In silence you approach, slowly darkening days,
Autumn arrays of color fade to deathly brown,
Precious skies of blue are replaced by grays,
Sharp winds blow across frozen ground.
And then one day you bring all to standing still,
I watch as my breath, eager to show it’s alive,
Disappears hopelessly into air it can’t fill,
Icy touch on the shoulder of all that thrived.
And what more can we do who wait?
Where night comes early, but feels so late.
Hope for snow to settle on barren limbs?
A touch of white when all seems grim.
Snowy blanket covers the harvest’s reaping,
Lets us pretend the Earth is happily sleeping.
Each slippery step on landscape so bleak,
As we drudge through our lives week after week,
You take no pleasure as you tally the score,
We see what you’ve taken and you hunger for more,
And just when you drain our heat to burn our skin,
Though you love your endings, in the end you won’t win.
For when the sun hides for its longest hours,
We gather with friend and kin to warm with love,
With charitable hearts gloomy Death does cower,
Mocked by hopeful songs of the mourning dove.
New Year’s rejoicing as the sun climbs higher,
Dreams of future gains and not what we lack,
You snap and bite at us, even as you tire,
As snow melts into thawing soil, life bites back.
In a recent Facebook discussion, we talked about the value of occupations where people put their life on the line. This of course arose out of a conversation about the currently chaotic situation involving the police and the Black Lives Matter movement. A friend of mind said he leaned towards siding with police because they lay their lives on the line every day. Many people feel this way and it is oft used to not only build respect towards police officers, but also people in the military.
On one hand there is certainly courage getting up each day, knowing this could be a day you die…or rather a higher than normal percentage for the average citizen. Of course the average cop may have as good of odds as the average person who grows up in inner city areas that have a high crime and murder rate. That aside I agree that it still takes courage, but the stress of such a situation is likely not healthy without a good deal of treatment to deal with the stress. That kind of stress is likely to make you more likely to take less chances in any given interaction with the citizenry to protect your own life. Particularly in areas where there is a lot of crime, and for a job which doesn’t pay that well given the cost of your life.
On the other hand, one wonders what compels someone to choose that line of work? Do people say…”I really want to put my life on the line every day and be a cop or join the military, protecting people?” I am sure some of them do. Such nobility does exist. But I am sure there are plenty of reasons that come into play as well. Some may join because they can’t afford or don’t want to go to college. For the military, some may join for the opportunity to go to college, or the job opportunities that will be more plentiful upon graduation. Many join the military simply as a way to get out of poverty. Other factors may come into play, like trying to escape an abusive or dysfunctional household, doing it because your father and/or brother(s) did it. Other less noble reasons could also exist like just wanting the respect that comes with the uniform, picturing yourself as some action hero not even thinking about the consequences of you doing or wanting that instant authority over people. This has always been the trouble I have had with simply thinking of all cops or military personnel as noble heroes for being willing to lay down their life for others, because it’s unclear to me how much of this courage really factors into their decision to do the job.
But they do, do the job. At the end of the day isn’t that all that matters? Perhaps, but if laying down your life, whatever your initial intentions were make you a person with courage then such courage should also be bestowed on all people who have dangerous jobs. And there are such jobs even though they in no way are protecting other people. People who are loggers, fishers, and roofers come in the top 3. Here is a list of the top 20 most dangerous professions per capita (Police come in at 15). We also must then laud all those who lay their life down for a cause. This then includes your rebels, your gangs, your suicide bombers. This people also risk their life, sometimes end their lives for a cause they believe in. I think we can agree that this is not the type of person we want to elevate to nobility. Of course it is the values they hold, the values they fight for, the goodness that they protect. So if we can’t guarantee the motivations of all people who don the uniform, if there are more dangerous professions, and if what makes someone is a hero is the values they represent, it seems to me like “laying down one’s life” isn’t an overly relevant reason to elevate one to a position of automatic respect.
