Death and Dying
January 19, 2015
Stuart W. Mirsky in Being, Death, Existence, Life, Stuart Mirsky

A correspondent of mine from India sent me a message this morning. A young man drawn to western philosophy for a while, he has now turned to a local guru in his home country who has been guiding him on his path of discovery. What he failed to find in western philosophy he now hopes to uncover in his native tradition. His message to me was about how we're all dying every moment we're alive and how realizing that enables us to transcend the dread of death through a turn to an all embracing feeling of love. Love for everything, he wrote, love as the means of connecting with this moment, with the world we are living and dying in. It prompted me to offer my own meditation in response, one that is perhaps more pessimistic than his but which hinges on this question of how love, whatever that is, can be enough to transcend. Is transcendence of the sort envisioned even possible?

Death is part of life though I'm not sure that's entirely satisfying to one who is dying (in the sense of experiencing impending dissolution when one is suffering a fatal illness and watching one's body fall apart and realizing that, with this, comes the end of one's being as a distinct, self-aware entity). Of course it pays to realize that all of us are in such a state of decline at every moment, even if it is happening so incrementally that we barely notice. Yet, as we age, we can't help but notice because we experience the loss of faculties and physical capacities. My mother is 91 and acutely aware of her failing capacities. She has arthritis that severely restricts her movements and hearing loss and some vision loss and she is very much aware of her bodily discomforts. She needs a cane to help her keep her balance when she walks. She remembers how it used to be though and is sad at the obvious differences she sees in herself, between then and now.

I'm 66 and very much aware of my differences, too. When we are young, particularly into our early thirties, we feel like we are constantly improving, getting stronger, smarter, better. It feels exciting. Then, some time in that period, the sense of improvement levels out and, if we're not beset by bodily illness, we feel like we're the same for a long time, like we've reached the heights and will never be less than we are. That it will just go on and on. That lasts a decent amount of time for the healthy ones among us. Even after decline does set in, it's very slow, hardly noticeable.

But, depending on our genetic makeup (and the quality of our lifestyle during our optimum years), it doesn't just go on and on, does it? At some point in our fifties or sixties the decline becomes noticeable as we lose capacities we had always had, always enjoyed. And then, as this process becomes increasingly noticeable to us, we begin to recognize in a very conscious way that this has but one end. And with this comes the sense of death as dying.

It's easy enough to say that we are all dying every day, that death is a concomitant of life. We all know that, to the extent we have the capacity to think about what we are. But that isn't the death problem. It's dying not death that troubles us. It's the slow, steady, inexorable dissolution of the physical body that stands there, at the end of the tunnel of our lives, beckoning to us, reminding us of what we must become.

My stepfather is 100, pushing 101. Unfortunately he suffers from Alzheimer's disease so his brain has been dying much faster than the rest of him. In the beginning of the process he was aware that something was wrong and used to mutter aloud: "What's happening to me?" "What's wrong with me?" Sometimes he would just shout in a loud voice, as if to hear himself, to reassure himself of his own thereness. He would ask who people, whom he had known for years, were. Now he doesn't even do that anymore. His awareness of his wider world, the world that extends beyond him in space and, more importantly, in time, has radically contracted to his immediate moment and location. Along with his brain's deterioration, he also suffers from macular degeneration so he is nearly blind now. His hearing has mostly gone, too. Most days it's a struggle to get him out of his bed, cleaned up (because he soils himself) and fed. He can barely direct the spoon or fork with his food to his mouth and can barely chew or swallow what he's given. He spits out as much as he swallows. His hands shake constantly with a palsy so that he cannot do anything for himself. And still he holds on, determined to live.

I look at him sometimes and wonder what kind of life it is he is so desperately clinging to. And would I do the same, or want to do the same, in his place. It's not death that is his enemy or ours. It's dying. And I think now that I would not want to be in his place, that it would be better to die than that. And yet, in that position, how objective, how analytical can we be? Would he, if he had seen himself as he is now, 30 years earlier have wanted this for himself? Yet now he wants nothing else but to hang on. It's not death that scares him because he appears to have no capacity to think about it in the abstract anymore. But as a living creature he hangs on, afraid of what? Afraid of dying.

It certainly helps to come to grips with the reality of our deaths in the abstract. Once we recognize that death is part of being alive, it's easier to take it with some equanimity. In the abstract. The smarter among us thus dismiss our impending dissolution, put it in its place, in perspective, as we live our lives. We learn to stop troubling ourselves about it. We learn to get on with life. Of course, when we don't think of death, and most of us don't most of the time, we are already doing that. But once we recognize what awaits us it can be troubling and so putting it back in its place and just getting on with the work of living is important. The idea that the answer is love may help us do that, may help us forget the worries that overbear us as we lose ourselves in others. But does it help in the face of actual dying? Not death but dying. Nothing helps for that except to get on with it, to get on with the dying that is.

