The Primacy of Death

It’s hard for people to remember that death is ubiquitous, that at any given moment anyone of us could disappear from this Earth forever. We go about our lives doing everything in our power to avoid this frightening reality: we don’t talk about death in casual conversation, and few people are ever exposed to it intimately. We tuck death away, both physically and psychologically.

Maybe it’s mostly my OCD that makes me overly concerned about this fact. I’m not sure if other people, especially younger ones, think and worry about death as much as I do. The fragility of life both frightens and terrifies me: it’s so much easier to die than it is to live. There’s no avoiding death – not only will it come for us inevitably, but even if we take every precaution imaginable, we never completely eliminate the risk of dying from some cause or another.

I read a story about a man, the father of two young girls, who died because – of all things – he was swarmed by a flock of swans, which caused his kayak to tip over, drowning him. A few weeks before that, a six year-old boy died met a gruesome end while helping his father with some yard work; he got caught be a wood chipper as he was disposing of foliage. That story reminded me of a woman who lost her infant son after a tree branch in Central Park, Manhattan fell upon them.

These are just a miniscule sample of the freak tragedies that play out everyday, somewhere in the world. None of these people woke up thinking that this would be their last day. No one expects to be drowned by swans or killed while posing for a picture at a scenic public park. If death were personified, he’d be the most keenly creative being in existence.

It’s strange to read these stories and not be able to relate. Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite grateful that for the most part, I’ve never been intimately affected by death (though several friends both on and off the web have died). But it always strikes me how random it all is: it’s always those people, always, someone else that suffers this fate. We read up on it as if it were a story in a book, never truly making the connection that it could just as well be us.

We’re all powerless in the face of death. The most we can do is wait it out. Even stars that last billions of years eventually expire. Presumably, our universe will too (though who knows if it will begin anew). All things must come to an end. That makes existence precious and beautiful, and makes me value every moment on this Earth even more. But it can also be the cause of many sleepless nights, as I wonder if I, too, will be one of those freak deaths that people read about.

Memorial Day Reflections

The silence spreads. I talk and must talk. So I speak to him and say to him: “Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony — forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother, just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up — take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.

-Protagonist Paul Bäumer, in WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front

I hope everyone had a good and safe Memorial Day. Most importantly, I hope everyone was able to reflect, even mildly, on the purpose and history of this commemoration.

War is such a terrifying thing. That sounds like such an obvious statement, but we tend to expression such a sentiment in a perfunctory fashion, rarely giving it deeper thought or – more difficultly for most people – putting ourselves in the position of it’s combatants and victims.. The entire idea of war, especially in our largely peaceful society, is fortunately quite beyond us.

As a soldier you’ve effectively signed up to become a living weapon, an instrument to both political elites and the public. You’re relied upon to protect the people, as well as serve the interests of a narrow political and economic class. Minus a few exceptional cases, you’re forced to kill strangers who you otherwise wouldn’t have had to until you (and them) were commanded to do so.

In a world where comfort and self-interest is as exalted as ever, the soldier has volunteered to put all that aside in the name of a society that dares not put itself in his or her position.How many people in our generation would dare make such a sacrifice – and I mean seriously so, not just hypothetically – if it were asked of them? We don’t even realize that most of our generation is living in one of the most peaceful eras in our long and bloody history (despite what confirmation bias and the ubiquitous media may suggest, there is far less conflict out there than we imagine, especially in terms of length and prevalence).  For most human,  war and violence were an intractable part of reality.  In the grand scheme of it all, we represent an abnormal and very lucky minority of people who see and experience far less violence than any of our ancestors.

Granted, horrific conflicts continue to persist, worsening in some areas than ever before. I have no intention of downplaying the considerable amount of suffering that wars, past and present, continue to wreak on a significant proportion of the population (around 1.5 billion people are said to be regularly affected by war and conflict, according to some reports). But, believe it or not, their scale and scope don’t come close to what was once rather average. It goes to show what a long way we’ve come so that even today’s ghastly conflicts pale in their scope and incidence compared to those in the past.

