Why should nurses read Heidegger? My argument is that Heidegger was the only hermeneutic philosopher who defined the meaning of Dasein as its being-toward-death (Sein zum Tode), which Dasein cannot be stripped of, because in being a being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein), Dasein is mortal: as Heidegger quotes from Der Ackermann aus Böhmen in section 48 of Being and time, the moment we are born, we are already old enough to die. In Christianity, which is influenced metaphysically by Platonic eternalism, Christ, in his embodiment or being-in-the-world as Jesus of Galilee, had to go through, even as Son of God, death like any other human being – and his was slow and brutal in order to ascribe the divine meaning of Passion to his Dasein for the reflection and inspiration of Christians to this day.
For a nurse providing palliative care, the greatest challenge for both her and the dying patient is the existential possibility that death is meaningless. Every nurse understands that in the despair of meaninglessness, palliative care is reduced to the process of merely alleviating the physical sufferings of the dying patient until the arrival of death. But the nurse can see that dying in meaninglessness, the patient is already “broken” inside and is simply awaiting the obliteration of non-being. If meaninglessness is the universal order of things, then life is for the healthy and the physically endowed, and hedonism should become a norm for them, because pleasure is only possible in good health. Under such a horizon, the altruistic phenomenon of caring itself appears meaningless.
Reading Heidegger, the shallowness of hedonism will become obvious. The German philosopher uniquely defines Dasein as a being which, in its being, the meaning of being is its issue – its Sache des Denkens, that which makes its thoughtful inquiry or questioning possible at all. Beyond pain and pleasure is the existential lumen naturale of understanding of being, Seinsverständnis. It is the essence of being, which, for Dasein to be, is the truth of being. Understanding is openness to and freedom for meaning, and it can act as an antidote to the nihilism of meaninglessness. In fact meaninglessness is disclosed as inauthentic, as covering over of the truth of being. Nursing theory, then, becomes an endeavour to philosophically determine the understanding of being in the unique interpersonal Mitdasein shared by nurse and patient. The Sache des Denkens takes on an especially urgent character in the case of palliative care, so that the patient can die a good death.