Chemo and life

July 27th, 2022.

It has been about twenty hours since my second infusion of carfilzomib. I take dexamethasone in conjunction with my infusion and that’s what I’m feeling the effects of predominantly at the moment. I’m dexed out, and I will be for a while yet. What concerns me the most is a repetition of the fever I got last Thursday as a side effect of carfilzomib. That fever at 38.9˚C sent me to Emerg for a long day on Thursday. The irony is that the fever is not caused by an infection, but that’s what the staff in Emerg will focus on. That’s what they know. And, of course, they do have to discount the possibility of an infection so they prescribe high doses of antibiotics. I don’t need antibiotics, but there ya go.

This time around, if I get a fever tomorrow AM (it started at 4 AM last week) I’ll know what to do about it. If my fever stays below 39˚C or so, I’ll stay at home, take a cold shower, use cold compresses and wait for it to pass. Last week the fever lasted maybe a day, and it fluctuated a lot during that time. It was funny in a way, because we went to Emerg for a second time last week on Thursday evening because my temperature had gone up to 38.9˚C. By the time we got there it had dropped to 36.6˚C. Well, that was a bit embarrassing. At that point they took some blood and put me in a room to then ignore me for 4 hours. By midnight we had had enough waiting and just went home. I don’t blame the Emerg staff. They couldn’t do anything in any case. But it would have been good to just send us home even if we hadn’t seen a doctor yet.

In any case, I’m a little apprehensive about the next 24 hours. I really need this chemo regime to work so I need to deal with the side effects and not let them force a stop to the regime. Carfilzomib is one of the last possibilities for me apparently. After that, I’m on my own. That means facing my myeloma without any help from chemotherapy. The consequences of that are well, terminal. We all get there, but I was kinda hoping to see my 80th birthday. That’s not rational, of course, because whether I die today or in 4 years makes little difference. After I’m dead, there won’t be any regrets. So, my hopes and wishes for a longer life are purely emotional.

August 3rd, 2022

So, as of now I’ve completed the first cycle of carfilzomib/dexamethasone treatment. No fevers after the first infusion. That’s great. The thing is I need this protocol to work. I won’t know if it’s working until I get my next blood workup in a couple of weeks. I meet with my local GP oncologist on August 10th, but we won’t have the results of my blood tests by then. We will meet, though, so he can assess how I’m doing. Blood work is only one factor in making decisions about treatment, but it’s an important one.

As usual, I’m dexed out after my last infusion of carfilzomib and 12 milligrams of dexamethasone taken orally. The next forty-eight hours will tell the tale regarding other side effects. I’m feeling alright given the circumstances. Strangely enough I have more energy when I’m dexed out, at least until it wears off and at that point I need to lie down and maybe get a little sleep.

I’m currently reading a book by Tom Robbins entitled Jitterbug Perfume. It hit the New York Times Bestsellers List in 1985. I read most of Robbins’ books back then along with books by John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut. Ostensibly about coming up with the definitive perfume, the book is all about the fear of death, immortality and dying. I can’t seem to get away from reading (and writing) about death and dying. That’s not surprising, really, given my time of life. Strangely, I feel I need to apologize for being so focussed on death and dying. After all, death, according to Ernest Becker, is one of the twin pillars of evil in our world, the other pillar being disease. It seems I’m immersed in the twin pillars of evil. So be it. It’s my life right now. Chemo is my life too at the moment. It’s a tough row to hoe sometimes because the end is nigh. But, it seems that we need to always focus on the bright side of life. Talk of death and dying are not welcome in a world that vociferously denies death and dying.

I know too many people right now with cancer, some with cancers much more aggressive than mine. Some want to talk about it, some don’t. Some have died recently, some are still dealing with their disease. Whatever type of cancer we have, we all face the same end. The ‘authorities’ claim that my cancer, multiple myeloma, is incurable, but treatable. Fair enough. However, the treatment can be quite harsh and whether or not it’s worth it is a question we still need to confront. That’s the case for all types of cancer.

As the song says, it’s summer time…and the living is easy. Yeah, right. For all you joung’uns with not a care in the world, you need to take this maxim and run with it. I’m not in a position to run anywhere. That’s fine. We’re all at different stages of life. Have a great summer.

Evolutionary Theory vs. Structural-Functionalism.

[Don’t be too put off by the title of this post. It looks highfalutin. It may be, but the text isn’t.]

It’s a truism to say that our lives are finite and that we go through stages of development and change. But, it seems, sometimes we need to be reminded of obvious but possibly unwelcome realities. I’m sure we all understand that we follow a path of change starting at birth and ending at death. In between we move from infancy to childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood, and then to old age. Of course, not all of us get to go through every stage. For some of us, the stages get cut off and we die young or accidentally. We may contract a disease at any age that proves fatal. Governments document all of these things with vital statistics and publish all kinds of data on birth rates, types of mortality, morbidity*, et cetera. British Columbia offers a lot of this information online. Statistics Canada also gets into the act and publishes a lot of health related statistics. It’s not an exaggeration to note that we are obsessed with our health and wellness. How much of the internet is dedicated to health related websites? The woo flows freely and the sales of every magic potion, miracle diet, and supplement imaginable are on offer. And there is overwhelming evidence that at every turn we find ways to deny death. As I’ve often noted, one of Ernest Becker’s most salient observations is that the twin pillars of evil in our world are death and disease.

Our entire medical system is set up to discover and ‘fix’ any human organism that doesn’t conform to what we consider normal for any stage of development. It is often unsuccessful in that endeavour, but it doesn’t like to discuss its failures.

Pathology as I use it here describes a condition of abnormality (non-normality), a structural and functional situation wherein things have gone wrong in an organism. The underlying assumption of pathology is that organisms all have a normal condition, and if things cease to work as they are supposed to according to medical science, then they are considered pathological, or at least the cause of their malfunction is searched out and an attempt is made to restore the organism to normality. Medicine, and in fact, our whole culture, decided a long time ago what normal humans should look like and how they should behave. Yes, we all live and die, but pathology isn’t really interested in those realities. A pathological perspective is only interested in bringing a diseased organism back to normality.

Science and medicine have analyzed and dissected the human body in great detail especially over the past five hundred years. Leonardo da Vinci, born in 1452 was adept at dissection, and he led the way for countless others who carried on the tradition. Later, biologists analyzed the human body from many perspectives, broadly using anatomy and physiology as major categories, but focusing on systems (cardio-vascular, endocrine, etc.), organs, cells, and their functioning. I’m no biologist so I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the investigation of human biological life. However, it’s clear that our organs (heart, liver, kidneys, et cetera) are of great interest to medicine, particularly if and when they cease to function the way they are supposed to.

As a quick aside, a major sociological school used (and still uses) what Emile Durkheim calls the organismic analogy. He suggests that society is much like the human body. He argues in his dissertation Rules of Sociological Method that there is no organic equivalence between human organs and social systems, but broadly, they share the same epistemological underpinnings. Human organs work in concert for the good and survival of the whole. That’s easy enough to understand. He then argues that human social systems, politics, family, economy, education, et cetera, must work in concert for the good of the whole society. Social pathology occurs when any one or other of the social systems that make up society fail to fulfill their function. The result is that the whole society is ‘sick’ or malfunctions. The problem with this perspective is that it’s not especially easy to find ‘a society’. From my point of view, societies are not be confused with countries or nation-states. They are not necessarily equivalent.