I think what’s most disturbing about war is that no one ever seems to want it, yet it continues occur anyway.  Almost every side of every war claims to be against the idea, as if war was some third party that has manipulated us into fighting. Almost all countries maintain armies to protect themselves from one another, even though every nation claims only to seek it’s own defense (the threat of “irregular” military forces, such as terrorists and rebels, have changed up this formulation to give everyone some acceptable bogeyman as justification). Of course, we can never really trust anyone and everyone, and this is something even individuals can attest to. But I still find it to be a strange phenomenon.

Are we naturally warmongering? It is the same minority of psychopathic, self-interested, or just plain bad people that are ruining it for the rest of us peaceful folks? Is conflict a human imperative, an impulse that courses through each of us as naturally as living and breathing? Is war truly the result of misunderstanding and desperation or is it something that will continued to inexplicably burden us even as we “civilize” and develop? Humans are, after all, the only living things capable of war. In a cruel irony, some have made the argument that intelligence and higher brain functions actually breed and facilitate warring inclinations.  Only intelligent beings could construct the sort ideological, philosophical, political, and religious elements that predicate all conflicts. Only intelligent beings could have the wants and the desires to drive them to conflict with one another in order satiate their existential needs. Is war truly a human disease then, a result of a perverse coupling of our primal heritage with a higher perception of self?

The answer would seem to be unfolding before us within our lifetimes: as the world becomes more globalized and unified than ever before, war has indeed declined, and the question of whether interconnectedness could reduce – maybe even eradicate – wide-scale conflict becomes deliberated. The usual tensions and divisions remain, as do the means to shed more blood than ever. But conflict has largely abated, and the majority people, even those living in destitution and social instability, remains untouched by mass conflict and violence.

As we become more interdependent, communicate better, exchange more ideas and cultural perspectives, and rely on one another’s societies for economic prosperity and indeed survival, could war become a thing of the past, as much out of inconvenience as out of mutual understanding? Did not two of the most horrific wars in modern times, World War I and II, occur after periods of protectionism and isolationism that bred hatred, distrust, and nationalism? But then again, that begs the question: as the economic crisis  and the inequities of globalization threaten more rounds of  insularism, protectionist sentiments, and nationalism, are we teetering once more to wider scale war?Whatever the guess might be, let us shift away from speculation of the unknown future and take what we know from the past.

Thousands of American soldiers died where few others would dare, joining the millions more around the world and throughout history. These people rendered themselves statistics and nameless figures so that we can live in the comfortable times that we do. We have the luxury of enjoying Memorial Day for BBQs and relaxation because of their ultimate sacrifice. I myself spent the weekend just hanging around like it was any other three-day break. It goes to show what a long way we’ve come when wars and their horrific toll could be so easily relegated to the past.

Imagine being one of the guys in front (or any of them for that matter). My stomach churns just thinking about it. War casualties are just numbers to most people, but everyone of those guys – and their enemies – were distinct human personalities. They disappeared in an instant.

We musn’t forget the growing ranks of women who make up our troops too.

Reflections on Obtaining a Smart Phone

So I’ve finally obtained a smart phone of my own, complete with unlimited 4G access (I was due for an upgrade, so it was thankfully affordable). This gadget is a news junkie’s dream: I now have instantaneous access to all the events of the world at all times. I can look up anything and everything whenever a random thought or question comes into my mind. I have a constant stream of knowledge available wherever I go.

Of course, like most innovations, this one is a double-edged sword. It’s nice to have all this information literally in the palm of my hand. But will my often distracting obsession with data and news be made worse by this newfound capacity to expand on it? Sure, I don’t plan on playing any of the games that often distract many of my peers: all my apps are strictly functional (so far). But a distraction is a distraction…how intrusive will this remarkable device be?

I suppose this will offer a wonderful opportunity to test my willpower – or to learn by experience just how difficult it is for the human mind to adjust in this era of constant stimulus. I already know the feeling of data overload firsthand, as I’m sure most of us well-connected youth do. Have I just upped the ante here? I’ll see with time, but for now I’m thoroughly enjoying having so much to read and learn whenever I’m stuck waiting somewhere. For better or for worse, boredom is a thing of the past (though I’ve always carried reading material with me wherever I go, so keeping myself entertained has never been an issue; now I get to save on space).

