Perceptions vs. Realities of Remembrances - Veronique Whittaker09-27-2011
On a weekday morning of last week, while listening to National Public Radio, I first encountered the notion of Dignity Therapy. The concept is used by psychiatrists and seeks to soothe those who are dying, to aid them in coping with the realities of their impending death. The therapy consists of individuals writing the story of their lives’ joys, tragedies, memorable moments, etc. The autobiographies are how they want to be perceived, thus when they are gone, their loved ones will have the story of the memorable and significant events in the lives of the dear ones.
In thinking of such a therapy, notions of human condition are brought to light: namely that we as humans want to feel connected, and that the truth about the events of our lives may change over time, in the face of time, and depending on how we wish to remember them. The nature of dignity therapy fascinates those most closely connected to studying the human condition: psychiatrists. As scholars seeking to understand the ideas posited by Hannah Arendt we must consider the nature of memory and narrative. We must ask: what are purposes of remembering those with whom you share human condition? What are the truths and untruths inherent in remembering, and ultimately what is it that we value about our human condition?
Dignity therapy has the potential to teach us truths about the lives of our loved ones, even after they are no longer with us. The notion of Truth remains dear to most of us throughout life, yet at our final moments of life, truth becomes an almost necessity for the dying person. The crafting of one’s own narrative is an awe striking moment where each individual is in complete control of her own memory in the eyes of loved ones, therefore the obvious question is raised: do most fictionalize, glorify their lives or tell the truth, even if it is less than flattering?
The program on NPR emphasized how dying individuals choose many ways to view dignity therapy, some seeing it as a chance to ask loved ones for forgiveness, while others saw it as a legacy in which they must shine, or warning against what evils men are capable of committing against their fellow man. The psychiatrist who created the therapy, Harvey Chocinov, had it in mind to ease the transition of death for those who would soon cross the threshold; however, he soon realized it was often the dying who were more comfortable with this thought than those they would leave behind. The truths of the dying were thus reinterpreted by the love ones, and revealed the evolution of the self over time, seen through the eyes of those they loved most.
When Hannah Arendt speaks of trutht elling in one of her greatest essays Truth and Politics, she wants us to consider the impact storytelling has on the human condition of the actor. Arendt believes that only through deeds and actions can we learn in truth, who we are. Therefore a thing like dignity therapy allows the stroyteller and the actor to meld into the same person, and the fact that it is mainly those who know the stroyteller/actor as a loved one, who are the listeners, it makes for a very powerful form of truth. As well as a truth that lasts.
An interestingly Arendtian aspect to this kind process of dignity therapy is consideringwho is qualified to tell their story and why? Are some more qualified than others because of age, social position, or life deeds? Or are all to be included in the chance to form a narrative of their own truth for those they love (ex. the participation of terminally ill children with Leukemia or Cystic Fibrosis in dignity therapy). Throughout her work Arendt speaks of the written word as a preservation of memory. Remembrance carries enormous power for all living within the human condition insofar as the narrative of an individual allows the life deeds to become sources of inspiration for the future, something to be imitated, even surpassed by those fortunate to learn from the words of their loved ones. A piece of writing formed in sessions of dignity therapy can alone save a life from retreating into oblivion or futility.
After listening to the program that morning, like most students my age, I went about my day of classes and found myself lurking on Facebook in the evening. I began to think of ways my generation is affected by technologies of remembrance and narrative after looking at photos on the Facebook memorial page of a close friend of mine who died from Cystic Fibrosis when we were Eighteen. It occurred to me that Facebook is a true example of modern narratives of remembrance, among its many other complicated meanings for my generation.
The most revealing aspect of Dignity Therapy is that insofar as it lives as an ever changing, interpretable document, that lives long after the loved one’s death, it helps move us toward some form of truth. A trend throughout many of Arendt’s writings call for a “reconciliation with reality”, in essence for you to be told your own story, and then face the choice of whether or not you will accept it as reality. Something like dignity therapy provides a factual truth for the individuals who partake in the narrative forming process and even for their loved ones.
The psychiatrist Chocinov admitted there was not conclusive evidence that dignity therapy soothed or relieved the dying of their anxieties, however, it did allow for authority over how we are remembered; as well as a chance to “reconcile ourselves with reality” for the final time. A narrative document of one’s life also provides those with little influence to share their story with the world. Although it is up to the individual to to decide whether or not the document produced in her dignity therapy sessions will be full of truth or deceit, it is fundamentally true that through story and the storyteller, life itself is given meaning.
Toward the end of her essay Truth and Politics, though Arendt notes the limits inherent in a value as contingent as truth; she then goes on to state:
“It is limited by those things which men cannot change at will. And it is only by respecting its own borders that this realm, where we are free to act and change, can remain intact, preserving its integrity and keeping its promises. Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us” (Arendt 259).
In my opinion, anyone can begin dignity therapy at any time in their lives, not just as they are in the process of dying. True that there is more to reflect on in the final days of one’s life, yet as hybrid beings, split beings, we are all imperfect, we all fail. Yet, we all have the capacity for truth, and this bonds us with those who share in our human condition. If the goal of moving toward some form of truth requires that we “reconcile ourselves with reality”, it would seem that it is never too late, nor too early to begin this personal journey; to think what we are doing.