It’s easier to identify an individual human being than a society, or so it seems, until we ask the question: Is an individual human being a stand-alone organism? My answer is no. I could not and would not exist without air, food, water, et cetera. These elements are not necessarily a part of me, but they are essential for my life so excluding them from an analysis of what I am as a human is highly misleading. It suggests that we are somehow separate from the world that surrounds and sustains us. This is a foundational part of the individualism that characterizes our capitalistic world and it’s wrong.

So, broadly, we are captured by a world view that focusses on the structure and function of our organs in a biological sense and our social structures in a societal sense. This is why people often argue that what’s ‘wrong’ with our society is that the family isn’t doing its job, the economy is failing us, education is behind the times, and other simplistic criticisms. Figuring out how to fix it is another thing entirely.

In terms of the human body, if medicine finds that the heart is weak or not working properly, it tries to ‘fix’ it, that is to restore it to its presumed former state. It may conclude that a weak heart will have deleterious effects on the kidneys, and it may even find that a weak heart will threaten the organism as a whole. In contrast, an evolutionary perspective expects the heart to weaken as it ages. It expects that lungs will lose their ability to process oxygen. It expects that over time, muscles weaken, no matter what you do to counteract it. It expects death because death is built right into the model, unlike functionalism whereby death is left unconsidered or considered a clinical failure.

It’s true that an evolutionary perspective has made substantial inroads in science and even in medicine. It hasn’t in sociology, although it’s coming along**.

An evolutionary perspective follows the logic I present in my recent post: LIFE vs My Little Life. From this perspective, birth and death are normal human events. Death, especially, is not considered a defeat, it being an essential part of life. No death, no life. It’s as simple as that. That doesn’t mean we have to be happy about it. Just the amount of effort the human species has spent on denying death, on convincing itself that death is not the end of life, is testament to how unhappy we are with death and dying.

I don’t want to die, but I don’t have a say in the matter either.

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*morbidity refers to the incidence of ill-health in a population.

**see my (slightly outdated) dissertation on the topic published on this blog.

Seizures! What else now?

After at least two consultations with nurses and an oncologist, my GP has decided that I’ve probably had a couple of seizures over the past few months. Great.

Lately, after an internet conversation with one of my blog readers I wrote to them about how fully my life had become medicalized. See if you agree with me: I take a bunch of pills morning and evening to deal with cancer and pain. I go to the hospital twice a month for bloodwork and a two-hour infusion of Daratumumab. Monday we went to Nanaimo so that I could get a corticosteroid (dexamethasone) injected into my seventh cervical vertebrae to deal with the chronic pain in my neck; Tuesday morning I had an appointment with my GP for a prescription renewal, and to discuss a plan to send me to Nanaimo again, this time for an EEG if the CT scan I got Tuesday evening showed nothing. In fact, it did show nothing that could explain the two seizures I’ve had over the past few months, one very recently, so off to Nanaimo I go.

The thing is, if they find an abnormality in my brain using the EEG, they will simply want to put me on another drug, an anti-seizure drug. I’m already pickled in meds so why not another one?

My life seems to be driven by medical issues. I’m not alone in this, of course. Many of us have a close personal involvement with medicine, whether in the form of physicians, specialists, pharmaceuticals, hospitals, and various other medically-related bureaucracies like our Health Authorities in British Columbia, possibly all of the above. They should actually be called Sickness Authorities because that’s what they deal in, sickness. 

The provincial budget allocates billions of dollars for illness related issues. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many billions of dollars because they get spread out over several spending categories. For instance, the Ministry of Health is projected to spend approximately $25.5 billion in 2022-23 of an estimated $71 billion in total budgetary expenses. There’s another approximately $8.6 billion for infrastructure related to health. I assume the new Dementia Village in Comox falls under this category. Aging and dementia are health issues, apparently.

So, tons of money is spent every year on health issues. I account for some of that, I certainly do. The Daratumumab I get by infusion every month costs a reputed $10,000 a pop. Now that’s a big investment in my being. I’m not sure it’s justified, but it happens because of an overarching ethic dominated by the fear of death and the perceived sanctity of life. As Ernest Becker points out in Escape From Evil, the twin pillars of evil for us humans are death and disease. We do everything we can to fight them. Obviously we fail completely in dealing with death, and fighting disease is often a losing battle too. So, what are we doing? What’s the point? What if we had no ‘industrial’ medicine? Humans lived on this planet for millions of years without doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutics? Why do we spend so much on them now? 

I can safely conclude that part of the motivation for spending such inordinate amounts of money on ‘health’ is to keep the workforce working and reliable day after day, week after week, year after year. Industry requires consistent effort from the workforce, especially from those workers with technical or managerial skills. Another motivation is the transfer of power from workers to managers, in the case of health, from us ordinary folk to the specialist professionals, doctors. 

Since the 19th Century and the advent of scientific management, the control of commodity production has fallen on the managerial class. Workers have been stripped of all control over the productive process. In the case of health, doctors are the managers of our health. We negotiate with them to some extent, we even oppose them at times, but by and large they are in control. I must say though, that that situation is changing and your ordinary GP is becoming more and more a worker for a large bureaucratic organization that controls multiple clinics. Some American hospitals, for instance, extend their control over health spending and profits by buying out or establishing clinics where doctors are employees like any other. 

Obviously we live in a capitalist world where possessive individualism rules, where business is allowed to create products and services that may or may not be conducive to healthy bodies and minds. The fast food business is clearly not interested in our health. Money is the name of the game. Any deleterious consequences for our wellbeing caused by eating too much fast food is addressed by public spending on hospitals, doctors, pharmaceuticals, et cetera. Pharmaceutical businesses might initially be organized with an eye to alleviating human suffering and enhancing wellbeing, but it seems that they soon fall in line with all capitalist ventures in the need for profit above all other values. They depend on illness for their profits. I don’t think that’s such a good thing.

Then I got to thinking. I remember when I was a grad student reading a book by Michel Foucault* called The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. It was written in the early 1970s. The translation into English from the French (Naissance de la Clinique) has a 1973 Copyright date. Foucault was a prominent critic of institutionalized criminal incarceration, the medical clinic, madness, and sexuality, among other topics. He was a very controversial figure in French academia for decades, and a very prolific writer. He’s a ponderous writer to some, but an elegant exegesist to others. I find his critiques compelling in some ways, but belaboured in others. In other words, he’s complicated.** 

In his book on the rise of the medical clinic, his major point is that the medical ‘gaze’, the creation of a specialized, comprehensive, and institutionalized consideration of disease and pathology would become the exclusive domain of the medical clinic. We’ve even been convinced that pregnancy and aging fit nicely under the medical gaze. Other commentators on the power of modern medicine such as Ivan Illich emphasized the class basis of control over human health whereby we become supplicants in our relationships with doctors, whereas Foucault and his followers see the medical/health landscape as a set of power relations that work to “reproduce medical dominance” (Lupton, page 88). 

Because we are so freaked out about death and disease, Foucault would argue, we negotiate our necessarily subordinate relations with our doctors on an ongoing basis. According to Lupton, there is collusion between doctors and their patients to reproduce the system of medical dominance. That’s true in my case, certainly. Without modern medicine, I’d be dead right now.

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*The Passion of Michel Foucault (March 1, 1994), by James Miller is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. It’s balanced, decisive, and comprehensive. Definitely worth a read. Come to think of it, I need to read it again. 

