Remember Death

Since ancient times, all across the world, it’s been understood that we should always be aware of death. Socrates said that proper philosopher is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.”

Early Buddhist texts use the term maranasati, which translates as ‘remember death.’

Some Muslim Sufis are known as the “people of the graves” for their practice of visiting graveyards to ponder death, as Mohammad once advised.

The ancient Egyptians, well known for their obsession with death, had a custom where, during festivities, they would bring out a skeleton and cheer to themselves, “Drink and be merry for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

Throughout the Middle Ages, Europe developed an entire genre of artwork dedicated to memento mori, literally remembering death.

To my mind, the most famous and articulate proponents of this idea were the Stoics, a Greco-Roman school of philosophy that emerged in the third century B.C.E. In his private journal, known as the Meditations, the Roman philosopher king Marcus Aurelius advised to himself that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” The famed Roman statesman and orator Seneca said that we should go to bed thinking “You may not wake up tomorrow” and start the day thinking “You may not sleep again”. He also recommended that we

“… prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”

All this probably sounds pretty morbid and depressing, not to mention counterintuitive: Thinking about death all the time is no way to live, and would probably paralyze us with fear. But as another famous Stoic, Epictetus, explained:

Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible—by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.

Extrapolating from this, some modern Stoics advise that we remember that the people we fight with will die; the strangers tick us off on the road will die; that every time we say bye to a loved one, we keep in mind they may die before we see or speak with them again.

Again, the point isn’t to be depressed, despairing, or even nihilistic, but to allow us to put things in perspective and value each finite second we have. The people we hate will end up just like us one day, which both humanizes them and reminds us not to waste precious little time occupied by them. The people we love will end up the same way, so better that we make the most of our time and fill it with happiness.

Of course, all this is easier said than done: It’s why we’re still trying to keep this advice thousands of years later.

Daily Survivor’s Guilt

With the sheer amount of people that die every day for no good reason — from freak accidents, horrific acts of violence, or even banal causes — regardless of what they were doing and what kind of people they were, you can’t help but feel a sense of survivor’s guilt every day you make it out alive.

It is all the more sobering when you consider that an estimated 106 billion people have existed in this world, and the overwhelming majority of them lived short and brutal lives, ravaged by disease, constant violence, ignorance, oppression, and so many other miseries.

It is sobering to know that the only reason I am in the top 0.00000001 percent of humans who have ever lived, and why I am still here to reflect on it from the comfort of my home, is pure, unearned luck. (And even if someone wants to credit some divine or cosmic force out there looking out for me, you have to wonder why I get that honor when people just as deserving, if not more so, don’t; still feels like pure luck.)

Ushering in the New Year With Immense Gratitude

I am immensely grateful to have made it to another year in this world. It seems morbid to frame it that way, but consider that the vast majority of the 108 billion people who have ever existed had short, painful, and miserable lives that often ended in terrifying violence, famine, or disease.

This remains the reality for tens of millions of people around the world, and it’s only by random luck that I was born in just the right time, place, and condition not to be in the same position. I — and most of you reading this — are literally in the top 3-4 percent of all humans who have ever lived, for no discernible reason than random chance. (This doesn’t even include the many people who live in similar prosperity but whose lives are cut short by freak accidents that could just as well happen to anyone.)

Of course, this kind of gratitude should be had every moment of everyday, but given the context, now is as good a time as any to highlight it.

The Anniversary of Porajmos

On this day in 1943, Heinrich Himmler—one of the most powerful Nazi leaders, and the main architect of the Holocaust—ordered that people of full or part Romani ancestry (a.k.a. gypsies) were to be put “on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps”.

Thus began the systematic extermination of Romani people all over Europe, resulting in 220,000 to 500,000 deaths—a quarter to nearly half the total population—though some figures put the death toll as high as 1.5 million. This event is sometimes known as the “Porajmos”, meaning “the Devouring”.

Himmler’s order was the culmination of the racist Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which classified Gypsies, like Jews, as “enemies of the race-based state”, ripping away their German citizenship accordingly. It also reflected centuries of hatred and antipathy towards the Romani.

Better known as Gypsies—after Egypt, which was believed to be their origin—the Romani or Roma people (to use their proper name) actually arrived in Europe and the Middle East from northern India over a millennium ago; many still retain some Hindu beliefs, customs, and symbolism, and speak a language related to Hindi. (Moreover, tens of millions of Indians maintain a similar nomadic lifestyle.)

