My death

I’ve been thinking a lot about my death lately. I know most people would not approve of this seemingly morbid preoccupation but I find it keeps me focussed on my life and what I have left of it.

Speaking of death goes against a most important moral precept we have, one of our most cherished ideals: health. A focus on health along with wealth and happiness is supposed to keep us in a good mental state and thinking positively about our lives and our activities. Given our obsession with health, it’s not surprising that we don’t want to hear about death. Death is the ultimate failure of health, now isn’t it? We seem to love to speak about our healthy lifestyles and post comments on Facebook about our healthy diets. We are constantly bombarded with ads and opinions about how to stay healthy. We are admonished for not eating healthily, drinking too much booze or engaging in activities that could ‘damage’ our health.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against being healthy. I’m just saying that it’s immoral in a world that glorifies health to be unhealthy. Now before you go off telling me I’m full of crap, think about it. Think of how we speak in hushed tones when someone is found to be ill and the words we speak to the relatives of the sick and ailing. Think of how we are uncomfortable around people who are obviously ailing or seriously ill. We equate illness with weakness and mygawd we must stay strong!

Disease and death as Ernest Becker so eloquently put it are “the two principle evils of the human organismic condition. Disease defeats the joys of prosperity while one is alive, and death cuts prosperity off coldly.” (EFE, page 3)

So, why do I think about my death? Why do I anticipate the moment of my last breath? Well, I know my death is tomorrow. I was 20 years old yesterday although I’m now 70, so how far down the road can my death be? It will be on me in a moment just as old age has come in a blistering flash. Time truly does fly. So, in thinking about my death, I give my life some meaning, some urgency. Life and death are one in the same thing. One cannot exist without the other so in denying death we are denying a crucial part of what makes us alive.

Our denial of death is a great cultural conspiracy to keep us feeling guilty and to keep us in line, conforming to the moral ideals that rule our world. Yes, like most animals, we have a primordial will to live, but unlike most animals we have wreaked havoc on the world in our ill-fated attempts at guaranteeing our immortality. Anyone who dares oppose our chosen path to immortality beware because you will soon be targets of our wrath.

Tomorrow I tackle morality and wealth. If you’re poor you might as well be dead in our world.

 

Shall we have veal for dinner, dear?

From a blog post on January 28th, 2014. The following two paragraphs in italics are a long quote from Ernest Becker’s 1975 book, Escape from Evil, which I used extensively when I was teaching college sociology courses. The language may be somewhat crass and shocking, but it gets the message across.

“Man is an animal…Whatever else he is, is built on this…The only certain thing we know about this planet is that it is a theater for crawling life, organismic life, and at least we know what organisms are and what they are trying to do.

At its most elemental level the human organism, like crawling life, has a mouth, digestive tract, and anus, a skin to keep it intact, and appendages with which to acquire food.  Existence, for all organismic life, is a constant struggle to feed – a struggle to incorporate whatever other organisms that can fit into their mouths and press down their gullets without choking.  Seen in these stark terms, life in this planet is a gory spectacle, a science-fiction nightmare in which digestive tracts fitted with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste excrement as they move along in search of more flesh. I think this is why the epoch of the dinosaurs exerts such a strong fascination on us: it is an epic food orgy with king-size actors who convey unmistakably what organisms are dedicated to.  Sensitive souls have reacted with shock to the elemental drama of life on this planet, and one of the reasons Darwin so shocked his time – and still bothers ours – is that he showed this bone-crushing, blood-drinking drama in all of its elementality and necessity: Life cannot go on without the mutual devouring of organisms.  If the living spectacle of all that he had organismically incorporated in order to stay alive, he might well feel horrified by the living energy he had ingested.  The horizon of a gourmet, or even the average person, would be taken up with hundreds of chickens, flocks of lambs and sheep, a small herd of steers, sties full of pigs, and rivers of fish.  The din alone would be deafening.  To paraphrase Elias Canetti, each organism raises it’s head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.”

I post this in light of an online petition I signed recently opposing the practices of the veal production industry to take newborn calfs, separate them from their mothers and isolate them in veal fattening pens. These are often dome like plastic structures hardly big enough for the calf to turn around. The idea, I presume, is to allow the calf as little physical activity as possible so as to fatten them up and keep their meat nice and tender. Many farmers who send calves off to the slaughterhouse to become veal are humane and treat their animals with a degree of kindness (I actually have no proof of this, only second hand reports). I think the way we treat the animals we intend to eat reflects our values and assumptions about their intelligence and even whether or not we think they feel pain.

