Posts Tagged ‘death’

Goodbye, Cutesie

September 9, 2014

Cutesie was our cat. We got him for our daughter Elizabeth when she was four, and she gave him that, well, cutesie name. Maybe a play on the word’s definition? (I decided it was short for Cutesmeier.)

After Elizabeth left for college he was really my wife’s cat and she loved him dearly. He didn’t exactly reciprocate, but did like to be near us, and in the last years started snuggling up to my wife while we watched TV, letting her stroke him. One shouldn’t make assumptions about the mind of a cat. He lacked a “theory of mind,” an understanding that we are conscious beings (like him); rather, we were objects, a part of his environment. But he was certainly conscious, with thoughts and feelings.

cutesieWe buried him yesterday, a proper funeral. He’d been showing his age a bit but was quite fine until the weekend. Then it happened fast; kidney failure. When the vet brought him out the final time, he was still a living sentient being, engaged with the world. Then the needle, and he wasn’t.

Kind of makes you think. Especially happening on my 67th birthday; ever harder to sustain the idea that I’m not an old man, with my own needle looming.* (Though my wife is great at making me feel like the young man I actually never was when young.)

I recalled the rhyme on an old German token, “Heut rot, morgen todt.” Loosely translated: Here today, gone tomorrow. I ponder what it was like for Cutesie to be alive, then not. Watching him being covered with dirt hits one in the gut. I’ve written recently about death**; this intensified the feelings there expressed.

graveWe recently attended a talk about “Final Exit Network,” which helps folks take control of their demise. The speaker stressed that we often treat pets more humanely, to avoid suffering, than people, and I remembered this when seeing how peacefully and painlessly Cutesie went. His transition was virtually imperceptible.

That also seemed relevant to the furore over botched executions. I suspect we’ve gone so overboard in trying to ensure humaneness that we’re tripping over our own feet in that regard. Can’t we manage to do for people what we do for cats?

* Today brought my law school’s glitzy magazine. Once full of news of my professors, now it’s only an occasional obituary (except for Norman Dorsen, reassuringly still active). Even reports on my classmates’ accomplishments have faded out.

** See this also. And that law school magazine has an interesting essay by Samuel Scheffler, arguing that humanity’s continuity after one’s death is psychologically far more important than we realize in giving life meaning.

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I’m Going to Die

June 30, 2014

(A version of this appeared on the Albany Times-Union’s “Faith & Values” page, June 21)

America’s deaths are projected to rise (baby boomers being mortal) from 2.59 million in 2010 to 4.25 million in 2050. That could include you (or, worse, me). And while best-selling books claim to prove Heaven’s reality, even most believers aren’t eager to depart.

UnknownI heard a philosopher on the radio recently calling fear of death irrational. Human brains have no way to mentally model nonexistence; and he analogized one’s life to what’s between the covers of a book, saying that Long John Silver doesn’t fear what happens when Treasure Island reaches its final page.

“That makes no sense,” my wife remarked.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

I agreed. Philosophers going back to Marcus Aurelius and Lucretius (whom I’ve written about) have similarly struggled to persuade us – or, really, themselves – that death is nothing, basically because one won’t be around to experience being dead. But we understand what ending a life means. The radio philosopher’s analogy was silly because Long John Silver is a fictional construct with no consciousness.

Death is loss – complete and total. That one won’t suffer afterwards – as one grieves the loss of a dollar, or a beloved – may be a small comfort, but very small. Indeed, I think most of us would prefer if posthumousness could somehow be suffered. At least that would be something. Better than nothingness.

My cat, not knowing he’ll die, is unafraid.  Unknown-1My knowledge is both a blessing and a curse, but surely more of a blessing. Ignorance may be a sort of bliss, but I prefer an authentic life, grounded in reality. That includes the reality of death. Accepting this is  painful, yes, but it’s part of being alive in the fullest sense; looking life squarely in the eye.

Fear is healthy insofar as it alerts us to dangers and motivates preparation and avoidance. But while of course it makes sense to act to postpone death, in the end it comes, and fearing the inevitable is useless.  However, our thinking about mortality includes more than simple fear. While the radio philosopher was right at least that we can’t wrap our heads around the concept of nonexistence, what one does fully understand the loss of everything one values. That anticipatory regret is not at all irrational.

We must figure out how to live with it. Unknown-2And it does have one beneficial aspect, of putting other anxieties in perspective.  The same radio program also featured a man with acute stage fright, a folk singer. But why obsess about appearing in public (what’s the worst that could happen?) when Death is on your dance card? If you can live with that, no lesser fear should terrify you.

Moreover, its being limited makes life all the more precious. And I don’t allow knowing it will end subvert my pleasure in living it.  Rather than morbid contemplation of what being dead will be like, I prefer to focus instead on what being alive is like (that itself being enough of a puzzle, as I’ve written). images-2Rather than seeing death as a theft, I see my life as a gift. I don’t take my existence for granted; au contraire, there was no cosmic necessity for it, and I consider it almost miraculous.

To crave more of it may be natural, yet foolish if that corrodes what one does have. As Richard Dawkins has said, let go the impossible wish for another life, and live the one you’ve got.