Like the Jews, the Romani were regarded as an alien race, inherently strange, untrustworthy, degenerate, and devious. In some of the earliest records, they are described as satanically inspired wizards—hence the trope of the Gypsy curse or fortune teller. Depending on the time and place—or whether people needed a scapegoat—the Romani were either grudgingly tolerated, or chased out and killed. They were often subject to similar discriminatory laws and treatment, including enslavement, forced assimilation, separation from their children, and pogroms. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S., Argentina, and other settler countries. There is even a term for hatred towards them that is equivalent to anti-Semitism: Antiziganism.

Thus, as with the Jews, the Nazis simply tapped into a long-existing prejudice that was widespread and deeply rooted throughout Europe, which is why so many Europeans collaborated in rounding up, imprisoning, and killing them. It is believed part of the impetus for their mass targeting was the heavy resistance they posed to Nazi occupiers, especially as nomadic peoples who were often not well documented in national census data.

Unfortunately, it was their widespread invisibility that partly explains why Romani remain relatively forgotten, despite being one of the Nazi’s biggest targets. Overall records of their population before the Holocaust are sparse or unreliable, and after the war few gave them any mind; West Germany did not recognize them as victims of the Holocaust until 1982. Some scholars also attribute this to Romani culture, which is “traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others”. Others blame the effects of pervasive illiteracy, the lack of social institutions, and rampant discrimination to this day, which has deprived the Romani of “national consciousness” and historical memory.

Pictured are Romani people being round up by German police in 1940; most were likely still detained, and thus later killed, following Himmler’s order.

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The Bleak and Macabre Art of Francis Bacon

To commemorate Halloween, here are some surreal and often creepy paintings by Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon.

Although known for his bleak, existentialist worldview — which became more somber and macabre following the suicide of his lover — he was actually quite energetic and charismatic in person, and spent much of his middle age eating, drinking, and gambling in London’s leisurely Soho district.

Source: Wikimedia

Another Ebola Outbreak Speaks to the Cruel Randomness of Birth

An Ebola outbreak has reported in the Congo, and may be spreading to larger cities where it will become more virulent. The horrific disease, which is sometimes known as the death of a thousand cuts, is endemic to the region; only a few years ago, a similar outbreak, this time in West Africa, claims tens of thousands of lives in across three of some of the world’s poorest countries.

I cannot help but contemplate the sheer randomness of the human condition. By a mere accident of birth, millions of people are at risk of dying in one of the most awful ways imaginable. Hundreds of millions more find themselves born in places rife with disease, natural disasters, poverty, and/or political repression.  Continue reading

The Bloodland of Belarus

Belarus, a former Soviet republic of about 10 million, is said to have the highest per capita number of World War II films in the world. Many of them are considered to be some of the finest war movies in history, most notably the 1985 film Come and See, which tells the story of a young teenager who joins the Belarusian resistance and witnesses horrific atrocities.

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The Soviet theatrical poster for Come and See.

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The Cop Who Threw Himself at a Suicide Bomber

Afghanistan’s reputation as a lawless, war-torn place is perhaps surpassed only by its reputation for rampant corruption (which doubtless accounts for the intractability of many of its other problems). Yet millions of Afghans risk their lives everyday in the hopes of creating a better society for themselves and their children, and tens of thousands more have died toward that noble and seemingly distant end.

One of them was 25-year-old Afghan Police Lieutenant Sayed Basam Pacha. He was a hardworking and ambitious cop who despised corruption and the widespread distrust of the country’s security services. He even dreamed of being a high ranking police officer or government minister so as to do more good for his country. He ultimately gave his life in accordance with his noble and virtuous goals.  Continue reading

How Can We Help Those Who Suffer?

I hate feeling powerless to help others through their suffering. I know it seems selfish – after all, said suffering is the bigger issue – but the idea that human misery is indomitable and inevitable, and none of us are really equipped to handle it ourselves or alleviate it for others, is difficult to come to terms with, no matter how prepared one feels.

Stoicism (my instinctive reaction), in its fatalism and detachment, feels too cold and inappropriate; sympathy too inadequate; kind words and reassurances, secular or religious, like empty platitudes.

Perhaps it depends on the preference of the person being consoled or on the nature the situation. Perhaps none of it matters, or maybe what matters is the intention regardless of the effectiveness. Maybe most people are happy just to have someone care and be there, period. I know I do.

I might just be too cynical or defeatist at the moment. I don’t really know.

What are your thoughts?

The Good Life Around the World

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental group of 34 mostly developed countries, is seeking out the answer to one of humanity’s most fundamental questions: what makes the good life? Most people across the world would probably answer that it is a combination of things, such as good health, adequate leisure and social time, and a decent income.

Based on these relatively universal assumptions, the OECD’s Better Life Index tries to answer the questions by analyzing the average well being of its member states (plus other nations such as Brazil and Russia) based on 23 factors across eleven dimensions, including health, financial wealth, civic engagement, social support, and work-life balance. Continue reading