But you may say, “Big talk person with blog, but would you be willing to do the same?”. And I think it’s a fair question to ask and it’s also an important question I think to ask one’s self. “Is there a cause for which I’m willing to die for?” I certainly think I have the courage for it, but I know for me the death part isn’t what would hold me back. If there was truly no other way besides carrying a gun to solve the problem, then it is my passion that would override my fear of death, at least initially. It would simply feel like the right thing to do regardless of the consequences. What I will say is that I am definitely capable of making a mistake, and possibly a deadly one. Dying to me is quite honestly less scary than taking the life of someone who did feel I deserve it. Had I shot Tamir Rice. I would be wishing myself dead, and if they didn’t lock me up, I’d quickly turn in my badge. Because, how are you going to live with that?
When it comes the situation between cops and blacks in the U.S., all I can say is that there is definitely racism in the justice system, and most cops are simply doing their best. They see the worst of society and the see it every day. There is no question this wears on them, and there is no question in changes the brain. But so does poverty and racism. The key is I think is to reach out to all those who need help. You don’t have to lay down your life to support the police and black people. Things have to change or a lot more people are going to die and those are the lives we all need to work together to save.
I’ve been away from blogging for a little while as work became quite busy and stressful as I was given a project that normally would take several months to prepare for and was given two and half weeks. I’m not complaining though, I am still very fortunate to have the job that I do, and in the end it was a very rewarding outcome. I had to organize a Science Olympiad tournament for 40 regional high schools and middle schools and it ended up going very well. I didn’t actually have to do this task, but if I didn’t a lot of kids would have been hurt, and a lot of teachers very angry and so it really wasn’t something that I took any time to consider, I just knew it had to be done, and I did it because it was the right thing to do.
It got me thinking a lot about stress on how much it affects our behavior. It cost me my spring break and I was bitter about that. In that time I was also certainly less attentive to others in my life. I was more moody, snapped a little more than I probably should have at people that I care about and had a lot of trouble sleeping. The guilt of snapping at people at being less attentive to others, and lack of sleep are positive feedbacks which worsen your condition. I am fortunate that it was only a rough few weeks. I am fortunate to even have a spring break. I am fortunate that even though the semester still has lots of work left in it, there will be summer holidays starting in early May. There are people who face what I face, every single day of the year, with additional stresses associated with finances that I do not face. When I reflect on how irrational I might be in times of stress I think about the cumulative effect such things must have some people. How hard they might struggle to find a way out, who they might time to blame their stress on, and wonder what things they might rely on to find peace. It makes a lot of irrationality in the world understandable.
At the same time it makes you really question why it has to be that way. We have the resources to feed everybody, we have the knowledge and ability to give good health care to everyone. We know a lot about the universe and how to give people quality education, and we know the things that make people truly fulfilled and happy. We know a lot about our own imperfections and biases so that we can avoid the pitfalls of our flaws. We know better ways to correct deviant behavior, we know better ways to reduce the possibility of criminal and violent behavior, and we know better ways to raise. We may not know everything, but we know better. “Civilized” society seems so counter to how we operate as humans that somedays I really question whether or not it is all worth it. Even though we might live longer on average than our hunter gatherer predecessors, and can avoid many of the deaths from natural disasters that our predecessors could not, sometimes I do wonder whether or not it was all worth it, and whether or not we shouldn’t all still be climbing trees to pick fruit. And yeah maybe it would be sad to lose a few people to drought, or malaria, but so much death nowadays seems to be preventable and avoidable. The destruction in Belgium and Turkey recently really makes one question whether all this is worth it. Has any of this civilization experiment increased happiness? Benefitted the home we call Earth? Given our evolution as a species perhaps this trajectory was unavoidable, but it feels so much easier to accept deaths caused by the pitfalls of living in the wild over seeing death occur from senseless acts of violence that will never lead to any gain, or seeing children die from hunger while not very far away somebody sits on a fortune of money and resources they do not even need.