**See Deborah Lupton, Foucault and the Medicalization Critique, Chapter 5 in Foucault, Health, and Medicine, Edited by Alan Peterson and Robin Bunton, 1997, Routledge: London and New York. 

Aw, come on…let’s talk about death some more.

[I suggested last month that I would stop blogging or change the way I use this blog. Well, because I generally enjoy writing, I decided to continue writing but not on a schedule and on topics I have not yet addressed. I’ve always been a fan of evolutionary theory in all disciplines so I’ll publish on that topic some, I’m sure. But the topics I have published on will likely continue to be on the list. Death and dying continue to preoccupy me as I get closer to having an immediate, personal relationship with them. I’ll write about them starting today. I’ll still write about my cancer journey too occasionally. It’s such a different experience than people with other kinds of cancer have.]

Death and More Death

Sherwin B. Nuland

I’ve got two books on death on the go right now. One I’ve already introduced on this blog. It’s by Sherwin B. Nuland and is called How We Die. It was a national best seller in the U.S. published in 1994. Nuland died in 2014. I wonder if his dying conforms to what he concluded in 1994. Probably does. Nuland was 83 when he died of prostate cancer after his mother and his brother had both died of colon cancer. That could not have been very pleasant. He was a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University until he retired in 2009. His obituary in the New York Times expresses this thought about Dr. Nuland and his death: 

To Dr. Nuland, death was messy and frequently humiliating, and he believed that seeking the good death was pointless and an exercise in self-deception. He maintained that only an uncommon few, through a lucky confluence of circumstances, reached life’s end before the destructiveness of dying eroded their humanity.’I have not seen much dignity in the process by which we die,’ he wrote. ‘The quest to achieve true dignity fails when our bodies fail.’

And, of course, all bodies fail. 

The second book I want to discuss in this blog post is one that was recommended to me by a person who called me out of the blue from the local hospice society.* It could not be further in spirit from Nuland’s book. So, the book this person recommended is called Death: An Inside Story. It’s characterized on the cover as “A book for all those who shall die.” The author goes by the name of Sadhguru (Sad guru). The book describes him as a yogi, mystic, and visionary. This is not the kind of book I normally read, but it comes highly recommended so why not?

Sadhguru

Unlike Nuland, Sadhguru is a fan of good death. Chapter Six of his book is called Preparing for a Good Death. He writes in an idiom that is foreign to me although I have read a number of books by Indian writers in general, and also by Zen Buddhists. I have read very little Hinduism, and when I have the book has been by a Western commentator. I know people who frequent ashrams in North America, Europe, and India. They have various reasons for doing so. I won’t speculate on their motives. I can’t see myself doing that. So, when I read Sadhguru, I admit that I am doing so from a place of relative ignorance. If I ever attended an ashram I may have more insight into the ‘place’ that Sadhguru occupies in the world of intellect and inner peace. Still, I’m not at a complete loss when I read Sadhguru.

I can relate to some of what Sadhguru professes in his book, once I get past what I consider the idiomatic nature of much of what he has to say. His emphasis that death is a natural fact of life resonates with my view and jives with Nuland too. It’s not a defeat of life or a failure. His views on our place in the scheme of life and death over millions of years is not unlike my own. Where I depart from Sadhguru is in his matter of fact insistence that ghosts are real and that reincarnation is a thing. In a chapter called The Riddle of Reincarnation, Sadhuru maintains that when people have sex and create an embryo and a fetus, life begins only after forty to forty-eight days after conception. That’s when “Someone else who is ripe for that and is looking for a body comes and occupies it”. (287) I’m still wondering how I could interpret this idiomatically. He’s not saying that the occupation of an embryo by another being is conscious. Instead, he writes, it’s karmic. 

One thing that Sadhguru, Nuland and I can agree with Ernest Becker on is that we constantly endeavour to deny death. We set up very imposing institutions designed to deny death. Nuland chastises modern medicine for doing just that. Sadhguru writes that

“One reason people can ignore death and continue to live on in their ignorance is simply that the religions of the world have spread all kinds of idiotic stories about life and death. They created some silly childish explanations for everything.” (5)

 It may be that Sadhguru is not reflexive enough to recognize the religious aspects of his own work. I wonder how his discussions of his past lives and reincarnation differ from other religious denial mechanisms. He states bluntly that “people don’t die.” (13) Now, if I read that literally, it seems absolutely absurd. He follows that up by writing that: 

“In a way, death is a fiction created by ignorant people. Death is a creation of the unaware, because if you are aware, it is life, life and life alone – moving from one dimension of Existence to another”.

 However, if I read this idiomatically I see a truth there. It’s only absurd if we take his words literally. Of course people die, but the atoms and molecules that make us up have always existed and always will. When I eat a carrot, the carrot becomes me (what I don’t poop out of course) so that’s life moving from one form to another. 

Over the millennia, all the organisms we eat and call food have been transformed into something else. Life is but a movement of matter and energy from one form to another. 

In our case, as is the truth for all organisms on this planet, we are finite. We are like mushrooms that sprout on the mycelium we call Life. We find it normal that a mushroom grows then decays enriching the soil from which it emerged. It’s interesting that so many of us (I haven’t done any surveys) have such a hard time accepting that reality as our own. How do you see it? Come on, let’s start a dialogue.

I’m really doing an injustice to both Nuland and Sadhguru. It’s not nice to pick and choose bits and pieces of their work to build my own argument. I guess I’m not very nice. Frankly, there is no substitute for reading their books in their entirety to make up your own mind.

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*Early on in my cancer diagnosis, in 2019 and early 2020, I visited the pain docs at the Comox Valley hospital and a couple of the docs actually came to the house for a visit. We discussed pain and Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID). I wasn’t quite ready for that yet, but the Hospice Society is great and they make sure that anybody on their list is contacted now and again. Eventually I will likely want their services. 

What should I be thinking about now? How about death and dying, cultural discombobulation, misogyny, evolution, and pain management?

I told you last post that I would be giving up on my blog. That’s still the case. I’ll likely wrap it up by the end of this month at least in its current format, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped thinking or wanting to write. When my readership fell below fifty views after a post, I decided that maybe it wasn’t worth the hassle of thinking about writing every week. Of course, some people might argue that if I have only one reader that should be enough for me. There’s an argument that can be made both ways. Who knows, things change. 

So, what should I be thinking and writing about now? As I get ever closer to death, it’s hard not to think about death and dying. My sister-in-law who was a couple of years younger than me, died recently. It seems like someone in my immediate circle of friends and family is dying every month. Such is life when one gets to a certain age. Of course, it’s not only older people who die. A forty-nine year old doctor in my Family Clinic died recently of heart failure. However, it’s certainly true that most Canadians, in any case, die at an advanced age. That will be me for sure because I’m already most of the way there.

Lately I’ve been trying to create a metaphor for the dying process. I think I’ve come up with one that makes sense. It’s probably not new to me, either. It’s the image of a wall, maybe a stone wall that can be seen in the distance just beyond a large, open field. In our younger days, the wall is low and hardly visible. We only pay attention to it fleetingly, maybe when we visit someone in the hospital, when we leave a funeral or witness a fatal car crash. Our physical vulnerability is only too obvious at these times. The truth is that we would have a hard time living our lives if we did not ignore the wall most of the time. Some people actually convince themselves that the wall doesn’t even exist and that even if it did, we could walk right through it. The thing is the wall is always there. As we get older the wall gets more visible. It gets bigger, thicker and broader and we begin to see individual stones in it. It begins to draw our attention more frequently. We seem to be getting closer to it and in fact we are.

