

Oaths and pledges are least effective when they matter most. Scoundrels affirm bald-faced lies. Traitors are eager to pledge allegiance. Hypocrites and rogues cover their tracks with honeyed words and perfumed promises. And even decent people occasionally fudge the facts in order to get out of a jam.

In the long run, verbal assurances mean less than a consistent pattern of truthful, loyal behavior. Honest and loyal people remain faithful and true, without needing to swear that they are.

-Hannah Arendt

The complaint against oaths and pledges is an old one. The ancient Jews and early Christians refused to pledge allegiance to Caesar. Some contemporary Christians continue to avoid swearing oaths, basing this on the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus teaches there that you should simply say yes or no, without swearing an oath.

Protestant reformers took this seriously. In 1635 Roger Williams was driven out of Massachusetts for criticizing the colony’s loyalty oath. He thought it was wrong to force people to swear allegiance in the name of God and to invoke God’s name with regard to civil matters. After his banishment from Massachusetts he founded the colony of Rhode Island as a refuge for religious dissenters.

In the 1650s the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes explained that “an oath adds nothing to an obligation.” If we have an obligation we ought to keep it. An oath will not make a bad man keep his promises.

William Penn, the Quaker who founded Pennsylvania, had a similar idea. In 1679 he explained, “He that is a knave, was never made honest by an oath. Nor is it an oath, but honesty, that keeps honest men such.” Penn concluded that oaths have “often ensnared a good man but never caught one knave yet.”

And what about loyalty? Philosophers have roundly criticized unquestioning loyalty. In the middle of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt argued that totalitarianism rested upon morally deficient loyalty. She said, “total loyalty is only possible when fidelity is emptied of all concrete content.” Fidelity without morality leaves the loyal person subject to the immoral whims of a party or person.

-Thomas Hobbes

A further problem is that fawning toadies pledge loyalty as a way of sucking up. Ingratiating flatterers offer worshipful praise, currying favor by lying and exaggerating. Flatterers and sycophants have been roundly mocked by moralists. The Roman essayist Plutarch called them “parasites” and enemies of truth. He says that flatterers ruined Rome, since they encouraged rulers like Nero to behave without dignity.

Plutarch noted that excessive self-love makes us susceptible to flattery. Those who are infatuated with themselves believe what flatterers tell them, no matter how absurd. That is why flattery undermines truth and wisdom.

The solution, of course, is self-examination, devotion to virtue, loyalty to the truth, and honest friendship. True friends speak the truth, without “paint and varnish,” as Plutarch put it, because they love us and want us to be better. True friendship is both loyal and honest.

In political life, truth and loyalty are always in dispute – as the Comey-Trump feud shows us. But in ordinary life, honesty, loyalty, and friendship help us live well. We need honest and loyal friends. But friendship should be freely given. It is not assured by an oath or pledge. Promises and flattering words are mere idle talk. What matters is the quality of our characters, not the quantity of hot air we produce.