Alright, I know this is not very cheery and I am not helping much to increase human happiness either, but I think many people share these thoughts. I of course do believe that this trajectory of civilization was to avoid human suffering and nobody really imagined the consequences we are facing now. Maybe these are the growing pains we must go through. I hope that our intelligence is great enough to get us out in the end. Perhaps the real shame is that our lifetimes are still too short to be able to see the end result of all this suffering. I wonder if a 13th century scholar who watched people die from plague after plague, and endless crusades and wars, could visit us now if he would actually be impressed with our moral progress. Maybe what we have now is further than he or she ever dreamed. Maybe they would remind me to consider myself lucky that I live in such times and that now that they have seen the change possible over the long march of time that there was every reason to continue to have hope and strive for more. And if there is one thing that I know for sure is that nothing has ever been made better by despair. And if I want a world in which people do not live in despair and have reason to be hopeful then I must lead by example, even if I only touch a handful of people in my world. Who knows how far the ripples of our impact will travel through time.
After running with long healthy strides,
Summer sighs and rests its weary bones,
And catching its breath and closing its eyes,
It thinks back on the life it has made, it smiles,
And begins a journey of deep reflection,
In that quite moment, autumn is born.
That green, so pervasive and full of life,
Begins to give way to a symphony of colors,
And a clear night ends in a cool morning
Bringing us all relief from summer heat.
No surface is excluded from thick dew,
Lying under a blanket of slumbering fog,
Snaking its way through the valley,
Slow to wake and start its day in the rising sun,
And as the noon time sun shines brightly,
The skin no longer hides from that blazing orb,
The humid haze of summer has left,
The sky, a perfect blue, brings clarity of mind,
A feeling of nostalgia for carefree days,
A joy for the closeness of friends and family,
Inner warmth protects against shorter days.
Gentle summer breezes are replaced by brisk winds,
And waning leaves are forced from their homes,
To settle anew on the hardening soil below,
And the year begins to feel the consequence,
Of getting lost in sweet remembrances.
It must also account for the passage of time,
And see that less lies ahead than lies behind,
A bountiful harvest is full of summer’s heat,
Animals fill their bellies with old sunlight,
Saying their goodbyes as life withers on the ground,
And as the morning air hints at winters bite,
Fur is thickened and homes are secured,
Each ray of warm sunshine becomes a great gift,
Moments of laughter are appreciated more,
And wisdom and gratitude replace youthful vigor.
And in the longer night hours, silence sets in.
A light frost adheres to stubborn leaves,
Who cling to their branches, refusing to face,
The inevitability that all life must meet its end,
And that all we can do is hope we lived well,
So a better world begins in winter’s wake.
Let’s say you are on a big cruise ship. Over 6,000 men, women, and children are on board. This cruise ship promises to take you to paradise and it’s not a lie either. A place where everybody is happy, nothing bad ever happens, and everybody gets along in love and friendship. Children are laughing and smiling and running around. Nobody
is hungry or hurting. Everybody lives in harmony. There was no charge to even be one of the passengers. You’re on for free and who wouldn’t pass up such an opportunity.
As you are making your way to paradise, the captain announces that due to some unknown structural defects that they need to get rid of about 100 passengers or the boat will sink. Fortunately there are an equal amount of bad criminals who have done some bad things and don’t really deserve paradise on board and the captain knows who they are and asks everybody else to throw those people overboard. Would you still want to be on that boat? Keep in mind that by even looking the other way, you are an accessory. But many people, I think, given the promise of such a wonderful destination they could make it work for their conscience.