My wall is clearly visible to me now. It’s so big, I can’t see much beyond it. Earlier in my life I could see mountains on the other side of it. Not anymore. Now, the wall demands my attention. It will not allow me to turn away from it. In a sense it’s a beautiful, solid wall. It’s obvious that much care was taken in its construction spanning the whole evolutionary time on this planet. Everyone has to come to the wall. No one is allowed to pass through it.

The denial of the existence of this wall is the essence of Ernest Becker’s work. My early posts on this blog consist of an exposition of Becker’s work and his contribution to understanding the denial of death. His last book, one that he had no hand in publishing because he was dead, was rightly entitled Escape From Evil. The evil that Becker writes about is death and disease. This book is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the power of denial in our lives because it’s a power that has determined so much of the death and destruction this planet has experienced with Homo sapiens at the centre of it.

Let’s now explore that denial a bit from a different perspective than I would have normally used. First up is how our social world seems to be coming apart at the seams with the war in the Ukraine, growing authoritarian at home and the pandemic that doesn’t seem to want to go away. I’m talking about the discombobulation of our social world and our reactions to it. Later I write about misogyny and evolution with a nod to Aristotle, the consummate misogynist and other philosophers of his time and ilk. But first, discombobulation.

Discombobulated  

This is my drawing of discombobulation. It’s my personal visual statement of my reaction to the Kurt Vonnegut world we live in today.

The word discombobulation is an old word from the 19th Century that shouldn’t be forgotten because it so expresses the sense that not much makes much sense anymore. The world really hasn’t ever made much sense if one considers humanity’s millennia-old legacy of war and brutality combined with a huge dose of goodwill and caring underlying much of human history. It seems as though every generation has to learn this truth on its own never learning from history. I’ve spent my whole adult life in a quest to unravel this discombobulation. I think I have things more or less worked out (with the help of a lot of people now dead who were much smarter than me), but I can’t seem to communicate that to enough other people for my knowledge to make much sense. At least I feel that way sometimes. I may be like the proverbial falling tree in the forest with no one around to hear it fall. What does it matter? Well, it does matter to me. Sometimes I think of my writing as a drop in the bucket of cultural commentary, but it’s still a contribution.

That said, it’s a contribution that will leave many people behind. Admittedly, reading my blog posts requires a modicum of literacy. I don’t speak to a Grade 8 audience. That in itself will limit the influence of my work. My personal intellectual voyage can never be yours, but we must learn from each other otherwise the discombobulation wins. Patently, there are many people (No, I haven’t done a survey although others have) who are incapable of hearing what I have to say because they have been captured by an ideology that is inherently contradictory in itself but still seems to speak to their individual lives somehow. I’m talking about people who deny that we are inherently social and dependent on each other not only in our families and other intimate relationships, but in a collective sense with people we don’t know personally but who, combined, hugely affect the world we live in.*

I’m referring here to people who see taxes and government as an infringement on their freedom, whatever that means. They have no idea themselves what ‘freedom’ means, and it’s almost embarrassing if you dare ask them what they mean by it because their answers are naive to the extreme and essentially childish. In other aspects of their lives they may be competent enough, but when it comes to thinking about their place in the world and their responsibility to others, they just have no idea, except to spout platitudes they have absorbed by watching too much Fox News or have been absorbed by concentrating on their belly buttons for too long. I’m no big fan of much of what government does, but I’m not willing to chuck out the baby with the bathwater either. 

Recently, Carolyn and I listened to a CBC Ideas podcast on The Authoritarian Personality. The people who fit this profile are the people I’m talking about. The Authoritarian Personality is an idea popularized after the Second World War by Theodore Adorno and others to try to explain why people are attracted to fascist leaders. The book is available to be borrowed for free at the Internet Archive but it’s been revived and republished with an introduction by Peter Gordon of the Frankfurt School and is available on Amazon in various formats, including as an eBook, but it ain’t cheap. The book was first published in 1969 but was in writing for some time before that while the research for it was being conducted in California. The book itself and the blazing controversy surrounding it can be seen at the Internet Archive by simply typing in The Authoritarian Personality in the search function and looking around. Some of the reactions to the book are a full example of discombobulation. In fact, I would argue that the book is itself a treatise on cultural discombobulation as are reactions to it. We live in a discombobulated world but there’s nothing new about that.

So, I’m thinking that this post is long enough. I have probably another 5 or 6 thousand words I want to get out of my system at the moment but I think I need to break those up into manageable chunks. Therefore, I’ll leave this post as it is but I’ll carry on writing about the other topics in the title of this post and present them to you as soon as I get them fleshed out with good references, etcetera. Besides, it’s six o’clock in the morning and I’ve been writing since two thirty. Yesterday I went back to the hospital to get back on my chemo regime. The dexamethasone I took yesterday won’t let me sleep anyway, so instead of fretting that I can’t sleep, I might as well write, but enough for tonight…it’s getting light out and the coffee beckons.

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*This is a disparate group of people from grocery store clerks and managers, to cops, to delivery drivers, to municipal workers, librarians, veterinarians, road crews, mechanics, garbage (solid waste) collectors, baristas, Hydro crews, emergency personnel of all kinds, Hospital workers including medical doctors, nurses, technicians, etcetera. I mean anyone you come into contact with on a daily basis and who provides you with a service you depend on. Just think about it. You are massively dependent on others, even people in China and other Asian countries who make your T-shirts, jeans, phones and computers for you, and on the people who work on the planes and boats that get those products to you. How can anyone deny that? But they do because to recognize this fact they would have to accept that their individualism is contingent and not absolute. We are not free to do whatever we want. Let’s just get over that silly notion. I used to challenge my students to unplug their homes, and I mean in every way: cut off water, electricity, the internet, waste collection, everything. Do that for a few days and then let’s discuss how independent and ‘free’ you are.

Things Change

My last post was twenty days ago. I used to put them out every week, but things change.

When I started writing this blog in 2012, the year I retired from teaching at the College (NIC) I was focussed on working through my relationship with Ernest Becker’s books The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil. For me these books contained some profound truths about us humans, how we relate to life and death, how we organize our societies as competitions for God’s attention. It’s interesting that we created God as a projection of human values, a projection that we then use as a means of judging our actions to determine just how worthy we are of eternal life. We even, according to Becker and other cultural anthropologists, divided our social groups into moieties (halves) to set up the competitive structure by which we could establish winners and losers for God’s favour, which is nothing less than immortality. Countries and Nations are the logical expression of this thesis. 

We also, over the millennia, elevated man (that is, not woman) to the predominant social position. It took millennia to do that, but once the idea stuck, it got so strongly entrenched that it became normal. The idea that men were somehow superior to women infiltrated all aspects of culture. Women were, for all intents and purposes, relegated to slave status, gatherers of food, and bearers of children. The perfectly natural womanly monthly experience called menstruation where menses (blood and other matter) are released from the uterus was held against women. Blood reminds men of dying. When men fall in combat or by accident, they bleed and they die. Men don’t like that. So women bleeding regularly could not be good either. It is a huge reminder of death. So, many cultures isolate menstruating women, treat them with contempt and shun them. By extension, men could pretend that they were more ‘spiritual’ than women. Women were biological, men spiritual. Men were clean, woman dirty. This could not be more clearly demonstrated than in childbirth, a very messy and bloody process, proceeded by months of lessened capacity and followed by the need to nurture infants, a relationship of dependency that created an avenue for men to assert dominance. These tropes still survive to this day, in some ways stronger than ever. 