I don't know what to make of a claim that love is the answer. "Love" has many forms, the word can mean many things. So focusing on it can be a useful way to get on with things because some of the stuff it stands for is part of living a life after all. And it's living one's life until one doesn't that all this is about. I love my wife. But do I LOVE her? With romantic passion, yes. Or I did once. With a selfless commitment? Would I die for her if need be? Would she do it for me? Would we stand by each other in the face of the long dissolution that, say, my stepfather is now undergoing? Do we love the world around us, every being in it in some way analogous to this?

This morning I was checking out my mom's house for leaks after a big rain (it's prone to leaks and I am struggling to close them all when I find them). I went into a closet in the basement and a huge spider scrambled away from me. I recoiled for I am no fan of spiders. And then it stopped and I thought how easy it would be for me to kill it. All I had to do was step on it. But I didn't. Something stopped me. I thought of the spider as a fellow living thing, facing and fighting against its own dissolution as we all are. It might have been poisonous, I don't know. It certainly was to any insects in the vicinity and I knew there must be some, even if I wasn't seeing them, because that spider must have been feeding on something. Living creatures must extract energy from their environment and animals like us must take it from other living things (plants and, importantly, other animals). We must kill and eat in order to go on just as other creatures may need to kill and eat us for their own continuance.

I didn't step on that spider. I just closed the closet door and walked away. I felt, for a moment, a shared existence with that spider. Was it "love" of the creature? Hardly. I would flee from it in a moment if it came toward me. I instinctively recoiled from it, would never embrace it. I would kill it if it threatened me or if I believed it did. Some have argued that choosing not to do that is a kind of love, that it's the recognition of some commonality that we have with other living things, with, indeed, the universe in all its diversity. But I think the word "love" is too small to stand for that sort of relational experience. Love" is what we have for our mates and our children and our parents. Maybe for our country or community or clan. Love is what we have for creatures in a special relationship with ourselves. But I had no relationship with that spider except a fleeting recognition of our shared condition as finite living creatures in an endless process of dying.

Were I small enough that spider would not have spared me, not for a moment. It would have done what spiders do: trapped and paralyzed me and then slowly devoured my flesh. That spider has no love, only its need, only its dynamic of being what it is. To the extent we embrace our own dynamic we become like the spider. When we eat meat that's what we're doing, isn't it? But embracing our dynamic is necessary, too, or we cannot go on, can we?

We may be paralyzed by the fear of the death that is to come, of the process of dying which will usher us out of existence and then, if the spider seemed to me to be its bringer, I would kill that spider if I had to. But that time, in the basement closet, I didn't have to. So I didn't. I let it go on. As I go on. Toward what? Toward the experience of demise that awaits me, awaits all of us. Towards my stepfather's condition? Toward's my mother's who sits sadly in her house now, too frail to get out by herself unless I take her somewhere and so she waits each day in hopes I will and is disappointed each time I can't because I have other obligations (to my wife, to my children, to myself). Yet it saddens me to see her so dejected when she must sit there and watch television or read by herself as her husband, my stepfather, fails and his caretakers keep him going. She wants to be what she was, to have what she had. But she is now denied that and I can't give it back to her. I wish I could make my mother, whom I love the way a son loves a parent, happy again but I know I can't without making my wife unhappy by neglecting her or without giving up things I have set myself to do a lot of the time.

In answer to my correspondent's many questions I undertook to write many of the essays on this, Sean's blog, and even put some of them together in a book which I have now published. But to do that book I had to put my mother off many times over the past year when she craved my attention. Yet, had I not done so, I would not have completed the book and then I would have felt that I'd failed myself for I had a need to write it. Whether anyone else ever reads it in my lifetime is unimportant for I wanted to get it down in some way that would allow others access to it after I'm gone.

But will it matter? Not to me for I will no longer be, of course. Nothing in the world will matter to me then because there will be no me. And no then. And no wife and children and grandchildren. No past and present and future. Nothing. That is what awaits every living thing, whether it's aware of it or not. And every non-living thing, too, for physics tells us, science tells us, that the universe is a temporary configuration of raw, inexplicable energy, potentiality. Even matter, perhaps even space, must end. Living and dying are only one small fragment of being -- and not being. Everything is in flux. Everything. And incomprehensible to us. The best we can do is explore what we've got and what we are. We are nothing more than the bubbles forming and popping and forming again on the surface of a pot of boiling primordial soup. We're the soup and pot and the energy, as the heat, that courses through both. It's not love that answers this question of what to do about any of it. It's just doing.

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