Another profound thought struck me as I started reaping the benefits of my new toy: that in the palm of my hand, in this lightweight and sleek machine, lies access to almost the entire sum of human knowledge. Anything and everything I could ever want to know – from the mundane, to the profound, from the practical to the philosophical – was available to me almost instantaneously with a few strokes of my fingers. Not a single reportable event in the world can go unnoticed. No conceivable question could go unaddressed. All of that lies within something smaller than my hand, which I can take with me anywhere I wanted.

For most of our history, the majority of our species couldn’t even read or write, let alone have access to the world’s knowledge. We barely knew what went on beyond our little villages. Suddenly, a growing number of us are connected to this immaterial repository of human knowledge known as the internet, and now, if we so choose, we can delve into the near-totality of collected human knowledge.

As I mentioned before, there is certainly a catch as far as the social and psychological effects of all that data – the human mind was never meant to absorb so much information so regularly. We’ll probably come to adapt to it as we have to so many other developments, but it may be a difficult process nonetheless. Who knows? Whatever the caveats, we shouldn’t underestimate how marvelous it is to live in a time when knowledge is no longer (entirely) the domain of the rich and powerful. The accessibility and affordability of these things is getting better with time. Whatever the impact, it’s sure to be weighty.

 

The Default Western Perspective

Most people reading this post are from Western societies that are broadly middle-class (albeit under a lot of recent strain). Our popular culture – movies, television shows, music, etc – are all based on a middle-class perception of the world. That is the “default” or “normal” way we imagine life.

So it’s strange to consider that we’re a very tiny minority in this world: the majority of our fellow humans live in poverty. They don’t even remotely have the same perspective (although popular entertainment media will still depict middle or upper-class life as the default).

Indeed, the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived were terribly impoverished and miserable. We are a very exclusive group, especially when you consider that most young people live in poorer societies, while most rich countries are older demographically.

Reflections of My Ancestors

I saw a mummy exhibit when I visited a museum yesterday, and it was one of the most impactful experiences I’ve had in some time. After a while, I grasped the amazing fact that I wasn’t looking at a mere archeological finding, but a human being just like me. This was someone who had emotions, thoughts, fears, and joys largely the same as my own, despite the thousands of years separating us, not to mention a culture and belief system that would be alien to one another. Imagine what it would be like to have a conversation with this person.

According to the caption, he was in his 40s when he died, probably due to an accident. He was apparently a physical laborer, maybe a craftsman, who was successful enough to afford the honor of being mummified. I wonder what his name was, or what kind of life he lived. What did he like to do for fun? It’s weird to think that billions of individual personalities existed before us, and many more will come into existence long after we’re gone too.

Survivor’s Guilt?

For lack of a better term, I sometimes feel a sense of survivor’s guilt at my own fortune. The overwhelming majority of human beings who have ever lived on this Earth, as well as most people alive currently, have endured miseries that I don’t even remotely know (aside from reading about them).

By a sheer accident of birth, I happen to be born in a place where I’ve never experienced starvation, war, chronic disease, domestic abuse, abject poverty, and the like. Why should I be so lucky when so many human beings aren’t? Given that most of the poorest countries have much higher birth rates, and are younger demographically speaking, the odds were against me.

(Of course, being poverty in and of itself doesn’t mean you’re more miserable. I’m talking about those who have experienced a plethora of difficult circumstances.)

That could just as easily have been me, and visa versa.

I’ve told myself not to worry about things you can’t change? Try as we might, there will always be tragedies we cannot prevent or solve, whether in our individual lives or the world as a whole. But even accepting that premise, as I usually do, leaves me unsatisfied and powerless. The world is a cruel place, and by the luck of the draw, I won a good few could ever imagine.

But I do feel lucky. Thoughts like these are what make me appreciate my life so much more. I’m one of the lucky few to be able to, an d I shouldn’t squander that. Feeling guilty for my randomly placed existence is the least I could endure in return.