I’m still captivated by the ideas I gleaned from Becker, but after I was diagnosed first with pernicious anemia (in the 1990s) and then with multiple myeloma (in October, 2019) my focus changed, and this blog became a chronicle of my life with chronic pain and cancer. Old age, of course, plays a predominant role in my life, how I feel, and how much energy I can devote to any particular task. I don’t think anyone can understand the effects of old age on the body, energy levels and strength, until it becomes personal. I promised myself for decades that once I retired, I would do all the things I had no time to do as a working person. That was true for a time, but when I hit 70, things changed, and they continue to change. From now on I cannot expect things to improve. All I can do is adjust to my changing body with its lower levels of energy, suppleness, and strength. I think my mind is still capable of some surprises. That may be delusional on my part, but that’s fine. I guess I have the right to some minor delusions. 

So, I may be afflicted with cancer and old age, but I was trained in the social sciences and they still have a strong hold on my mind. I still think that we, as men and women, need to reconcile many powerful forces that dominate our lives. One of them is misogyny, the curse that lives deep in our psyches but is not based in biology. But what of basic biology? Well, let’s explore that a bit here.

At the end of my last post I said I would discuss penises and clitorises, so here we are:

Penises and Clitorises.

Most of us have one or the other. The fact is that they are very similar in structure and function. As the long quote below maintains, at the sixth week of gestation we all have clitorises. That’s not quite right. We all have a precursor to both the clitoris and the penis. That is, penises and clitorises arise from the same tissue in the early embryo. So, the pleasure men derive from penile stimulation is the same as women derive from clitoral stimulation. Depending on the chromosomal and hormonal environment we become either female of male, or both, or neither. To say that men and women are opposite sexes is profoundly misleading. We are not, as Alice Dreger so aptly points out in her book I introduce below.

For many years I studied love and sex and taught College courses on the topic just before I retired in 2012. It’s a truism to say that the sex act is a social act so it’s clear that we are social animals right from the start. Like for most animals, our sex lives and our social lives are strikingly interconnected. 

The pleasure we derive from intercourse, and especially from genital stimulation of any kind, including from masturbation, has profound social implications, but not all of us are capable of deriving pleasure from genital stimulation, the source of sexual pleasure. That follows from the fact that humans come in so many sizes and shapes. We vary in a hundred different ways including when it comes to our sexual organs. 

Before the sixth week of gestation (more or less) we are sexually undifferentiated meaning that there’s no way to tell whether an embryo is male or female. After the fourteenth week and the androgens kick in we begin to display our sexual organs. 

There is so much information available on this topic on the internet that I don’t even want to go there. A huge number of popular sites exist along with a large number of scientific ones. I just finished reading a (Kindle) book called Hermaphodites and the Medical Invention of Sex, by Alice Dreger (1998). The book explores the way things don’t always go as we expect in the womb. Yes, the vast majority of us either end up male or female, but that dichotomy isn’t as clear cut as it seems. A visual inspection of external sex organs may lead to the belief that a person is either male or female, but looks can be deceiving and it’s impossible to look inside the brain at the hypothalamus and the sexually dimorphic nucleus (SDN) to determine maleness or femaleness as the brain evaluates it. The quote below is from a popular website. It can give you some idea of what’s available now on the internet since Dreger published her book in 1998. It addresses a point I made earlier about our embryonic selves:

Everyone starts the same in utero.

What determines whether you’re born cis-male or cis-female are your XX or XY sex chromosomes. The XX pair is cis-female and the XY pair is cis-male. During gestation (the time between conception and birth), the genes on the sex chromosomes are expressed and the fetus becomes cis-male, cis-female, or (in some instances) intersex. These sexual differences are expressed as the penis and testes (cis-male), the vulva and vagina (cis-female), or some combination of the two structures (intersex).

However, in the first six weeks of a pregnancy, before the genes in these chromosomes are expressed, all budding fetuses actually begin as cis-female, meaning that everyone begins their development in the womb with a clitoris. (Wow, right?!) Then, one of two things happens due to “a low level of the hormone testosterone [being] released,” this structure grows into a penis, says Laurie Mintz, Ph.D. licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist and author of Becoming Cliterate. Or “when testosterone is absent, the tissues develop into a vulva (including the clitoris) and vagina.”*

[Check out this YouTube event for the experience of a transgendered man. Born a ‘girl’ he never fit in and was always a man in his mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOmstbKVebM.%5D

So, enough for now. I still want to explore further the idea of sexual reproduction going back to early eukaryotic cells and the consequences for evolution of sexual reproduction. I also have a number of other related topics I want to explore along with continuing a chronicle of life with myeloma. Later.

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*https://www.shape.com/lifestyle/sex-and-love/genital-anatomy-penis-clitoris

#78. LIFE vs My little life.

[I posted this in February, 2021. I’m re-posting because I think it expresses how I’m feeling right now about life and death. I will follow up with another commentary in a couple of days if all goes well.]

LIFE in capital letters is life writ large. It governs all manifestations of individual life. It goes on merrily as individuals live and die generation after generation. Ironically LIFE needs death to make more life. After all, we eat dead things, don’t we? Of course all plants and animals follow the same pattern. They come and go, often by being consumed by other living things. It’s almost March and the property here is getting ready to burst into life after the long period of die-off and dormancy that is winter. Flowers are appearing even with freezing temperatures.

The early ones are aconites, snow drops, early crocuses, and maybe violets. They express life briefly then give way to the grasses, the ferns and the flowers of spring. The pear, apple, plum and cherry trees will soon display their flowers in preparation for the fruit that will follow as long as the pollinators do their thing. The birds are into mating season and we’ll soon have baby robins, finches, nuthatches, flickers, thrushes, jays, hummingbirds, and chickadees hassling their parents, fluttering their wings and demanding food.

The sun is shining right now. It wasn’t supposed to according to the weather forecasters, but there ya go. Living and dying under the sun. That’s what’s going on. My adult life has been informed by the scholarship of life and death, that is, of life and death as considered by philosophers and scientists. The thought of my own dying hasn’t occupied very much of my time except when my mother, father, and sister Denise died, and then only briefly. Being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that is incurable but treatable, changed all of that. Myeloma kind of sets the stage for end-of-life considerations. There’s no escaping myeloma’s trajectory. It will kill me eventually if I don’t die of something else first. Now, I have a hard time not thinking about my dying.

For most of my teaching career I used Ernest Becker’s work (The Denial of Death, Escape From Evil) to discuss the role of the fear of death on our cultural institutions. The fear of death and the promise of immortality and their overriding presence in institutions such as patriarchy and misogyny have shaped our social relations and created the conditions necessary for human contest and eventually homicide on a grand scale and war.*Related to our fear of death is our propensity to cut deals with deities. Humans have invented thousands of gods (and related semi-gods or supernatural entities) over the millennia. We assign responsibility to those deities for natural disasters, crop success or failure, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and the like. We even put faith in God for winning a football game or a war. We barter with the gods. We make sacrifices. We tell the gods: “Look, we are sacrificing this young woman for you by throwing her into this volcano, now you must reciprocate by ensuring our crops grow well next year.” A life bartered for more life. That’s largely the story of countless religious (and political) invocations over the millennia. Priests and politicians constantly urge us to make sacrifices so that the future will be better.