Now rewind the scenario and the same announcement comes on and says we need to unload 100 passengers or we all sink, and paradise will never be reached. It’s only 100 people and still some 6,000 people will get to go to paradise. But everybody wants to go so nobody volunteers. People get tense and some people start deciding for themselves who might be bad or good, who might be too old to survive the journey and thus can justify getting rid of them. Would you still want to be on the boat? Again doing nothing to help still makes you an accessory. In this scenario, not that the group who stays must develop some sort of justification for why those people will have to die. Judging them without evidence, making assumptions, perhaps developing a philosophy that gets people to volunteer, convincing the more gullible of passengers that they will get to paradise anyway by making the sacrifice (even though they don’t know that to be the case, no matter how strongly they believe it to be so).
Let’s rewind again except this time the captain announces that his good friend the Grim Reaper will be coming around and taking the lives of 100 people at random. It
could be your child, your friend, your wife. Slowly everybody watches 100 people keel over without knowing why they had to die. Would you still want to be on that boat? If you stayed, what justification would you come up with to be okay with those deaths?
Let’s rewind one more time. Instead of the Grim Reaper, the captain announces that everybody will be restrained while a psychopathic killer, wrought by the same person who made the paradise, will be coming around to kill 100 random people. Having little control over his actions and lack of moral center, he will beat, rape, and torture these people before he kills them. Many or all of these people are innocent. Most importantly some are children. Young children, perhaps even babies. Children in their innocence and purity must be physically and sexually abused in order to reach this paradise. Would you still want to be on the boat? What justification would you invent to be okay with this if you stayed?
In one the most influential books to me was The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In that book one of the Brothers Ivan is having a conversation with his younger brother Alyosha in a chapter I believe called “Revolution”. Ivan is an atheist and a collector of news stories around Russia of atrocities committed against children. He questions the religious harmony that Christianity offers (I do not single out Christianity here, only relaying the religion that was used in the book). We are all supposed to follow The Bible and follow its moral teachings. The goal being that we will all come to know God on Earth and secure our place in Heaven afterwards. But we are also supposedly given free will and thus some do not follow. This allows for the possibility of great harm to innocent children: abuse, rape, torture, death (not even counting all the natural/accidental causes that take the lives of children). Ivan claims that if this is the price of harmony then he would like to “respectfully return his ticket” to the Creator.
In reading that passage, I could not help but agree with Ivan. Being a father now only reinforces that idea more. If there is a Creator who is omnipotent and decides what happens to all His creation and that there is a reward of Heaven for those who are good, then I submit that this existence is simply not worth the price given all the suffering that does and has taken place already to get there. There are of course many other atrocities that happen to adults, that make it not worth the price either, but it is especially hard when I think of the harm that comes to children. The logic of a Creator who commands us to act according to His moral guidelines in order to achieve some post material existence paradise at the expense of harm to innocent people, simply does not add up. It’s not enough for me to say that “God works in mysterious ways” or that “no one can know the mind of God”. It’s not enough for me to know that God has taken the innocent up to Heaven either. Because what is the point of this existence if they had to suffer here? And for the life of me I really don’t understand why that can be enough of an explanation for anyone else. I’m open to any and all explanations as to why the tears of a suffering child are worth this paradise?
“If in the 6th grade there was a section in our science class about clouds, and then a section on it in the 8th grade that taught me more about meteorology I might never have picked the field to study. And then if they hadn’t shown that video about radar in my undergraduate from the University of Oklahoma I might never have decided that I want to specialize in that and go to the University of Oklahoma. That interest in radar in clouds led me to the University of Wyoming. And then if I hadn’t met that girl Diane studying in the geology department who shared a love of games with me, leading to us taking turns hosting games nights. And then at one of those games nights if I hadn’t cooked chicken curry for some of her acquaintances from the geology department who were invited and who didn’t announce they were vegetarians beforehand and couldn’t eat what I cooked, causing my friend to be so insulted on my behalf that she refused to invite them again, thus causing her to invite two new people to replace them, one of them being my future wife. I would never have the wonderful life I have now.”