A good friend of mine responded to this reflection with one of my favorite statements, from one of my favorite philosophers. In fact, it’s what I based my “About Me” section on, and what has inspired my current path in life:

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

Courtesy of Bertrand Russell. It’s not a bad way to live. I could conceive of no better motivations than those he described. This is the only life I have and I mustn’t take it for granted. I know I’ve pontificated on this before, and that the statement is rather cliche, but it bears constant reminder. Far too often, it’s easy to forget these things until it’s too late, when the same random chance that gave you a good life suddenly turns against you. If and when that day comes, I’ll be sure to have lived a good life.

A Matter of Perspective

Loneliness is a part of the human condition, an odd thing to consider given our inherently social nature. To some extent, we are always and forever alone. We have distinct mind and bodies that can never be bridged (at least not yet, though if you believe in psychics, we’ve already managed). We can always connect with each other on some level, but I don’t think we could ever truly comprehend what goes on in one another’s minds.

Indeed, most people don’t even understand their own consciousness. We have habits, obsessions, or strange thoughts that have no rhyme or reason to them. We often can’t explain or justify our ideas and actions, nor can we account for the internal contradictions and struggles that transpire daily, whether it’s making a mundane choice between consumer purchases, or a profound one about career paths.

Not only can this lead to a sense of isolation – because no one can really identify with us on a deeper level – but it can cause a lot of conflict and confusion. Even people who know each other well endure misunderstandings and disagreements – imagine when we factor in the overwhelming majority of people in a given community, who don’t know each other well, if at all. Add in other factors like culture, faith, political identity, and a slew of other diverging characteristics, and one can see why conflict has always been an intractable part of our species.

I’m not stating this out of any sort of cynicism or misanthropy. I know that people bond with each other all the time, and I’m quite fortunate to have a wide and thriving network of wonderful individuals that I feel a connection with. I’m not saying that we’re invariably and totally alienated from each other, but that to some degree there will always be a barrier between one another: love and understanding can take us to great lengths, but only so far I think.

Keeping all this in mind, my overall point is that attempting to comprehend one another’s perspective is a challenging but invaluable exercise. Not only are we innately separated from each other, but we have a tendency – for obvious reasons – to judge people based on our own limited understanding of the world. We only know what our mind knows, and the standards we are based on distinct personal experiences and beliefs.

A person steeped in a certain ideology or limited to a handful of experiences will have a difficult time understanding someone who comes from a different set of each. All the cultures, languages, and other identities notwithstanding, there are individual exceptions that are unique to each of us too.

There are just too many layers to navigate, which is why trying to broaden our personal knowledge and experience, while engaging in dialogue with different people, is so crucial to bridging these intrinsic differences as much as possible.

Recognizing this, it always wracks my brain to ponder why people do the things they do, or believe what they believe.

This is especially true of people who, understandably, get very short thrift in our society: killers, rapists, thieves, vagrants, drug addicts, frauds, and all-around nasty people. Why do they behave so horribly? What goes through their mind? What is their justification or explanation for their actions? Humans have always try to self-rationalize everything they do, no matter how hypocritical or morally wrong – so how do these people do it? What are their rationalizations?

Just some thoughts from my wandering mind.

 

How We Die

This won’t be too surprising to long-term readers, but I have a morbid fascination with death (it’s a category in the menu for a reason). Like most human machinations, it’s hard to pin down why or how this developed, although it does sort of come with my line of work: studying international relations and humanitarian issues exposes you to a lot of death and human suffering, and that in turn gets you thinking about the value and fragility of life.

Also, once upon a time, I used to have an interest in being a psychiatrist, and to that end I worked with a lot of people through the internet to help them with various mental illnesses (namely suicidal tendencies and clinical depression, the latter of which I relate to). I still engage in this kind of amateur “citizen therapy” occasionally, though I don’t have as much time any energy to devote to it as I used to.