Modern medicine is an elaborate institution for the denial of death. It’s all about ‘saving’ lives, and it’s willing to go to extreme measures to accomplish that goal. Of course, ‘saving’ a life means little more than postponing a death. Obviously, I’m personally invested in modern medicine and pharmacology. I’m hoping that chemotherapy and radiation treatments will buy me time, effectively giving me more life and postponing my death. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments are not cheap. Just one of the drugs I’m taking will cost over $100,000. One of the pharmacists at the pharmacy in Victoria that dispenses the drugs I use told me over the phone recently that they have some million dollar patients out there, patients that have used these drugs for many years. I attend the Cancer Care Centre at the local hospital and I’m impressed by the technology and the expertise of the many staff nurses and doctors that work in that facility. That can’t be cheap either.

Modern medicine will go to great lengths and expense to treat patients hoping to extend their lives. It must do so otherwise it fails in its sacred mission to safeguard life and battle death, the ultimate enemy. As Becker notes, in our culture death and disease are the twin pillars of evil. Disease prevents us from enjoying the pleasures of life while death cuts them off summarily. So, we are willing to invest a great deal to save an individual life yet we are also willing to gleefully pile corpses in great heaps during war or in the context of ethnic cleansing, that vile excuse for murder, rape, and pillage as in Rwanda, 1994 or in any countless examples of such celebrated mass murders. We gladly kill for US, for our people because THEY(the enemy) are obviously responsible for our misfortune and distress. If we eliminate THEM our problems will be solved. That is the big lie. As Becker notes, we need a THEM with whom to enter into contests to show our prowess and to show our God (gods) how powerful and deserving of eternal life we are. Why do we spend so much time, energy, and money on organized sport? Sports reflect our constant need to show how deserving we are of life and more life. We win, we go to heaven. The gods are obviously on our side. We lose and we face shame and rejection. This analysis can easily be applied to American politics now too.

I’m rambling now. I guess I’m trying to avoid writing about the finitude of my life, my little life. In the face of LIFE and its overarching grip on the process of life and death, my little life doesn’t amount to much…but it’s all I’ve got really. Maybe I can celebrate my insignificance. Maybe I can celebrate the entirety of my life from beginning to end. In a way end is as necessary as beginning in the scheme of things. Let’s see what I can do with the little bit of life I have left.

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*The need for an opponent or an enemy (THEY) is based on our need to prove our worthiness in competition for the good things in life and for eternal life. The winner takes all! Very early on in human history, tribes split in two called moieties so that there would be contestants to beat proving the prowess of the winners and their qualifications for immortality.

#69 World Kindness Day – Yes, it is!

Yes, today is World Kindness Day, a holiday celebrated in many countries since 1998. It’s also Friday the 13th, but let’s ignore that for the moment. You’ll be pleased to know that there’s a World Kindness Movement too. It’s front and centre in the kindness celebrations that are held in many places around the globe today.

I promised one of my blog readers that I would write about kindness sometime. This is an opportune time to do so. She also wanted me to write about recognizing others, a gesture that gives their feelings a boost and their existence added social value. To be snubbed is to be humiliated, as is being chosen the last player for the pick-up soccer team on the neighbourhood pitch after school. We yearn to be recognized and not ignored. There is an element of kindness to acknowledging others in social situations or at any time for that matter.

But what is kindness? Miriam-Webster defines kindness thusly: “the quality or state of being kind”. Well, that helps a lot. So what is the definition of kind? Miriam-Webster replies: “a group united by common traits or interests.” But wait, this is the definition of kind as a noun as in ‘what kind of car do you drive?’ So, what is the definition of kind as an adjective? Miriam-Webster helps us out again: to be kind is to be of a sympathetic or helpful nature.

Well, okay then: to be kind is to be sympathetic or helpful. That’s generally how I would use the word. However we still have to reckon with the noun variation of the word. The image below is of Marvin Harris’ Our Kind, a book he published in 1989 as a project designed to help educate college students (among others) who, at the time, were unable to recognize the boundaries of the United States or know who’s side the Soviet Union was on during World War II. Our Kind is a compendium of what makes us human, of “the evolution of human life and culture” according to the cover.

Humans are of one kind in essential terms, we are one species after all, but we are still divided in a myriad of ways. We are one with our kin (a word akin to kind) but the further away we get from our kin (our sibs), the less we feel bound to be kind to people. Who are the people we can expect kindness from? People who are kin to begin with, then anyone we can define as part of a kin-like group, a group that can be defined socially, politically, geographically, or in whatever way we decide qualifies as a membership pass.

The reader who suggested this topic to me is genuinely concerned with the divisiveness and viciousness of much of what passes for social and political discourse these days. The lack of civility is glaring in some quarters to the point where conversation is impossible. Shouting replaces discourse.

Harris, in the 1980s, was dismayed at the low level of civility and kindness exhibited by a large percentage of the population. He doesn’t say it, but I will. There will be no possibility of kindness, sympathy, and civility enduring as basic human values until we break down our current social and political boundaries and accept each and every human being on this planet as one of ‘our kind.’

It’s as simple as that, but as complicated as that too. The reasons we divide ourselves so earnestly into political and social groups according to Ernest Becker is partly as the basis for competition, competition designed to separate the winners from the losers in the eyes of the gods.

At the moment we are witnessing massive cleavages in the fabric of American society, cleavages that seem to be politically defined around political parties, but which are essentially about who qualifies for assent into the realm of the few divinely chosen. The religious has infiltrated the political in American society to the point where ‘opponents’ are seen as evil incarnate and where anything less than total victory is unacceptable and will not be tolerated because the alternative is death.

I am not particularly optimistic about American politics or about global politics for that matter. I don’t know if there is the will necessary to unite people and to set aside divisions of politics, class, race and sex so as to see everyone qualify to be included in our kind.

There seems to be plenty of will for division with the vast majority of social institutions organized to divide. Are things as dire as I portray them here? No, they aren’t. After all there are strong unifying forces in the world too.

Maybe more on this later. I’ve written about this before if you care to peruse my archives you’ll see what I mean, but I’m also willing to explore more fully some of the themes introduced here, particularly those around competition and division. These have an ‘animal’ dimension as well as socio-religious ones.

58 Seventy-three Years At It, Birds, and Bees.

So, I’m sitting on the deck overlooking the fountain that Tilly has fallen in love with, and I can see the bees working the St-John’s Wort, flower after flower. I tried to capture of video of bees and flowers, but so far it just hasn’t worked. In any case, I swear I’m telling the truth (bees swarm those flowers!) so don’t press me for visual proof although I have posted a picture of the St-John’s Wort above the fountain. Spot the bee!

St-John’s Wort

Hummingbirds are into the honeysuckle to the right of this picture, making regular trips here from the feeder in the front of the house. We have huge huckleberry bushes close by which we usually save for the robins and for my brother Léo when he often comes to visit with his family in the summer. But this year who knows where the robins are and Léo is safely distancing in Maple Ridge. Someone will probably write a book: Romance in the Time of Covid or maybe, Covid-19: Mess up our world will you?

