How Ornery are You?

the old Up guy

The ornery old man from Pixar’s 2009 film Up.

Humans can be remarkably empathetic and compassionate.

And we can also be, especially when facing the toughest of times, so darn ornery. 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.’

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 adjectives used for how we describe ourselves, or how others describe us, is lengthy. But we’re never one thing. Aren’t we more a stew of emotions, a tossed salad of reactions, a buffet overflowing with grand and mundane moments. But I think most are stubborn. (Or label 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!
  • Don’t touch me!
  • I don’t want your assistance!
  • I can do it on my own!
  • Leave me alone!

We offer an arm for support to our ill, weakening friend, but the gesture is refused as she or he continues to stumble forward. And possibly stumbles.

The hospice nurse suggests a rented hospital bed might 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—maybe soup, 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 scatter over the table like autumn leaves. The cheese is never touched.

Isn’t stubbornness part of our DNA? Surely the scientists—both the compassionate and the cold-hearted ones—have 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 any help?

Will dying change the “ornery gene” in our loved ones (and sometimes not-so-loved ones)? 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’ll be a lousy (er, ornery) patient.

How about you?

And I suppose that’s how it should be. In our DNA (real and imagined), don’t we prefer 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’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 nonetheless hope I can change as I get older, as I get feebler, as I approach the time of dying. Perhaps, when someone offers help, I’ll grit my teeth, roll my eyes, grumble loud enough to disturb others in the room, and say . . .



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.)

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather


  1. I’m reminded of the opening lines of a hymn :

    Brother, sister, let me serve you
    Let me be as Christ to you
    Pray that I may have the grace
    To let you be my servant too.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.