Thursday, January 12, 2006

On Death

I recently finished reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. It covers a one year period which began with her daughter's being admitted to a hospital seriously ill and comatose and the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, of a heart attack as they sat down to dinner just a few evenings later. They had been married over 40 years. It is a painful but rather exquisite journey with Ms. Didion reflecting on her loss, mourning and grief.

I am 60 years old. I lost my father in 1978 to colon and liver cancer. He was 74. My eldest brother died in 1989 of a heart attack at age 60. My mother was 92 at her death, finally succumbing to, I guess, just being old. I have seen both my father and mother in-law pass, several of my wife's uncles as well as her youngest brother and sister. My wife is the oldest of eight.

Death is, perhaps, the most difficult of life's changes with which we must deal. It is so absolute. Absolutely permanent. No recourse. Regardless Ms. Didion recounts how she continued certain routines and resisted changing things regarding her husband on the notion that, somehow, he might yet come back. That there might have been some kind of mistake. He still might need his slippers, or he wouldn't like finding his desk in disarray. He had projects to finish.

Although my father has been gone the longest, I miss him the most. I can't say we were close. He was a difficult man. An alcoholic by any standard. He was bitter and had a foul temper, especially when drunk. But, underneath that, he was a man of intelligence and good humor. While he never rose much above working class wages, he provided well for my mother. She never wanted for anything materially.

I often wonder what it would have been like if, instead, he had outlived my mother. I'm sure it would have been difficult. He had pretty well estranged both of my brothers, who had little use for him. Oddly, my wife loved him. She saw the good natured rascality in him that was too often obscured by his drinking. She saw him as a victim of a cloying, judgmental wife. He was profoundly lonely and alone. My wife knew he was no saint, but she also understood that we, as a family, had badly misjudged him. Sadly, I didn't really see it until after he was gone. Now, I wish I could bring him back. He never knew my kids. (The day of visitation for my dad's funeral was also the day my wife discovered that she was pregnant with our older son.) I believe he would have liked them. They are both intelligent, good humored and strong willed. That last -much more so than any of my dad's children, including yours truly.

So, where am I going with this little lament? Of course, there is the usual warning sign: Don't wait to make a connection with someone. Once they are gone, the opportunity dies with them. All that may be left to you is regret.

As to this topic's connection with the stated theme of my blog site, I suppose it may seem not an altogether smooth segue, but generally our feelings about death are bound to our belief, or lack thereof, in a life beyond. Obviously, I fall in the latter category. A belief in eternal life - a life in another realm sans our physicality - is based on exactly no evidence beyond fantasy. It is truly irrational. Near death experiences offer no proof of anything beyond. The "white light" and other sights and sounds experienced when one has a brush with death, no matter how visceral are simply manifestations of the brain. It is what the brain "does" in those instances. The brain is "programmed" if you will, to protect us from emotional trauma when it can.

The horrors the world is being subjected to, mainly by Islamist extremists and our response to it, are directly connected to their unbending belief in a glorious, eternal life beyond as martyrs at the foot of Allah. Regardless of what tradition one follows, a belief in a life beyond, and the consequent devaluation of our earthly existence is contrary to reality and to progress. If the masses believed that this life is all there is, the value of it would soar. Wasted, aimless effort would likely diminish (not disappear, of course - we would still be human, and fallible, after all.) We could certainly better focus our attention on the here and now, on improving our earthly existence. We could make greater strides against ignorance and disease. We could reduce suffering, and, perhaps, extend our lives by years, maybe decades. Such efforts are ongoing, but often are stifled by those who position themselves against science and against the intellect.

Unfortunately, such people remain in power, although the recent mid-term elections provide some hope for the near future. However, the administration remains in control of the purse strings of much scientific research, and they are niggardly in their support of it. It has been suggested by some in government and even moreso from the pulpit that scientific research, the quality of the environment, and so on are of no particular concern owing to the coming Rapture. Those who remain on earth will be doomed to hell in any case, so why be concerned for their brief existence on a ravaged planet? When God deems it appropriate to return the "Raptiles" to an earthly existence, he will, it is said, rid the planet of pollutants and ugliness, so his ardent flock will not be offended by the offal of the damned.

Believing that my death totally and unequivocally ends my existence is not a particularly happy prospect. It is certainly attractive to imagine that the essence of "me-ness" could live on for eternity. But, as I have stated repeatedly, such a notion is nothing more than a human conceit. We find it hard, nearly impossible, to accept that we are of no more importance to the universe than our brief stay on this little planet. We, in our fantasies, dreams and nightmares can imagine a vast array of life, and after-life scenarios. We are free to believe these phantoms, or dismiss them as we choose. I once believed in Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. But, alas, I came to the unavoidable conclusion that they are simply attractive myths (although I must admit to a couple of appearances as the Jolly Old Elf on a couple of occasions.)

I remember being fascinated by the writings of Carlos Casteneda which provided a whole new universe of spiritual awareness. Attention was brought to them initially due to their involvement with hallucinogenic drugs, mescaline and the like. The first one or two books, as I remember, were actually a part of Casteneda's doctoral thesis in anthropology or ethnography. For several years, a number of mainly younger "hippy" folks believed these books to be factual accounts of Casteneda's spiritual journey under the tutelage of a Yaqui brujo or sorcerer known as Don Juan. More recently, this notion has been thrown into serious doubt. However, if taken as fiction, these works are at least highly imaginative and wonderfully written. His books have sold millions. Whether or not the man, Don Juan, actually did or does now exist is largely beside the point, as some have claimed regarding Jesus. Someone, whether it be the likes of Don Juan or Carlos Casteneda, did manage to recount or create a truly intriguing series of books which examine many levels of human consciousness. There are, of course, a number of web sites dedicated to Carlos Casteneda and his work.

But, do I believe in the otherworldly aspects of his work? Do I believe that "Death" is always with us, sitting on our left shoulder, just waiting for the proper moment to strike? No. I believe that it amounts only to Don Juan's or, more likely, Casteneda's artful myth making. The world Casteneda created in his books is thought provoking, at times frightening and often, fascinating. But, ultimately, I believe it to be a fiction.

How to end this? I'm not sure. As I will no doubt be dealing with most of these issues in the future, I don't feel the need to "wrap it all up." in one summarizing paragraph. Rather, I will just leave off here in the hope or expectation that I will be inspired to further this discussion as time and the desire to do so permits.

I do recommend both the Didion book and any or all of Casteneda's work for anyone's perusal. The former is both informative and moving. The latter are, if nothing more, great reads.


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