I once saw a video of a ‘scientist’ claiming that animals don’t feel pain. In the video he was standing beside a row of beagles with wires implanted through their skulls and into their brains. The fact that the argument is ongoing astounds me. It’s clear from the scientific evidence that animals feel pain, and they have emotional lives. There is a lot of scientific evidence to support this claim yet there is still controversy over it. Carl Safina in a National Geographic article is quoted as saying:

It is incredible to me there is still a debate over whether animals are conscious and even a debate over whether human beings can know animals are conscious. If you watch mammals or even birds, you will see how they respond to the world. They play. They act frightened when there’s danger. They relax when things are good. It seems illogical for us to think that animals might not be having a conscious mental experience of play, sleep, fear or love. 

Safina goes on to say later in the article that:

Many people simply assume that animals act consciously and base their belief on their own domestic animals or pets. Other people do not want animals to be conscious because it makes it easier for us to do things to animals that would be hard to do if we knew they were unhappy and suffering.

Safina singles out lab scientists as a particular group in denial about animal suffering and pain. He is quoted as saying: “However, in laboratories the dogma persists: don’t assume that animals think and have emotions–and many scientists insist that they do not.”

I am going to assume for the rest of this blog post that many animals species feel pain and experience emotional lives. If that’s the case, we have to address how we feel about that and think hard about how we treat non-human animals, especially the ones destined for our dinner tables. More importantly, what can we make of Becker’s argument in the quotation above given what we know about animal pain and suffering?

The vast majority of us have never experienced what goes on in a slaughterhouse. Slaughterhouses are sites of killing on an industrial scale. I can’t imagine anyone working in the killing line of a slaughterhouse not having been effectively desensitized to animal fear, pain and suffering. Obviously, the terror (and I don’t use this word lightly) that a bull feels on entering a slaughterhouse is very temporary. Stunning and then killing takes moments. Does that justify the slaughter in the first place? Should we all be vegetarians or vegans and avoid eating animals at all thus putting all slaughterhouses out of business?

Some people have definitely accepted the argument that a vegetarian or vegan life is much more ethical than the carnivorous life. They don’t eat animal flesh although they may indulge in the consumption of animal products such as eggs and milk. But is the vegetarian or vegan life possible for the majority of humans? Are humans inherently omnivorous or can we give up our animal flesh diets?

In my next blog post I address more directly the issues presented by Becker’s quote above. Are we not carnivorous by nature? How valuable is life? How valuable is death?

 

Nothing lasts forever.

I have pernicious anemia and I have been bad about taking my B12 vitamin which I have to inject into my thigh. I don’t have any problems doing that and don’t ask me why I didn’t carry on with my injections, but I stopped doing them at least a year ago. Consequently, I have lived in an anemic fog including cognitive impairment, vertigo, tingling in my hands and feet, severe itching and other symptoms for the last few months along with full body pain and overarching fatigue. For some reason I didn’t connect the fact that I had ceased injecting B12 with my ongoing debilitating symptoms. After having admitted to being a great cautionary tale, I am now resuming my injections and I hope the fog lifts soon. I seem to be improving a bit so we’ll see how things go. At the very least, I hope that the fog dissipates sufficiently so that I can put together a decent post here.

Pernicious anemia can be deadly if not treated but for some reason I was in denial of that fact. I know I’m mortal, of course. If pernicious anemia doesn’t kill me something else will  and I’m okay with that.  As my  title above says, nothing lasts forever. My personal mortality is assured. Fact is, the universe paved the way for it a very long time ago.

We watched a program on television last night called Wonders of the Universe with Brian Cox that explained the arrow of time and the fact that the universe will eventually die out to nothing. That certainly had not been my understanding of how things would turn out.* Cox argues that life depends on the arrow of time and would not be possible without it. Death is the inevitable consequence of life. In fact life and death are not opposites at all but integral elements in the process of time. Cox also argue that this time in the course of the universe is the only time life will be possible. By ‘this time’ he includes billions of years along the staggeringly long life of the universe which started thirteen billions years ago according to scientific calculations. Our sun will die in a billion years or so and will explode in six billion. You won’t have to cover your head and hide under your desk when it ends though because by then, life on earth will be completely obliterated.The universe itself will die in several trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of years.  So, life is meaningless and insignificant in the vastness of space and time. Sorry to have to remind you of that.

