Bioethics Discussion Blog: Being Old: A Poem and A Comment

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Being Old: A Poem and A Comment

From OldPoetry.com:

The Other Side of a Mirror

by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge
(Written in 1770)
[Moderator's note: Regarding the date found in OldPoetry, read the Comment section of this post]

I sat before my glass one day,
And conjured up a vision bare,
Unlike the aspects glad and gay,
That erst were found reflected there -
The vision of a woman, wild
With more than womanly despair.
Her hair stood back on either side
A face bereft of loveliness.
It had no envy now to hide
What once no man on earth could guess.
It formed the thorny aureole
Of hard, unsanctified distress.

Her lips were open - not a sound
Came though the parted lines of red,
Whate'er it was, the hideous wound
In silence and secret bled.
No sigh relieved her speechless woe,
She had no voice to speak her dread.

And in her lurid eyes there shone
The dying flame of life's desire,
Made mad because its hope was gone,
And kindled at the leaping fire
Of jealousy and fierce revenge,
And strength that could not change nor tire.

Shade of a shadow in the glass,
O set the crystal surface free!
Pass - as the fairer visions pass -
Nor ever more return, to be
The ghost of a distracted hour,
That heard me whisper: - 'I am she!'


Thinking back on the recent posting about the view regarding a “duty to die by the elderly”, I wonder if any of the visitors who commented on my website on that topic—and virtually all were strongly against the view—were actually the elderly. Do you think the elderly would agree with the majority of my visitors?

I am one of those elderly and fortunately I feel active and productive and don’t really have the reflections that Mary Elizabeth had in her poem. How do others of 65 or older feel about their age and the quality of life, benefits and burdens, that advanced age brings with it? ..Maurice.

9 Comments:

At Monday, March 13, 2006 4:57:00 AM, Blogger Bardiac said...

I think this poem was written by the Mary Elizabeth Coleridge who lived from 1861-1907, not an earlier poet. She died of appendicitis, according to wikipedia.

Maybe the old poetry site has the date wrong?

Here's another source I found: http://www.poemhunter.com/mary-elizabeth-coleridge/poet-3048/

and her page site citing the poem at old poetry: http://oldpoetry.com/oauthor/show/Mary_Elizabeth_Coleridge

(Sorry, it just doesn't read like a 1770 poem, if that makes sense; and all the BEST poetry about being old seems to come from fairly young poets, oddly enough, which might also be in line with what you're asking about the age of visitors commenting on your previous posting.)

 
At Monday, March 13, 2006 8:35:00 AM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Bardiac, thank you for your professional intuitions and research. Obviously, if the poem was written by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge is wasn't written before her birth. Further, your point is well taken regarding poets writing of poems about old age coming from the young and in the case of Coleridge by someone who was only 46 when she died. And this highlights an important issue regarding medical ethics consensus making by ethicists.
I suspect most of the published views by ethicists about ethics of old age, end-of-life and disabilities are not written by ethicists who are themselves of old age, at the end-of-life nor are they disabled. So their conclusions about these conditions of life are really what they imagine based on their relations with others and not what they personally have experienced or feel. If I am correct, this may make their ethical pronouncements subject to further scrutiny. Any ethicists out there who might like to rebut my proposition? ..Maurice.

 
At Tuesday, March 14, 2006 9:01:00 AM, Anonymous Bob Koepp said...

I think the general understanding of ethics is that although different people might have different priorities, given their different circumstances, their ethical reasoning should be understandable by any mature, rational person. No ethicist should ever presume to say what is, as a matter of fact, important for anybody else. But that's very different from being willing to say whether what someone finds important is ethically salient.

If young people cannot "understand" the views of elderly people, if majorities cannot "understand" the views of minorities, etc, etc, then we'd better rethink the role of sympathy (these days, commonly referred to as empathy) in ethics.

 
At Tuesday, March 14, 2006 4:23:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Bob, my question would be whether beyond "what someone finds is ethically salient" (essentially "yes, there is an ethical issue here"),having no personal involvement or experience, would it be appropriate to follow that with a pronouncement regarding what decision or act would then be ethical or non-ethical? My concern is that I suspect ethical consensus seems to be made by ethicists who are not directly and personally affected by the consequences of the issue. For example, shouldn't consensus about ethical decisions regarding the disabled be made by a group of people where the disabled, who have their personal views of their wants and goals, be in the majority? I know this isn't the case but don't you think it makes more ethical sense to have it as in my example?