I am quite sure you have done this before. Maybe it’s about a special relationship, maybe it’s a great job, maybe it’s even a tragedy or negative situation. You could even go back further to how your parents met, grandparents, etc. But let’s take a closer look at this journey through our life. We look back at this chain of events and we see all the amazing decisions along the way that brought us through a path in life and it is somewhat mind-blowing. What we’re really doing is amazing ourselves about how large events in our life might never have happened if not for an amazing set of circumstances. And of course it is true that this chain of events lead you to where you are. Is it fate? Should we be blown away by all these amazing set of circumstances?
To answer this question we must ask ourselves another one. What is the alternative? There is none. Events happen in time in a chronological order in
which one event always leads to another. And every person has their own timeline. Every bit of life has a time line. And even some things that aren’t alive have a timeline like hurricanes, avalanches, earthquakes etc. All these events are happening and as each of us follows our path in time and space it is natural that we will intersect with the paths of other things in their timeline. There is no choice to this. If you met your future spouse in a convenient store as you were both reaching for the same bottle of coke we say this is remarkable how you were both thirsty that day and arrived at the same convenience store that was out of your neighborhood and decided to get yourself a beverage. One of you feeling like Pepsi that day would have changed the course of your entire life, but there would like be another major event as you met somebody else instead later, not knowing what you missed, with a different chain of events that you deem important. In fact what’s really interesting here is that, in a way, the fact that you chose Pepsi and not Coke that day allowed you to have the path you enjoy now but you would never even know the significance of that choice.
It seems also that part of the reason we are blown away by such a recounting of events, is that ultimately we are the ones who choose whether an event is even significant at all. Meeting a lover, a best friend, or getting that perfect job might be all things that we find extraordinary and thus the events that led up to them seem almost banal leading to such momentous events. But what if we were just to look at everything that happens in our lives as events? For that is what they are, with each one only have the significance that we ascribe to it. This walking into the convenience store before you met the love of your life and reached for that bottle of coke, is the same chain of events minus one link. The moment when you realized you were thirsty and wanted a coke two less links in the chain of events in your life. I think you get the picture.
So what should really blow our minds is that every event in our lives is the result of a complex chain of events, and that the littlest decision such as whether
you want a Pepsi or Coke can be equally as life changing. In one hand you realize it (choosing Coke) on the other hand you don’t (choosing Pepsi). Now if thinking that every one of the littlest decisions of your life might be the most important you ever made stresses you out, don’t let it. You are bound to make decisions, and even deciding not to anything about a situation is a decision and those decisions will lead to outcomes. It is unavoidable. I just think it’s a nice thought to think that every event might be as important as the next, and that any event might be one that is extremely significant even if we don’t know it at the time.
I am going to publish this post now instead of 5 minutes ago because I decided to heat up my chai because it got cold. And who knows, maybe that will be change the course of my life.
My baby is not much of a crier. So when he does cry it feels a bit worrying. Of course a baby will have different cries. Sometimes those differences are subtle and they change a bit as they grow day by day. There is one for wanting a dry diaper, one for hungriness, one for loneliness and just wanting to be held, and there is a whiny one for a toy they can’t reach (so you give it to them and they become bored 30 seconds later but then want another one!). But there is one cry that seems very different to me. This is the one in which they are in pain or misery: maybe teething, gastric discomfort, sleep deprived and tired, perhaps an ear infection. Whatever it is as a parent you will know this cry. They wail at the top of their lungs. They are inconsolable. There is no reasoning with them because there is no way you can communicate with them except to simply hold them and hope your warmth and love eventually calms the down.
There is a helplessness to babies, especially before they can understand language well and before they can move on their own that draws us towards them, that pierces our heart so deeply that we move almost unconsciously to try and take care of them. But that cry of pain is a helpless cry for which there is no immediate solution. You must simply bear it and simply wish each and every moment that such cries will stop. Hopefully it is just a matter of the pain passing, the medicine working, sleep arriving, or whatever it is (because sometimes you just don’t know) stopping so that that helpless and desperate cry will stop. And I have to admit that the first time I experienced this cry when I was alone and I didn’t want to bother my wife who was getting some much needed time out with a friend, I despaired and felt helpless myself. Not knowing what to do. Of course this is part of what all babies go through and it’s not traumatizing for them, it’s just life. Nevertheless it brought tears to my eyes and feeling like a terrible father for not being able to take my son’s pain away. In that moment I felt utterly helpless as he wailed and wailed in my arms.