That said, we humans have decidedly taken sides on this issue and we favour life over death. To hell with the arrow of time! Well, sort of. We pay lip service to life, but we love to kill each other it seems (or just stand by as others kill each other)  and we kill other animals with glee, piling up their corpses on our dinner plates. So death has a certain attraction for us, but only if it happens to someone else. I know that some people take death in their stride and don’t feel any sympathy for animals they see squashed by a truck on the highway or on an assembly line waiting to give up their lives so that the trucker can have his chicken wings at the next bar down the road. They couldn’t care less either about hundreds of thousand of Rwandans massacred in the mid 1990s internecine war or the countless others who die daily in skirmishes in many parts of the planet. Conversely, they may just feel that death is necessary for life and they don’t sweat it. They may understand that we all have to eat dead things and for that to happen whether it’s animal or mineral, something has to die so that they will continue to live for a while longer. Whether or not they think about it in these terms or not, for some of them, killing an animal themselves is a more honest way of doing what has to be done than having a surrogate do the killing for them in an abattoir or other kind of killing factory. I eat animal flesh on occasion but I don’t kill the animals myself that I eat. I leave that up to someone else, someone in a factory out there somewhere by people I don’t know. Honestly, I sometimes feel guilty about that. I realize that isn’t a rational sentiment, but rationality has little to do with life and death.

How we feel about life and death, especially of domestic animals, depends largely on how inclusive we think about community belonging. We share many traits with other animals yet we deny any affinity with them. On the CBC News last evening Peter Mansbridge introduced a segment on chimera. Chimera are animals that have cells from other animals implanted in them. In his introduction, Mansbridge, with obvious horror, noted that pigs, animals that is,  were being implanted with human cells in order to make transplant organs for humans in the process. He spoke as if there are humans and then there are animals. He separated animals from humans in a way that would suggest that humans are not animals. Of course, that’s preposterous, but it’s a  widespread perspective. In separating us from other species we ‘other’ them and make it easier for us to kill them for whatever reason, often for food. But, as you read above, nothing lasts forever and who is to say what a good death is? Is animal extinction a bad thing? Not according to the arrow of time, by which measure everything goes extinct.

Have you ever watched another animal (human or other) die? Have you ever been  a witness to their light being extinguished permanently, the sentience that was there no longer existent? I have a number of times and every time, it gives me pause. I think this sensation of unease with the extinction of the momentous thing called life is inescapable for the majority of us.  I think that it is deep seated and relates to our instinct of self-preservation. So, are we doomed? Of course we are. The arrow of time proves it. Does that make us any more accepting of our fate? I don’t think so.

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*I have a book by Stephen Jay Gould called Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time published in 1987. I’ve had it for years. I will begin to re-read it this evening to see what I can make of Cox’s argument in light of it.

 

 

Why do we so often refer to sex as dirty?

My next post was supposed to be about morality and that will be the subject of a number of future posts, but I was listening to the CBC this morning and the guest host of the morning program was interviewing a comedian and talking about his upcoming show. That tweaked my interest as I sipped my coffee. The host asked the comedian if his show was going to be clean. The comedian responded that for the most part it would be but that it would also be dirty at times. Well, I just had to weigh in. Morality will just have to wait a bit.

By dirty I know, and you know, that the host and the comedian were referring to the use of  swear words like fuck and shit and piss in his routine. He was not, however, going to make specific reference to the sex act and have some fun with that. That would be too raunchy. After all, you’ve got to keep it safe for a regular audience or they won’t come back to see you again. Swearing, it seems, is fair game. It’s okay to make fun of your wife or yourself in a comedy routine, but it’s not okay to talk explicitly about what went wrong or right the last time you had sex. That will be okay in the not-too-distant future, I expect.

It’s quite telling that in English swearing is almost exclusively sex based or has to do with genitalia or bodily functions of one sort or the other. In French Canada, swearing is entirely different, or at least it was when I was a kid. In French swearing relates to religious things although it can stray into combining sex or bodily functions with objects or persons of religions significance. For instance, a great swearing line in French refers to the ‘holy cream of an old nun.’ It’s probably changing now to a more ‘cleanly’ sex-based expression. Tell me if you know. I’m not up on Québecois swearing behaviour these days. In English, of course, fuck is the word or choice in a number of expressions not at all related to sex, but the word clearly relates to coitus or the sex act. For instance we might exclaim upon seeing a cute cat video: “Wasn’t that just the cutest fucking thing you’ve ever seen?” Or, listen to George Carlin classify people into three categories. He says that there are stupid people, people who don’t give a shit and people who are just fucking nuts!

So, what about this sex is dirty thing? Well, Ernest Becker (in his many books, but especially The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil, concludes that it all goes back to our fear or terror of death,* which also has a lot to say about how women are so often poorly treated in our world and in times past.  So what does considering sex as dirty have to do with our fear of death and the way women are so often (mis)treated?

