Ornery Is In Our DNA

In Joan Halifax’s Being With Dying, she wrote* . . .

World religions scholar Huston Smith once told the story of a well-known psychologist, an ornery old man close to death. One morning, as he was struggling to get to the toilet, a nurse tried to help him. He snapped back at her, “I can do it myself!” Then he dropped to the floor dead.

Smith used this story to illustrate just how defensive about needing help we are often are. He called this reaction ‘the porcupine effect.’

Stubborn starts early. Do humans have an ornery gene in the DNA?

Stubborn starts early. Do humans have an ornery gene in the DNA?

I agree with Smith’s “porcupine effect,” or . . . don’t touch me! Over the years of working with those close to death (and those caring for them) I have frequently heard a variation of the phrase: how you live is how you die. That may not be as true when death happens because of a car accident or an earthquake, but still . . .

During life, some are ornery like Smith’s “well-known psychologist,” and that’s exactly what they are like as they approach death. All humans are many things. Gentle. Crude. Fearful. Talkative. Stoic. Finger-pointers. Self-deprecating. Calm. Anxious. Generous. Miserly. The list of the ways we describe ourselves, or others describe us, is lengthy. But we’re never one thing. We are a stew of emotions, a tossed salad of reactions, a buffet overflowing with contradictions.

But I think most are stubborn. (Or call it ornery.) We are gentle, kind, and stubborn. We are fearful, secretive, and stubborn. We are self-deprecating, touchy-feely, and, yes, stubborn.

  • Don’t help me.
  • I don’t want your assistance.
  • I can do it on my own.
  • Leave me alone.
  • Add your own human warning label: _____________________

We offer an arm for support, but the gesture is refused as our friend continues to stumble forward. The hospice nurse suggests a rented hospital bed could be more comfortable for the patient and easier to manage when going to or coming from the bathroom (and easier for those caring for the patient). But that gentle, kind person won’t consider it . . . I want to sleep in my own bed, thank you very much! And delete the thank you in some cases. A family member prepares a simple meal—soup and cheese and favorite crackers—and then lovingly asks if the parent or spouse would like help being fed. No! Soup spills from the spoon before it hits the lips. Cracker crumbs cover the table like autumn leaves. The cheese is never touched.

Isn’t stubbornness part of our DNA? Have the scientists—both the compassionate and cold-hearted ones—mapped that specific human trait? But is research necessary to prove that the vast majority of us are cranky and ornery when it comes to requesting or wanting any help?

Will dying change the “ornery gene” in most people? As the flesh weakens and the muscles waste and the bones creak and the hearing fades and the eyes dim, wouldn’t it be okay to have a smidgen of assistance? Maybe? Maybe not?

I probably won’t practice what I preach. I’d be a lousy (er, stubborn) hospice patient. How about you?

And I suppose that’s how it should be. I think, also in that DNA (real and imagined), is simply and magnificently a will to live, a will to keep thriving. With or without help, would that “well-known psychologist” still have succumbed before making the bathroom? It’s possible. We may laugh at Huston Smith’s story, we may say that would never be me, but I see myself in it. As much as I’m glad for my stubbornness—and your stubbornness—I also hope I can change as I get older, as I get feebler, as I approach the time of dying. Maybe, when someone offers help, I’ll grit my teeth, roll my eyes, grumble loud enough to disturb others in the room, and say . . .

Yes. I need a little help.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

*Joan Halifax, Being With Dying (Shambala, 2009), pg. 17

Cartoon image from here.

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    • Marc . . . one of my goals is to not avoid the discomfort, but also to share insights and honesty. Appreciate your comments!

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