The weather is getting warmer and the reclining chairs we have on the deck are very comfy. Sleep comes easily unless I’m on one of my dex days. Two and a half more chemo cycles. Must make it through. I’m trusting that I won’t be in a wheelchair after my first chemo course is over in October, but who knows, oncologists are not known for committing themselves to a particular prognostication. Oh well. Such is life.

Winding down. Sometimes I lay awake at night, especially on those nights when I’m on a dexamethasone high. Wakeful periods at night are a new things for me. I never had trouble sleeping, not even during really stressful periods in our lives. Now, at least three nights a week I have a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep.

At these times, all kinds of thoughts come into my head. They’re not all bad thoughts. I sometimes go over plans I have for a project I’m working on or I’ll muse on the news of the day. Sometimes wakeful periods can be quite productive. I promised myself years ago that when I got old I wouldn’t be one of those people who lived in the past reliving regretful events or sad moments in my life. Oh, that happens on occasion, but then I catch myself doing it and move on. Inevitably, these days, my mind wanders into the wall of truth that is my seventy-three years of life. Seventy-three years can seem like a long time, but it’s just a flash, really.

In a previous post I wrote:

As Brian Cox, the famous British physicist put it, the universe itself lives and dies in a moment. Individual organisms come and go in an instant. The passage of time is an illusion that allows us to cope with the need to die. One human life lived over a period of eighty years is no more fleeting than the life of the universe itself. 

Cox could have said “One human life lived over a period of eighty years is just as fleeting as the life of the universe itself,” because it is SO fleeting. Lately I’ve been musing about the lives of my parents and of their parents. My parents lived fairly long lives by most standards, both into their nineties, but they’re both gone and now their lives are a complete thing. It’s possible to trace their lives from beginning to end, to focus on the things they did, the children they had, the jobs they had and the way they related to us kids and their friends and relatives. There are photos and some film that my father took with his Super 8 movie camera. Everything they were and did is packaged up and we call that their lives. The finitude of a past life is obvious. It has a beginning and an end.

In our own lives we look back on past events, camping trips, weddings, stressful situations at work, strained relationships, special bonds we create with like minded people and with community. We look forward to and anticipate events, meetings, occasions, going to bed or working on a project. Time never stops for us until we fill that space we call life. At the time of our death, our life space is complete. A life is not complete until death, no matter when death comes.

Yet we are like mushrooms.

We are products of a cultural, social, and physical mycelium that has existence over time. We are much like mushrooms that sprout from a mycelium that has existed underground for some time and will exist long after the mushrooms that it produced slowly melt away back into the soil. Like mushrooms, humans flower for a short time, then decay returning to the soil of our ancestors. We are expressions of a process. Yet, no matter how elegant and truthful this metaphorical explanation may be for our lives, it does not satisfy.

No matter how hard I try to intellectualize the problem of time, life and death, I can’t help but get choked up a bit when I think that I’m on my last legs, that my death is immanent. It’s still a bit of a shock to me to think that I have incurable cancer. No way of getting out of this one. One day soon(ish) I will die. Am I prepared for that day? Not really. I want to think that when the time comes I will courageously and stoically meet my fate, but I may just beg for more morphine. Who know? However I spend my last moments of consciousness, nothing will change the outcome.

Yes, there’s currently a lot of research being done on a cure for multiple myeloma but like AIDS, it’s cure is elusive. There are treatments for myeloma that make it more like a chronic disease than an immediately fatal one, but still, the writing is on the wall, as the saying goes. Besides, myeloma or not, my death is inevitable, as is yours because that is the way it is. Life and death dance together. Learning the final dance may be the toughest thing I ever do.

Addendum

A minute ago I mindlessly killed a mosquito. It’s an automatic reaction. A Jain would be very displeased with me. Janism is an ancient Indian religion. “Jains believe that animals, plants, humans (irrespective of different spiritual development) all have a living soul in them and all should be treated with equal respect and love.” (From the website)

Shit. Well, I guess I’m no Jain.

How mindlessly we treat most life, and how quickly life comes and goes.

37 Me, my Body and I: Part 3

It’s time to wrap up this diatribe. Like I said at the end of my second post in this series, I’ve strayed a long way from the usual content of this blog. After this post I have to reconsider my work here. I’m getting into the long stretch of road in my chemotherapy treatments. I’m getting tired and you must be getting tired of reading this stuff. The end of this part of my road is at least six months away. Things are looking good according to my lab results, but who knows. Every day brings something new which may be fodder for this blog, maybe not. Whatever. I do have to tell you about a recent weird experience I’ve been having, but that will be for my next post.

In this post, the third in the series about what will happen to ‘me’ after “I” die, I want to suggest that our conception of our selves, especially our idea that we are beings composed of mind, body and soul, is socially-constructed. In a sense though, it matters not where these ideas come from if they have a real impact on my life.

By way of an example, if I have a stroke, for instance, I may attribute it to a curse put upon me by a disgruntled recently past relative for a purported wrong that I did him. However, it’s far more likely that my stroke was brought on by a busted artery in my brain. Nonetheless, the stroke and its consequences are what they are never mind their provenance. Durkheim stated that no religion is false. By that he meant that, in my example above, the stroke is real no matter where and how we think it originated. A more contemporary sociologist who wrote extensively on religion, Peter Berger, argues that much of what we call religious behaviour and even religious thinking and hypothesizing cannot be understood by deduction or reduction. He proposes that we use induction to figure out the ‘reality’ of religious experience, that we start with how we feel and experience in real terms, in our living beings, and acknowledge those feelings as real before we attempt any kind of explanation of them. This kind of fits with Unamuno’s views, although Berger is much more prosaic than Unamuno the poet-philosopher.

The provenance of the ‘soul’ is interesting and there is much speculation about it as originating in our dreams, for instance, or during hallucinogenic experiences, but once a belief in the ‘soul’ is socially established it, it has real world consequences.

Today, I intended to address the work of Emile Durkheim and Ernest Becker with maybe a little Max Weber, Karl Marx and Norbert Elias thrown in for good measure but I’ve decided not to do that in any formal sense. I have come to accept the futility of trying to summarize very complex arguments from a number of writers and how they interconnect at least in a relatively short blog post. I’m not here to convince you that I’m right anyways.

That said, all the above characters were sociologists except for Ernest Becker and he would definitely qualify as an honorary sociologist. They all conclude that religion and all ideas concerning souls, demons, angels, gods, and various other supernatural beings originate in society (i.e., in the family, school, church, law courts, governments, etcetera) defined very broadly. However, whatever their origin, religious, metaphysical ideas have real world consequences according to these guys. That’s clear.

Before getting any further into this post, I want to tell you a little story. You might be shocked to learn that I wasn’t always the model son. Sometimes I could be downright annoying and troublesome for my mom, and she didn’t deserve any bullshit from me. But she got some anyway. I remember one time (of several) when I was particularly obnoxious and teased my poor mom relentlessly.

I said to my mom: “Ma, if you had been abandoned on a desert island as a baby and were raised by monkeys, would you still be the same person you are now.”

“Yes,” she says, “of course.”

I retorted: “But what language would you talk? Would you talk monkey talk? What things would you believe? Would you believe in God?”

She replied something along these lines: “I would believe in God and I’d be the same person I am today. I don’t know any other languages besides French and English and why would I believe anything different than I do now?”