*****
Professor Udo Schuklenk, PhD, an ethicist who is Chair in Ethics in Public Policy and Corporate Governance, from the Glasgow Caledonian University in Glasgow UK and Co-Editor BIOETHICS and Co-Editor DEVELOPING WORLD BIOETHICS
gave me permission to post on this blog his comment to me about the issue of ‘elderly duty to die’ and the issue of taking ethics issue positions without personal experience. ..Maurice.


”Maurice, what you suggets about bioethicists personal experiences may or may not be true. I don't know of any data that could settle this question either way. I recall vaguely that John Hardwigh argued years back that the elderly (might) have such a duty, and he describes in his book how his son/family rejects that very same idea. …

Of course, an ethical argument must be sustainable regardless of the personal experiences of those putting it forward. What struck me (and motivated me to reply) is, however, that personal experience makes of course a massive difference to one's take on things. For instance, to me it has always been a non-issue that one should not be a racist. I have not changed my views on the matter. However, having lived and worked voluntarily for a couple years in South Africa, and having found myself there for the first time in my life at the receiving end of racism (and being an 'ethnic minority' there) certainly brought that message much 'closer to home' so to speak. It certainly sensitised me to the issue much more than any philosophical paper or book would ever have.

So, I guess, all that I want to say is that it probably would be worth to investigate empirically the question you ask. I wouldn't be too surprised if bioethicists trying to establish themselves (and what is a better means than to take a radical stance on something or other to capture other people's attention...) in their younger years ran such lines of argument and ended up more guarded and quiet on the same issue as years passed by. Either way, the ethical question isn't settled by finding an answer to this question, but I would be curious to know, to be honest. From what I gather in Europe, we'll make people work longer so they can afford living longer (as opposed to expecting em to assist themselves in exiting our lovely world). ..Udo.”

 
At Wednesday, March 15, 2006 8:21:00 AM, Anonymous Bob Koepp said...

Maurice -
What I find problematic is the suggestion that the personal circumstances of an individual bear on the ethical justification or morality of some course of action in a way that should not also be apparent to those in other circumstances. It just doesn't seem right to go down the road where ethical truths change depending on one's address.

 
At Wednesday, March 15, 2006 9:51:00 AM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Bob, as I understand ethics, ethical justification and morality are subjective interpretations by any individual and really don't represent ojective "truths", therefore conclusions about ethics issues which are to have general application should be made by consensus. My view would be that those who are subjected to the primary consequences of the "truths" should be significantly represented in the population who participate in the consensus-building process. Therefore, in the case of the disabled, those who are disabled should be the major contributors to the consensus of disability issues. In review of issues which are primarily applicable to all in society, then participation should not be biased to one specific group in society. ..Maurice.

 
At Wednesday, March 15, 2006 11:11:00 AM, Anonymous peg said...

Maurice -

I don't think anyone has a "duty to die". However, looking at this from a slightly different angle, as a physician, I think that we sometimes take our "duty to keep alive" too far. Who among us (and by "us" I mean "us folks" not "us doctors") doesn't have a horror story about someone who was kept going far beyond reason, comfort, or humanity?

Medical training doesn't include consideration of the "duty to let go". Perhaps it should.

 
At Wednesday, March 15, 2006 12:26:00 PM, Anonymous Bob Koepp said...

Maurice -
Since I do think ethics is about objective truths, I guess we have a vey fundamentally different understanding of ethics. And, if ethics isn't objective, then what is the force of saying that certain people _should_ be represented in the consensus-building process. It seems to me that you intend "should" to have objective force.

 
At Wednesday, March 15, 2006 5:41:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Bob, maybe we should both describe what we mean by objective and subjective as we have used the words in our discussion. I look at the individual's final decision with regard to the ethics of an issue to be not just an objective survey of the literature and some methodology of reasoning but also a subjective personal feeling which might range from indifference to true empathy. The final product,objective analysis but modified by the person's own experience and morality can lead to a not strictly objective conclusion. (Look at Udo's examples above of his own changes in the intensity of his views living in South Africa or his suggestion that, perhaps for their own personal motives,what or how ethicists express their views at an earlier stage of their career may be different than at a later stage.) Thus,while consensus building,which we look to for support,should be a seemingly objective process, it still contains seeds of subjectivity in each of its participants. Ethics to me is not objective mathematics but more toward subjective writing of music, partially structured but also often very full of feeling. ..Maurice.

 

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