Monday, March 31, 2003

Death: I'm Against It, Alright?

Please don't rattle my china about this one. Real death is bad. The idea of death, however, is very useful to me as I live my life.

This blog has made it clear to me that I seem to have two main obsessions: Evil and Death. Honestly though, I'm an upbeat person. Truly, I am. I laugh regularly. Which reminds me that we'd have a lot fewer jokes if no one died.

There's a structural role that death plays in my life. Death lends a magic, a tragedy, an end to things. My own death that is. I dread the death of others and passively crave my own death.

I do admit that the thought I can' t stand is not non-existence but separation from those I love. That for me is the downside. So I must admit I'm very ambivalent about the whole thing.

I find it amazing that everyone is not thinking about death all the time and yet I think talking about death aloud in mixed company would bring a very ominous and terrified silence.

Of course, not with my friends. My friends always say "oh, Miel! You're so funny!" Somehow I've managed to convince them that what is probably a set of deep and horrible neuroses is actually a set of whimsical and amusing quirks.

Quick anti-therapy rant:One of the many reasons I can't stand therapy and think it's so utterly ridiculous (for me, at least) is that musing about the advantages of dying would greatly alarm any therapist--The idea of entertaining a thought about the terrible and seeing it through to the end is not something most therapists can let pass as simple mental entertainment...or an imaginative exercise.

Example: Suppose you mentioned to a therapist that you consider in your spare time ways to perform the perfect murder. The imaginative, the whimsical--anything in fact is supposed to be relevant to anything other than the fact that you are imaginative, whimsical and enjoy reading Edgar Allen Poe. All the things that make human life complex and challenging in fact are mere objects to be cured in therapy's dull and insipid world.)

But I digress. My idea was simply to lay out the interesting uses of the thought of one's own death. I've never been able to accept the idea of the death of others but I'd be lost without the thought of my own death to structure my life and to provide a certain level of complex entertainment to the daily grind.

Here are some examples of the narrative usefulness of the idea of one's own death...

(1) Getting out of things: This applies to premature death only and doesn't seem to work for those who die when relatively elderly. If you die before 50, especially (although this could work all the way up into your 80's): You get out of things. Your student loans are forgiven; Failure doesn't mean all that much--Who's to say what you might have done had you remained alive? Major projects can be forgotten or lauded only for their potential. Your faults are excused, your good qualities extolled.

(2) Tragedy and Meaning: The idea of a tragic death can make your life more meaningful. It allows you to realize the fragility, the value of the transient moment. Depending on how you die (heroically? in a nationwide tragedy?) it can make an ordinary life significant. Thinking about your death can show you how certain things matter--and show you how nothing actually matters. Don't ask me to explain this. I'm tired and had a long day.

(3) Enjoyment of the present--Suppose you are having one of those GREAT days...those one of a kind moments...Then you realize that you are conscious and your consciousness is fleeting and nothing can ever reproduce your particular version of consciousness. And that when you die you will cease to be conscious and this moment which you are experiencing will lose its last vivid record (or at least from your angle). Now, doesn't that make your day at the park so much more fun?

(4) Cheating/escaping death--My analogy of course is with parking tickets. (Here again, I remember my own idiosyncrasies and realize that other people do not use illegal parking the way I do). I park illegally by necessity but the thrill is when I can escape the parking tickets. Getting out of something makes even the most mundane activities more thrilling. So the idea of cheating death--the moment you almost died but are still alive will only lend vividness to the rest of your week (at least--you hope it will last longer but it is hard to say).

I'm not making light of the fact that people are having their lives unjustly ended right now in Iraq. The way you die matters--No one should be killed. (OK, I realize death might not be such a great topic for this week. But I suppose there is no point is succumbing to self-censorship and being polite when so much horror is going on around us.)

I've already blathered on about the idea that there have been cultures where the idea of going to war was really compelling--where wars were fought simply because fighting wars was one of those things that people (men, almost always) just wanted to do. I'm not's hard to say whether it was an end in itself or not (I doubt it--it was for the glory of Rome or some kind of glory)--but it was entered into by some people with genuine relish. I suppose it wasn't just the idea of killing others but the idea of avoiding being killed oneself. Naturally, certain rewards were involved but I also imagine that the way we 'pretend' to die--by watching scary movies, going on roller coasters, any sort of courting of danger--isn't entirely different than this.

It seems strange that this could be true--that people could do anything other than avoid death. But people court dangerous activities. Is it to avoid boredom? Or is it because we are able to do things without contemplating the contribution that activity will make to our eventual non-existence?

I'm not saying real death is not horrible. I've been writing some cultural anthropology bla bla in my spare time about my own nutty culture. I think I live in a society that tends to assume that you can avoid death, or evade it--by clean living and the posting of many public service announcements and product warnings.

The thing that would make the idea of my own death even better would be if I was the ONLY one who got to die. Ah, if only I lived on a planet of immortals.


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