Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Death Is a Weird Thing

It's a little strange to me how death is such a complex thing, at least philosophically. Biologically, it's pretty simple; the body simply ceases to function, much like the TV when the power goes out. On a more human level, there are all sorts of things going on. Death is an end to suffering, but it causes extreme grief in those left behind. Stories like Roald Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter" can make you laugh at the death and root for the killer. Movies like Simon Birch, on the other hand, can easily make you weep even when you know what's coming from the beginning. We're terrified at the risk of people dying of terrorism, cancer, or swine flu, but we seem to be uncaring that the effects of poverty lead to the deaths of many more people than any other cause.

I thought about making this a post questioning our fears about death. In the developed world, we really don't die that often. Well, I guess everyone dies the same number of times, but the death rate in these parts is pretty damn low. Heck, it's only been a brief blip in human history that the death of an infant was a surprise instead of a sadly common fact of life. We're blessed with long lives and usually die of complications of old age, yet for some reason, we seem to obsess over every little illness and poor tons of money into causes that, honestly, only affect a relatively small percentage of the population, especially those young enough to cause surprise at their death.

But that's a stupid post. It won't really change anyone's mind and saying that maybe taking a few years off of your life by consuming high-fructose corn syrup and hamburgers isn't really that big of a deal makes me look like some right-wing nut job, which I'm not. I just tend to think that since we're living long enough and well enough to die of diseases brought on by old age and wealth that we shouldn't really get too worked up over them.

Instead, I'm going to just give an example of how death is such a versatile thing. In reading about some of the deaths caused by flooding in Georgia in recent days, I came across the story of a two-year-old who drowned when his parents' trailer was washed into a swollen creek. The child was ripped from the father's arms by undercurrents in the stream and was lost. This one hits close to home. I could see myself fighting the force of the water to keep E's head up and losing the fight. It took a force of will to keep actual tears from forming.

The article then followed that story with a brief reference to a guy who was killed after swimming in an overflowing drainage ditch on a $5 dare. It's all in the details, people, and that little detail right there made everything alright. Instead of laughing, I chuckled and thought, that guy deserved it.

Doesn't change the fact that he's dead, though.


A Free Man said...

Do you really think we're 'blessed' with a long life? I don't know about blessed.

Any sad father/son story is guaranteed to start the waterworks for me these days. I'm a full on softy for that stuff.

Sid said...

Drainage overflow??? Like sewage???
For $5? Guess he's up for the Darwin Awards.

Jacob said...

A Free Man: I use "blessed" a little less than seriously. The fact that we aren't likely to die of violence or horrible diseases at a young age is a good thing, but I honestly only want to live as long as living is easy. In my family, that can mean into the 80s, even for the men, but I don't want to hang around wasting away for years before I finally let go.

Sid: No, more like the ditch on the side of the road. No connection to the sewage system, but since it collects run off from the road and woods next to the road, not exactly the cleanest water.

courtney said...

Nice post, Jacob.

It's interesting to me that when it comes to hearing about the deaths of strangers, people's sadness depends on how the stranger died. People also try to explain away details of the death in order to distance themselves from it. For example, if you heard that a woman was murdered while walking through a city park, you'd think that was terrible. But if you learned she was murdered while she was walking around the park alone at night, you'd think she was an idiot for putting herself in danger, and therefore be less sad. Woman's still dead, but it's easier to swallow if you tell yourself that would never happen to you, because you'd never put yourself in that situation.

I don't know. Just an observation. But yeah, it's weird how society perceives death.

BatSpit said...

I'm not sure even 'biological' death is so simple, even using it's own terms. We are alive, and then bodily functions turn off until all functions cease. But at what function ceasing might we call someone dead? Is it the stopping of the lungs, the second or two after that last, rasping breath? Or could it be the last firing of synapses? The last word spoken? The last drop of blood flowing? The last gas expelled?

And the other thought I had, are these diseases we're now dying of because of technological advances and a longer life expectancy, or, are these diseases the result of living in an industrial society, with particular methods and practices?

Jacob said...

I actually thought about that part of biological death, but didn't mention it because it would have been too long of a tangent. Plus, death is pretty easily defined even if the actual process still carries a bit of mystery.

I'm sure industrial society is partly to blame, but it's only been very recent in history where we stuck around long enough for it to matter. Many of these diseases, diabetes, heart disease, other food-related diseases, are diseases of prosperity. They weren't common in the past because we didn't have enough resources to overindulge and didn't live long enough to regret it if we did.

Also, the industrial society is what gave us the ability to feed this many people this much and extended our lives. Improving it is great, but there may be a limit of how safe we can keep us from cancer and other diseases brought on by success. Maybe cancer at 70 is better than starvation and war in your 20s.

Julie said...

It is true that people have been able to live meaningful lives into their golden years and that is great. One of my friends has suggested that when she gets too far gone in years, mind starting to go and such, she will start drinking heavily and doing drugs. That idea interests me. As an individual always on the straight and narrow, I gotta wonder if I could indeed make a difference in the quality of life at the end by going full speed. Or just drink into oblivion the knowledge of my own impending demise.

Chris said...

Actually, instead of taking you for a right-wing nut, I was going to nominate you for one of Obama's alleged "death panels". You seemed to be suggesting that resources might be better spent than adding another three months to the life of a terminally ill 80-year-old.