It’s a bit of a truism to say that we all live and die. Yes, we do, but we don’t necessarily like the dying part so we concoct all sorts of cultural mechanisms to help us deny  that fact. One way we do that is to separate ourselves linguistically from other animal species by referring to ourselves as ‘human’ and to those other things as ‘animals.’ Of course, we are animals and it’s hard to deny that because we’re obviously not plants or rocks, but that doesn’t matter. We deny anyway. That kind of attitude allows us to treat animals in all kinds of nasty ways, because, well, they aren’t human and God did say that he put them here on earth for us to have dominion over. We are spiritual beings, animals aren’t. Enough said.

More significantly however we also take great care to separate ourselves into male and female classes. Yes, I say classes because that’s what’s happening. Just as we consider ourselves spiritual beings and animals as spiritless, we have also contrived historically to consider men as spiritual beings and women as physical beings. In many parts of the world in every time in history women have been considered a lesser species than men.

There’s a simple, yet devastating reason for this. Women remind men at every turn that they are mortal. Women exude blood on a regular basis. Babies are born between shit and piss in an orgy of blood. You lose blood, you die. Men have gone to extraordinary lengths to deny their physicality, their animality, and emphasize their spirituality to the detriment of women. Men in some cultures wear anal plugs to show that they don’t need to shit. They are above that. Menstruating women are often shunned for fear that they might contaminate something or other. Men denigrate women at every turn. Not all men, of course, but our culture and many in the past have built massive institutions that denigrate women. The pornography ‘industry’ is a good example of that. It’s popularity attests to how important sex is to us, but how important it also is to objectify women and treat them as sexual objects and as not quite human. Generally speaking, women are way more important to men for their genitals than for their brains. Hillary Clinton is facing this fact right now in the U.S. Many men just can’t see the president of the United States being fucked. Tell me it ain’t so.

Sin, in Christian, Muslim and Judaic mythology often refers to succumbing to the temptations of the flesh, female flesh that is. The flesh is the territory of the devil. If you want to live forever  in the light of God then stay clear of unauthorized sexual pleasure. “Unauthorized’ here is a critical element in the preceding sentence. Although constantly being revised and rethought, when and how sex gets authorized and becomes okay is strictly defined in cultural precepts. That’s fodder for another blog post.

Oh, we take sex very seriously in our culture, in our time, but we have very contradictory ideas about it. Yes, the sex act is fun and all that, but it also brings us clearly into the physical world and that’s a dangerous place to be if you want to be immortal.

In my next post, I’ll consider how sex and our animality fit into our broader moral world.
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I know where I was conceived.

I know where I was conceived. It was in a small rickety, squeaky bed in a small room at the end of a small corridor, door on the right. I’m quite convinced all nine of my younger brothers and sisters were also conceived there although I can’t be absolutely certain. I’m not at all sure of where my older siblings were conceived. They are my father’s children but not my mother’s. They shared this house with the rest of us but the details are not important for now. The small room where I was conceived was also the room where the baby of the family slept. There was always a baby in the family as I was growing up.

 

The house containing this small room was also small, and it was always full of children. It no longer exists. The small room and the small house are gone now, torn down and replaced by a large brown duplex not so many years ago. No one driving by on the inconspicuous street on which it fronts would ever know that the house in which I grew up had ever existed. Yet there was life there, lots of life. There still is life on that same place, in the brown duplex, but the people living there now would have no idea of the life that preceded them in that very location years before, just as I have no idea of the life that goes on in that duplex now. We share the experience of a place those duplex dwellers and I, not that they are aware of that. Why would they be?

 

January 29th, 2015, marked the 69th anniversary of my parents’ wedding day. My father has been dead since April, 2007 but my mother lives on in body if not in mind. She no longer recognizes the faces nor the voices of any of her family members and every moment of her life now is disconnected from her past and even from the very moment preceding it. She spends most of her days in a state of catatonia, as a result of years of dementia, she cannot feed herself and three years ago she was beaten up by another resident of the home in which she lives, but that’s mostly forgotten now.

 

In days gone by, when I was born, say, there was much life in my mother. She was a young, beautiful, strong twenty-one year old woman, twelve years younger than my father. In her time, she bore ten children, five daughters and four sons. I’m the oldest of my mother’s children but the sixth oldest of my father’s. He had five daughters from a previous marriage before his wife died in 1946 in childbirth bearing her sixth child, a son they were to call Roger. He shares a coffin with his mother.

…to be continued sometime.