Sunday, August 14, 2005

Approaching Twilight

Fall approaching in the northern hemisphere, along with a recent personal experience, bring to mind the proximity of death and the human struggle with the end of life, particularly our own or that of members of our own species.
Leaves will fall to the ground dead. Various crops will be harvested, that is, fruits of various plants will be killed. The temperature will drop and a vast array of insects and microscopic creatures will die.
In this season of reaping, the Grim Reaper reaps most. In nursing homes and hospices, fall chills are known to bring on the illnesses that finish off the dying.
People of all opinions, persuasions and scientific theories can agree that the cessation of human life as we know it has at least several common characteristics. Death is irreversible, unavoidable and it renders null and void all ideas, states of being, relationships, possibilities, fears and joys connected with the life of the person who has died.
In vain religious people argue that life continues. Whatever life there is, if there is one, is idealized: heavens and hells are clearly quite unlike life as we know it. When we die, we are all dead as door nails to this life.
No one comes back from death to life as we know it to tell its tale. We don't hear that even Jesus or Odin or any other allegedly resurrected figure went on living as those who knew them lived, anchored to this earth and its limitations.
It is understandable, however, that there should be religious complaints against death. The mind rebels against the notion.
Elizabeth Kübler Ross made famous the five stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance -- all of which show how hard death is. Indeed, the mind can hardly define what death is and when it happens.
Historically, we said that someone was dead when the heartbeat and breathing stopped. The Victorians put bells on coffins, however, due to the common fear of mistakenly burying people who were cold, motionless, and unresponsive for some period of time due to a medical condition. Today, the definition of death hinges around brain death, or cessation of electrical activity in the brain.
Then there's the matter of death being unavoidable -- along with taxes, quipped Ben Franklin.
In the United States, the federal government lists the following as the top ten causes of death: heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory diseases, accidents, diabetes, influenza/pneumonia, Alzheimer's disease, nephritis and nephrosis, septicemia.
Some amount of healthy eating and exercise may prevent heart disease. Not smoking may prevent cancer, although non-smokers do get it. There are also possible preventions for stroke, respiratory disease and diabetes -- although many of these are genetic.
The flu is not a killer, it's just like the wind in the fall, it pulls off those who hold on the tree of life is loose, almost dead.
The others are not killers, they are simply conditions of degeneration. The body, like all machines, breaks down and ceases working until it can work no more.
While we're at it with killers, there's sudden accidental death, brought on by human killers, which evokes revulsion in all sane people. Too much of it is allowed to happen.
Watching death, mostly from a distance, my observation is that the process of death is very much like the process of birth and infancy -- just in reverse.
A baby begins to recognize people and its environs, begins to communicate, eventually to walk, talk, feed itself and take care of it excretions. A dying person loses control of the bowels and the ability to eat unaided, to walk or talk, to communicate, to recognize and eventually stops breathing and the electric waves in the brain cease.
Do not mourn for them, we are all dying.
As rendering things null and void, I'd like to end with my favorite quote from Scott Peck's "The Road Less Traveled":
... let me simply list, roughly in order of their occurrence, some of the major conditions, desires and attitudes that must be given up in the course of a wholly successful evolving lifetime:
The state of infancy, in which no external demands need be responded to
The fantasy of omnipotence
The desire for total (including sexual) possession of one's parent(s)
The dependency of childhood
Distorted images of one's parents
The omnipotentiality of adolescence
The 'freedom' of uncommitment
The agility of youth
The sexual attractiveness and/or potency of youth
The fantasy of immortality
Authority over one's children
Various forms of temporal power
The independence of physical health
And, ultimately, the self and life itself.