Anyway, a few scientists did some research into the different ways we die and what exactly happens to us when it happens. Obviously, it’s difficult to get a real understanding of these things given the end result, but accounts from survivors provide the closest ideas we could imagine. If you’re as macabre as me, you can read the summary of their conclusions here. I would share the original study, but the publisher, New Scientist, requires you to subscribe.

In any case, I’m fortunate to live in a part of the world where death is so rare, even discussing it is taboo. Most of my fellow humans who have ever lived haven’t been so lucky.

The Hardest Part About Dying…

…isn’t that the party is over, but that it will continue without you long after you’ve been abruptly kicked out.

The somewhat lighthearted party analogy aside, I think that that truly is one of the greatest tragedies of death: the world, and all the beauty and experience it has to offer, will leave you behind. It will grow and change in ways that will forever be inconceivable. Think of the millions of people who ever lived, and how different the world now is from when they were alive. Imagine what it’ll be like centuries after I expire (if it’s still around).

Who knows what I’ll miss out on once I die. It kind of pains me to imagine the possibilities that may eventually come to fruition, if only I’d lived to see them. Now that I think about it, I realize that, in a strange way, our own death means the end of the world as we know it. Without consciousness, the world effectively ceases to exist, just as it does when we sleep (minus dreaming of course).

I’m not quite sure what spurred on this train of thought, though it’s nothing new. This seems like an odd topic to reflect on right before heading to a party, so I’ll probably be revisiting it later. In any case, please, share your own thoughts on this matter, and my apologies to anyone who finds all this to be despressing.

The Other Victims of Killers

Whenever I learn about a person who has committed a horrible crime, I often ask myself afterward: who are they? What kind of life did they lead up to that point? How were they as children? Did they have any friends or family?

Understandably, it’s hard enough to see the humanity of an immoral individual, much less one who has done great evil. But it’s even more difficult to consider that the majority of these killers, rapists, and thieves do, in fact, live lives indistinguishable from our own, with families, careers, and interests. Those close to them have to contend with the enormity of their transgressions more than almost anyone else, and their existence is usually ignored – often to their own liking.

recent Times piece gave an insightful and, to my knowledge, first-ever look into the tortured existence of people who must live with the misfortune of being related to the most despised dregs of society. By an accident of birth, they must struggle not only with discrimination and psychological trauma, but with the pain and confusion of maintaining a relationship with a loved one who became a monster.

In a society where headlines of violence are almost commonplace, the families of the perpetrators are often unknown and largely unheard from. But now some relatives have decided to share their stories. In interviews with members of numerous families of varying social and economic status, siblings, parents, partners, cousins and children of convicted killers recounted the hardships they have experienced in the years since their relatives’ crimes.

In the flash of a horrifying moment, they said, their lives had become a vortex of shame, anger and guilt. Most said they were overwhelmed by the blame and ostracism they had received for crimes they had no part in.

Yet many of these families stay in close touch with their imprisoned relatives. Nat Berkowitz, the father of David Berkowitz, the New York City serial killer known as the Son of Sam, said he regularly talked to his son on the phone more than 34 years after his arrest. “I am 101, and it still goes on,” he said.

You can read several personal accounts mentioned in the article, and the tribulations of those forced to contend with circumstances beyond their control (always a scary thing for me). Aside from a mix of negative emotions, they’ve all had to deal with substance abuse, chronic mental illness, shunning, or pressure – both internal and external – to disappear from society. They’ve had to suffer for crimes they played no role in, and be treated as guilty by hereditary or matrimonial association.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to have someone you grew up with end up doing horrific things without warning. In many of the accounts that the article highlights, the unsuspecting family members could not have foreseen the evils perpetrated by their relatives. If there’s one thing as terrifying as having a loved one perish, it’s learning that they’ve suddenly done something evil that has ruined the lives of others.

How would I react to such a revelation? How should one treat such criminal family members? Do you disown them or pretend they don’t exist? Do you keep loving them anyway, rationalizing what they did or insisting that they’re otherwise good people? Maybe it ends up becoming an ambiguous relationship, with a mix of obligatory love and horrified disgust. I hope never to know the feeling.