Andrew Fiala

What would you write in your final letter before death? John McCain offers a lesson

Arizona Sen. John McCain shakes hands with supporters during a town hall meeting at the Satellite Student Union at Fresno State on Monday, June 23, 2008.
Arizona Sen. John McCain shakes hands with supporters during a town hall meeting at the Satellite Student Union at Fresno State on Monday, June 23, 2008. Fresno Bee file

Sen. John McCain’s parting words provide poignant food for thought. The last words of a dying man carry undeniable weight. They get you thinking about living and dying well. What would you write in your last letter?

Most of the commentary on McCain’s farewell letter focuses on the way he seemed to poke at President Trump. McCain wrote that we weaken our greatness “when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down.”

But larger themes are found in McCain’s letter. One is service above self. He said that we are “enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.”

He also declared his love of life: “I have loved my life, all of it. I have had experiences, adventures and friendships enough for 10 satisfying lives, and I am so thankful. Like most people, I have regrets. But I would not trade a day of my life.”

We should all be so fortunate. Could you say of your own life that you have loved all of it?

If not, then find a cause to serve that can make your life worthy of love.

McCain’s words echo the wisdom of the ancient Stoics. The Stoics emphasize honor, service and duty. They greeted death with courage.

The philosopher Seneca wrote a letter entitled “On Meeting Death Cheerfully.” He explained that we must accept whatever is demanded of us. But we can accept the inevitable with good cheer and courage. Or we can meet death in some less honorable way.

Much of life is beyond our control. So too is death. But we have the power to control the way we respond to life’s vicissitudes and how we write the final chapter.

Sen. McCain co-authored a book with Mark Salter in 2005 called, “Character is Destiny.” That title is borrowed from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. What Heraclitus meant is that habits, virtues and ethics shape our lives.

In his book, McCain explains that life is what you make of it. He wrote, “It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy. That is all that really passes for destiny. And you choose it. No one else can give it to you or deny it to you.”

This is not that kind of “fatalism” that shrugs and say, “oh well, there’s nothing I can do.” Passive fatalism is a recipe for despair.

It is true that the world is the way it is. But we can choose how we respond. Fatalism gives up. Stoic resolve embraces challenges as opportunities for virtue.

A similar idea was expressed by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s most famous aphorism says “what does not kill me makes me stronger.” This idea is linked to his idea of “amor fati,” love of fate.

This may sound passive and depressing. But it is actually dynamic and exuberant. We find ourselves thrown into life. And this is the only life we have. So we must make it worthy of our love. And in the end, if you have lived well, you should be able to say, as Nietzsche suggests, “da capo, once more from the beginning.”

Would you want to live your life over again? If not, then do something to make it better. You only get one chance to write your autobiography.

None of this is easy. And there is no guarantee of success. There is pain and loss. Fear prevents action. Regret and resentment sap energy and enthusiasm. Hesitant self-doubt makes it easy to leave important things undone or unsaid. But no one said life was supposed to be easy.

Sen. McCain’s life was definitely not easy. But an easy life would be boring. The challenges stimulate creativity. The defeats allow us to demonstrate strength of character. As the senator suggested, we die well when have lived honorably and fully.

We die well when life has been an adventure worth living.

We die well when we are thankful for the life we’ve led, including the suffering we have endured.

Whatever you think about Sen. McCain’s politics, it is worth taking a moment to think about his philosophy and parting words.

Death comes for everyone. The life of virtue prepares us to greet the darkness without being defeated by it.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala