Monday, March 23, 2015

On the meaning of death ... and life

I asked Google, on an average "how many people die a day?"

A strange question to ask on a Monday morning, yes.  Google recommended this simulation to visualize the deaths that happen every second.  Take a look at that simulation. It is a reminder that so many fellow humans die every second that we are alive, right?

Yet, for the most part, none of those deaths matter to us.  Those deaths do not affect us one bit.  We do not even think about them.  And, even when presented with such a reminder, we merely shrug and keep going.  "Tell me something I don't know."

Death somewhere, to somebody, does not affect us at all.  How fascinating, right?  Which means, we are not really concerned about death.  Or, are we?

Yes, we are.  Death concerns us, upsets us, even makes us all depressed, when the person who died matters to us.  As I quoted in this post from a while ago,
When you lose someone very close to you, the very fabric of your life is ripped to shreds.
Interesting, right?  A simulation that shows how many people die every second and, therefore, a confirmation that we humans are mortals, does not affect us one bit.  Yet, the death of a single person has the power to bring our lives to a near standstill.  Which means, is it death itself that we are concerned about?  Or is it the loss of that person?  Or, is a death really about us and not the one who died?
There are, of course, plenty of other things about a death to get upset about, most obviously our sadness for the person who has died. However, philosophers have struggled to make sense of this and, as a result, have often concluded that there is simply nothing to be concerned about. The person has died. He cannot suffer in any way. There is no point in feeling sorry about what he might have missed out on because there is no longer anyone there to feel sorry for. The only people who can feel any pain are those who survive.
 We feel the pain only because we survive. Because we are alive. We are alive to know and feel that the person who was close to us died.  That person is not around anymore.
The most common, and accurate, way of describing this is as a loss of a part of yourself. This is more than just a metaphor. When someone is close to you, his way of thinking, his thoughts and his biography become inextricably linked with yours. Where you end and he begins is not clear. No one would think it controversial to say that when you lose such a companion, then a part of your life is lost too. If, as I and many wiser minds have concluded, you are the sum of your experiences, thoughts, projects, plans and so on, then to lose someone who is such a big part of these things is indeed to lose a part of yourself.
I.e., the death of a person who died this very second in Malawi does not affect me one bit because that person was not a part of my who I am, via my "experiences, thoughts, projects, plans and so on."  But, when my grandmother died, well, now that part of the very fabric of my life has now been torn, shredded.  So, wait a second; it then means that it is not the grandmother's death itself as much as how her death affects me. We live such a life in which I think or do not think about somebody's death unless it is about me?

Which is exactly why one Hindu philosophical thought is that we do not need to get all wrapped up in emotions over the death of a member of the family.  It suggests that we think of that death just like how we would think of a death at the neighbor's house.  The philosophical idea here is to separate out the "me" from this entire understanding.  The phenomenally profound idea that "I," "mine," "me" and the likes are the cause of all miseries that we experience--including the emotions from the death of one who was a part our "experiences, thoughts, projects, plans and so on."

So, finally, if you read until here, why all this on a Monday morning?  As always, I woke up (I am alive!) had coffee with toast while I read the paper, and then booted up the computer to check my email.  One had the subject line "Sad news."  I knew right then it was about a death in the extended family.  I opened that email first.  The death of a 67-year old:
Massive cardiac arrest with no suffering or notice. Blesssed in a way but very very sad indeed
Such is the unpredictability of life and its end, as this couplet from the old country makes clear:
नाकाले म्रियते जंतुः विद्धः शरशतैरपि । 
कुशकंटकविद्धोऽपि प्राप्तकालो न जीवति ॥ 

When your time is not yet up, even if one throws a hundred arrows at you – nothing happens to you.
However, when it is up, even a blade of grass can kill you.


Anne in Salem said...

It is more than how the death affects me. It is also about how the death affects all those who are close. My grandmother will die soon (in your math, she is in the 4th third of her life at 98). I will be sad when she dies, not just for my loss of her wisdom, humor, kindness and stories, but also because my dad will hurt and my younger brother who is closest to her will hurt. I will be sad for them. I will be sad for my kids because they will have to witness this sadness and are inexperienced at being a buoy for their mom, who is usually the buoy for them.

I cannot even begin with the couplet. Too close to home. Too raw emotionally.

Sriram Khé said...

To use Shakespeare's words, though completely out of context, "parting is such sweet sorrow." Death is perhaps the ultimate of those partings, with no chance of ever meeting again. Thus, the deep, deep sense of sadness.

BTW, my math is strictly for me--nothing prescriptive in my take on longevity.

Anne in Salem said...

"With no chance of ever meeting again" Curious phrase to use conversing with a Catholic. I have complete faith I will see her again. In fact, she and I discussed that Grandpa probably has a pinochle game set for her whenever she arrives.

Agree to disagree on this one?

Sriram Khé said...

All I can say is this much: you ain't meeting with me after my death!
So ... no option other than "agree to disagree' here ;)

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