Friday, July 17, 2020

The Inevitable - On Life and Death

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Death is inevitable. For the life of me, I cannot understand how so many people have such issues with this. I cannot understand the fear of death. 

Life and death are the same things. One cannot be without the other. To die means that a life had to come into being in the first place. There cannot be death without life, there cannot be life without death. It is literally the most fundamental aspect of all of nature; there can be no continuation of life without death. I've long found it ironic that people who claim to "love nature" may also have a morbid misunderstanding of and fear of death. 

To fear death is to fear life. It means to tiptoe through one's time on earth avoiding death. This means - to me, at least - never truly living and experiencing all there is within the limited time of one's bodily and mental existence. 

Fear of death is rooted in a fear of truth. Nothing could be truer than death. To examine fear of death is to examine fear of truth. 

Nothing will cage a person more than these roots of fear. Accepting and facing the truth of death frees one to better accept and face many truths. 

To realize these is to open one to more fully living all that life may be. 

Before we continue further please feel assured that yes, I do very well understand the "evolutionary advantages" of fearing death. All higher order animals have this basic survival instinct. It is nothing special. Yes, we must all heed this instinct at times. I simply expect more of humans and our far more advanced capacity to think and act above our base emotions, to not be chained and caged by them. In this vein, not fearing death does NOT mean being foolhardy about risk. 

To me, fear of death is two things. One is a bizarre denial and avoidance of one of the fundamental truths of all life itself. Two is that it seems to be a egotistical conceit that one's life has some sort of value that supersedes the laws of nature. 

I think also that fear of death for many may have been planted by various religious based notions of an afterlife in hell or some sort of permanent suffering or that humans have a soul that lives on after death. Fortunately, I am blessedly free of such nonsensical and superstitious beliefs (and I am quite aware that there is a flip side to this belief that brings comfort to many, that is, that there may be a "better existence" in a heaven of some kind or "another shot" at life on earth). I simply believe the truth; we are biological organisms that follow all the rules of life and nature like any other organism. When enough cells within our body call it a day, organs will start to shut down, the lights will go out on our conscious experience and life ends. All the biological matter that makes up our physical and mental essence will start to break down and decompose within hours. And that's it. "We" only ever existed within our own brains and when that ceases to function due to critical damage at the brain stem or the organs that supply it with nutrients and oxygen stop "we" cease to exist. This is not tragic, nor, even, sad. It simply is. It is how all of nature is. Again, to deny death is to deny all of life. 

In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, the character of Jesus sings a line that "to conquer death you only have to die". 

We might also say that to conquer death - or the fear of it - one need only have some very near experiences of death. 

I have to confess that in my life growing up in the dangerous world of logging on British Columbia's west coast, then later motorcycle riding in Asia gave me much training for overcoming this fear. 

I started logging at the tender age of 15 and it would become my main job and source of income for the next thirteen years straight (the first three of those just working during summer vacation from high school) plus a few years after that. Most of that was high lead logging but I also did some heli-logging. Both were very high paced involving very heavy equipment moving logs that generally averaged from around 1,500 pounds up to several tons. On no fewer than half a dozen occasions I came within a hair's breadth of being wiped out by a log or piece of heavy equipment. None of these were cause for drama, you simply carried on. Bunkhouse lore was full of stories of close calls and deaths. It was part of the culture for most. At no point did I ever worry about it. 

Riding motorcycles around Asia (Thailand for a number of occasions but mostly around the island nation of Taiwan), I had countless brushes with danger in heavy traffic or mountain roads. On one occasion I was riding with my partner at around 7,500 feet in sub-zero conditions. I was riding cautiously but came around one corner to encounter a patch of road covered in glare ice that would have made a Zamboni driver proud. I was on it in a flash and could only use standard driving methods when on ice - don't touch anything and hope for the best. But my partner got nervous, shifted her weight which put the bike into a slight wobble. Perhaps twenty meters straight ahead was the edge of the road and a steep drop off of hundreds of feet. That space was running out quickly, between the wobble and being on ice I could see I wasn't going to get the bike turning around the corner so I just flopped the bike over. We slid along the ice but there was a patch of bare road and rough gravel just before the drop off that I felt sure would stop the momentum of the bike. It did. I righted the bike, pushed it ahead past the ice, got on, kicked it into life and carried on (up to the 10,400 foot peak of  Hehuanshan (合歡山)). On another occasion all the running and headlights for the bike failed while riding along at night on another mountain road. It was a moonless night and almost pitch black. After fumbling around in the dark trying to make repairs with no success and assessing where we were and how it would be trying to pass the night there, I decided to just ride on without lights. Half an hour later, the lights of a small town appeared and all was good. I'd better stop there - my motorbiking stories could take up a small book, let alone this small post! In any case, fear was not something I allowed to overcome me easily. 

I am no a fool. For me dealing with fear is often a matter of risk assessment and well earned confidence in one's abilities and how much and what action is within one's own control. 

All this is to say that to continue "living" simply because one fears and cannot face death is to me wasting what life is all about. From when I was young I was often seized with the realization that one has one life and one life only. Or in other words, we only get one shot at this thing called "life". I was always driven to get as much out of it as possible. I could never bear the thought of wasting it in dead end jobs or relationships or places. Nothing ever depressed me more. I always had to be moving, doing, exploring, meeting new people, taking on new challenges and so on. 

All life will end. Literally countless species have come and gone in the history of life on earth. All life is made up of cells of some kind. No cells last forever. They all break down over time, succumbing to the natural laws that govern their individual and collective operation or perhaps sustain acute damage which leads to a cessation of breathing and blood flow, leading to cellular death throughout the body. Plants can suffer and die from similar injury and remarkably similar ways (lose the ability to "breathe" - exchange CO2 for oxygen or pump life sustaining fluids through their "veins"). 

It has long been a mystery to me why humans believe they are above these basic laws of biological life. Though we are driven by survival instincts and the clever human has discovered and devised many ways to extend life over the course of our evolution (and particularly in the last century or so) no matter what, at some point the truth must be faced. 

I strongly feel that part of the human spirit should be bravery and courage in facing the end and passing along. I believe strongly that the old at some point must make way for the following generations. I have always had strong feelings about the waste of resources used up to keep people at the end of their lives alive (I do not believe this is at all heartless, just a facing of truth). I know, however, that not many share those views. Perhaps my feelings can best be summed up with the song by Blood, Sweat and Tears And When I Die.

For me dying is very straight forward and no mystery. Cellular activity stops, brain cells stop and it's simply - fade to black and our conscious experience simply ends. 

What I do fear is the body being kept alive when the mind is gone. Or being forced to "live" - to exist in some sort of breathing and blood pumping form - while not being able to live

To me life is not simply existing, not simply being technically "alive" (breathing, blood pumping, a pulse, some sort of measurable activity in the brain). Life to me is moving, doing, exploring, accomplishing, learning, teaching, meeting, contributing. 

I do believe in a hell. It's not of an "underworld" of some kind of never ending suffering overseen by a "devil". No, it's much more horrifying than that - it is being trapped in that technically "alive" body but not able to live.