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The Great Equalizer


Mortality undoes the pretensions of egoism and self regard. In weighing our uniqueness we may feel angry that one day we will die. We may well rail against death if we feel we are superior to others. Especially if we attribute whatever power and position we may have to our own abilities.

Death limits the hopes and the schemes of both the high and the low, rich and poor, black and white. In front of it we are all humble, all equal. No longer can we hold ourselves higher than others, and this includes other non-human sentient creatures.

Although each person’s encounter with death is singular, death stamps a broad equality over humanity. It demonstrates a profound common vulnerability.



This commonness dwarfs the distinctions that some use to separate themselves from others. Or the differences that some seek as barriers in defence of privilege or national preference. 

To state the matter more positively, death affirms our identity and connection with others during life. It is a prod to discover the depth of these connections.  How, at the least through memory and influence, they may transcend biological separation from life and loved one’s.

It is here that we have the most important contribution of death and the most important reason not to deny but to affirm our mortality.



The link between confronting death and seeing through the charade of heroic individualism is chronicled by historian Gerda Lerner.  In her book, A Death of One’s Own, Lerner describes how she and her late husband faced his impending death from cancer.

For her the process of nursing a dying loved one taught her that “dependency is terrible only for those who live in the illusion of self-sufficiency and independence.”

For both the ill and the well, she discovered, “dependence on others can be an act of grace, an acceptance of our common human weakness….Acceptance of help with-out false pride is the last gift the dying can make the living. It is a handshake, a handhold, celebrating our mortality and our transcendence of it through kindness.”

No longer do you have to pretend to face the world strong and alone. In facing mortality we accept our dependence on others, even when they are few and far between and remote.



Through Lerner realizes that it may sound sentimental to some, she finds new meaning in life from the relationship of the nursing to the dying: “Once at least, in each lifetime, we are meant to be a blessing to another: There is nothing more to know than that. The rest is just blindly submitting and bearing whatever life dishes out to us.”

This statement applies to both the caregiver and the patient.

Both know how our vulnerability and incompleteness are sources of empowerment. Empowerment to make life richer for another and at the same time for ourselves.


This essay draws on the work of Pamela Cuming and her work in The Hourglass: Life as an Aging Mortal. To learn more click here.

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