That was my mom. She wasn’t stupid by any measure, but she was ignorant in many ways mostly because she was busy raising a pack of kids and she was way too tired to be very curious and she couldn’t read metaphysics. By her answers to my questions she demonstrated a naïveté that ran deep but that allowed her to live her life in relative contentment. If my mom was ignorant in some ways, she was very knowledgeable in others. She raised tons of children, made bread like a pro and was a dedicated member of her church (although she didn’t know much about Catholic theology beyond what was in the Sunday missal). Later in her life she took up woodworking and was good at it, that is until my dad decided to sell the house and the shop from under her. After that, she fell into dementia and never recovered. I think she lost her appetite for life at that point. I loved my mom, I really did, and I regret teasing her. That’s one of my big regrets in life.

So, what was it about my mother’s responses that is significant for me here? I guess I was shocked by her very strange idea of her personhood and her unstated notion that ‘she’ was an unchanging, unchangeable being regardless of her surroundings and upbringing. It’s plain to me and I expect to most people that everything we know we’ve learned from others, either directly from other people in our homes, schools, churches, and from books or from any number of other sources. Of course, that includes any kind of ‘spiritual’ ideas we may have as well as our sense of immortality. Elias argues that we are not the individualists we think we are. He says humans are really interdependencies and interweavings. No human ever stands alone given the richness of the sources of our ‘selves’. The language(s) we speak, our gender, our cognitive skills, intelligences, values, religious/spiritual beliefs, etcetera are all learned, that is, socially derived.

It’s clear to me that my mother denied the influence of any possible ‘foreign’ source of her personhood. Obviously, there is no way my mother could know of her Catholic God if she was raised by monkeys on a desert island. The concept of God, like of language, and table manners is learned. How would my mom learn about the Catholic God? Many societies have concepts of God or gods or some such supernatural beings. There are hundreds (and there have been thousands) of religions on the planet, each with its own unique conception of immortality and supernatural beings (if they conceive of any). Babies born into those societies learn the rules and values of their specific communities. Why would my mother not realize that her position was untenable? I would suggest that her commitment to her beliefs outweighed any sense she might have had about the logical inconsistency of her position. She was like a Trump supporter in that sense. She may have been yanking my chain, but I doubt it.

Which god do you worship (if any)? Well, if you do still worship a god, probably the one your parents do (or did). These days, however, there is a movement towards more individualistic, personal forms of spirituality, a trend which fits in nicely with capitalist morality, individualism and consumerism while allowing people to retain a belief in the immortality of the ‘soul.’ It’s also true that significant numbers of people are now defaulting to atheism or agnosticism in greater numbers than ever before, a movement also compatible with capitalist morality. There is still a great deal of intergenerational retention going on today even if there are obvious exceptions. So the frontier mentality of rugged individualism and fending for yourself is still a thing in the Twenty-first Century. Of course, as individuals, we can be creative, and come up with new ideas and ways of doing things but we always do so using materials, processes and relationships that already exist. How else could it happen?

The truth is, we, none of us, can conceive of anything absolutely new under the sun. Everything we invent, think about, or imagine has roots in our interactions and interdependencies with other people via our social relations, past and present. The present is always built on the past. Inventions are generally new conceptions of how to use and combine already existing technologies or ideas. That means that new religious denominations or churches are invariably modifications on past ones. How many variations on Christianity are there? Lots…I haven’t counted them. Which one is the ‘true’ variant?

As I note above, one perspective all the writers and thinkers I mention above have in common is that they all agree that religion and our ideas of personhood originate in society as does the belief in immortality. Durkheim, for example, argues that the concept of God is actually a personification of society, a personification that can then be used to judge the behaviour of adherents still living. Elias in his book What is Sociology? builds a conception of individual/societal interaction by using a metaphor of a card game. In his metaphor, a card game is happening with four or five players. The game has rules, of course, to which all players must adhere. Then, one person decides to leave the game and another person joins in. That change of players does not affect the game, nor the rules. The new player must adhere to the rules like the drop-out did. The game is a metaphor for society. We are born into society, learn all the rules, then leave (die). Society goes on. The game goes on. Society, seen from this perspective, is supra-human. It exists above and independently of any individual yet has control over all individuals and circumscribes the parameters of possible ideas and decisions individuals can make. No wonder we come to think of it as divine.

Because society is supra-human and veritably invisible to most people, it’s not a stretch to understand why people ascribe to it a supernatural existence disconnected from their individual lives. Because it IS disconnected to their individual lives in a real sense. As Elias would say, the game goes on no matter what individuals do as players. To which Durkheim would add: the individual ‘soul’ is in the game but is actually a piece of the collective, social SOUL. Therein lies our idea of its immortality. Society exists before us and after us. It’s virtually immortal. Our souls are immortal because they are a piece of the greater social SOUL.

Durkheim defines religion as: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (from Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912) For Durkheim, sacred things are by definition social things and the sacredness of things can change with changing social conditions.

Ernest Becker goes much further than Durkheim when he argues that culture as a whole is sacred. For Becker there is no distinction between profane and sacred. It’s culture as a whole that promises people immortality. In fact, he argues that “Each society is a hero system that promises victory over evil and death.” (from Escape From Evil, 1975, page 124)* Of course, no society can promise such a thing. Becker writes:

But no mortal, nor even a group of as many as 700 million clean, revolutionary mortals, [in reference to China] can keep such a promise, no matter how loudly or how artfully he protests or they protest, it is not within man’s means to triumph over evil and death. For secular societies the thing is ridiculous: what can “victory” mean secularly? And for religious societies victory is part of a blind and trusting belief in another dimension of reality. Each historical society, then, is a hopeful mystification or a determined lie. (EFE, page 124)

Marx would have agreed with Becker here but he concluded that religion was the opium of the people, a salve to soothe the savage treatment that most people received under capitalism (as one might find depicted by Charles Dickens.) He found that religious beliefs were instrumental in mollifying the masses and having them accept class inequality under capitalism. Weber also recognized the class basis of religion although his definition of class was not the same as Marx’s. Weber, in his Sociology of Religion, addresses the early rise of religious behaviour in human interaction with drastic natural events like floods, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, etcetera, the ‘soul’ in its various iterations and manifestations, and ritual. He argues that the forms of gods varies depending on natural and social conditions.

In conclusion, I just want to re-emphasize the notion that according to the sociologists I mention here as well as countless other sociologists and social scientists I don’t mention, ‘society’ is the source of our beliefs about the immortality of our person by way of our ‘souls.’ There is no ‘supernatural’ teacher that teaches us our values around immortality, and any ideas we have around these notions come from notions already just laying about out there waiting to be picked up and incorporated into our world view. In other words, our ideas around the immortality of the ‘soul’ do not result from perceived connection to an immortal God or gods, but from the immortality of society.

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*There is no substitute for reading Becker because his argument forms a cohesive whole. Pulling a quote out of his book, although provocative, is probably not helpful although I do it. I can’t help myself. If it spurs people to go read Escape From Evil so be it. Many of my early posts on this blog constitute a review of EFE. That would be a place for you to start in trying to understand his work. Just type Becker in the search box in my blog and you’ll find the relevant posts all numbered and everything or you can start here: https://rogerjgalbert.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php?post_type=post&jetpack-copy=874. You can then work your way through the archives on my blog site.

Durkheim (Elementary Forms of Religious Life) and Weber (The Sociology of Religion) both have sections of their books on the soul. Do a bit of research if you’re curious. Dr. Google is full of stuff on these guys and I’ve got all the books for local people to borrow if you’re interested. Elias is great. His book The Civilizing Process is well worth the read.