Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A few thoughts

In a single news broadcast, one usually comes upon at least one of two types of stories:

1. The much-beloved "THE FACT THAT YOU ARE ALIVE ONLY MAKES YOU DIE FASTER... AND HARDER" story (this includes that report on how breathing through your nose gives you melanoma, and its counterpart, the story on how breathing through your mouth causes strokes)

or alternately


It seems like every day we find out about a new medication, a new discovery, a new kind of surgery or some other mile marker on the road of the Advancement of Modern Medicine. It's easy to forget that all our much-lauded medical resources still have a 100 percent failure rate. We can only prolong life, not sustain it indefinitely. It's even easier to forget this when one is young and has a vague but very real confidence in progress and the idea that "life is always getting better."

However, who ever really forgets that they are going to die? The notion that "when you're young, you're immortal," is very much untrue, at least in my own personal experience. I can't recall exactly when I figured out that I, like Julius Caesar and Queen Victoria and the Wicked Witch of the West, was mortal; I imagine that it was just sort of pieced together from the world around me. But it has always been lurking in my mind - I guess that's where I get my strange fascination for cemeteries and the obit column.

Perhaps it's because young people have a tendency to think of themselves as "special" that they imagine they can evade death. Now, of course, every life is special in that it is utterly unrepeatable. You are You. But no one is special enough to escape the common fate of living things. How many poets have written on this theme! "Death lays his icy hand on kings" etc.

Of course, one of the great things about being a Christian is that death is only a doorway to the resurrection.

Here's a great post on the subject from On the Square:

So many little unfairnesses scrape at that raw, angry place in the heart. Money, looks, fame, intelligence. The effortless drape of my neighbor's elegant overcoat, the easy seductive patter of the man at a nearby restaurant table, the cool grace of some winning stranger's smile. All the luck that smoothes the way for others and not for me-—not for me, not for me: that's the small, irritating noise our fingernails make as they rasp at a scabby wound.

And still, we are all equal in this, at least: that we must suffer death, and in those deaths there is an injustice so huge, so gross, so unjust it fills the cosmos- the enormous pain that swamps all the little ones. The universe has the justice, at least, to apply its greatest unfairness with a great impartial fairness. "“This time, for the first time, I don'’t feel special," the author Susan Sontag told her son a few months before she died from blood cancer at age seventy-one...

...Once, while I was teaching one of those Logic 101 courses with which philosophy graduate students try to pay the bills, a student asked why we couldn'’t follow an infinite regress out infinitely, and I answered, in the snide way of philosophy graduate students, that, if nothing else, death would manage to stop us. What followed, however, took my breath away, for a student in the back raised his hand and announced that he wasn't going to die, since medical science would cure whatever it was he was going to die before he got old enough to die. And most of the rest of that class of eighteen year olds nodded in agreement. It was one of those moments all teachers know- a proposition so wrong you donÂ’t have any idea how to begin to correct it.

Still, even for eighteen year olds, I didn't really believe that they didn't know they were going to die. Mortality is an ache deep in the bone. Death whispers in the blood. Though personal death is not something any human being has ever actually experienced- my completed death cannot be an event in my life, after all- still, from the death of a childhood pet to the death of a parent, the black knowledge has been forced upon the brain. Every mother gives birth astride an open grave, as Samuel Beckett put it. That is perhaps the bleakest imaginable picture of human life, but at some level or another, we all know it'’s true...
Rest of the post

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