As I was able to let my mind catch up to my emotions it occurred to me how fortunate I was to have medicine, how fortunate I was to have a 911 to call, or a pediatrician that has a 24 hour answering service, or just people in my life in general to turn to. Sometimes it just takes the reminder even that all of this is just normal and that everything will be fine. Then I started thinking about all the mothers out there in the world who must listen to that cry for which there is no help. There is no medicine. There is no spouse. Maybe they are just desperately tired after a long day of work and could use their child’s smile to life their spirits, but instead the baby is sick and wails into the night. I started thinking about all the babies whose cries go unheard. Helpless as they are and even through their tears there are no arms to hold them. I have to admit I cried again, but it’s probably worth all our time to take a moment to remember this.
It is a sad reality though that “helpless” is not only something we all feel, but is sometimes the actual state of things. How many times have you felt helpless in your life? I’m sure there have been plenty. We might have felt helpless against a bully at school, a loved one dying from a terminal disease, helpless against the abuse of a parent or guardian, helpless because there is nobody to go to when we are in trouble, or helpless against a traumatic event, accident or natural disaster through no fault of our own. Maybe you have a loved one with an addiction. Whether a child, sibling, parent, or friend. In such cases no amount of help will do much good unless they want it, and the feeling of helplessness mounts.
There are certain realities that are hard to face. Perhaps even harder than facing death. As we grow we feel more powerful, we feel like there is more we can do to affect change, help ourselves and help others, but in the end we are always subject to forces outside our realm of influence. Life is a mixture of experiences both in and out of our control. Recognizing the difference between the two seems, to me, a lifelong struggle. All we can do I guess is to continue to love and care – about ourselves and others, and hope that feelings of helplessness will pass quickly for all who walk on this earth.
One of the unexpected things that happened when I realized that I was an atheist was that I began to have a greater respect for life. I know the existence of an afterlife cannot be disproven, but neither can it be proven and so if this is the only existence we have, and death means non-existence, then appreciating this existence is paramount. I know that being atheist isn’t a pre-requisite for an appreciation for existence, but that’s just how it happened for me (not that I was ever in support of violence). I realize also that I am in an economic position in life to enjoy it much more than others but it is often surprising to me how often poor people are happier and more generous than those with wealth. There is something to the old adage “Take joy in the simple things in life”. Nevertheless there are those beyond just being poor. Countless millions who do not get their daily need for food and water met. If one values life then it should be our first and foremost goal to lift all those up to enjoy the marvels of existence.
When someone says they value life, it is often unclear what they mean. First of all, what do we define as life? Some people just seem to mean human life. Some value other animals as well. For some it is just certain animals that we think of as pets, but not ones that we use for food. This tends to vary by culture. Some value the life of animals, provided that they die without suffering and are treated
humanely in their life. Some value the life of an animal based on how close to a human it is, and are okay with ending the life of simpler creatures. Finally some value all animals and only eat vegetables. Why is plant life less important? Should feelings, or the fact that they are part of Kingdom Animalia at all be the deciding factor on how valuable life is? As I have argued before that whenever we put value on life just because of its similarity to us, there is a certain human conceit there that I am not so sure is healthy.
For those that value human life, even that is inconsistent. It is clear that we humans have a different line of reasoning when it comes to the harming of those that we deem innocent. People often get much more outraged at a mistreated animal, or the abortion of a fetus, than a mistreated adult. But we were all children once. A child who is taught to hate minorities will become an adult who hates minorities. If that adult commits a hate crime, why do we hate him back, call for his punishment, or even death. In reality he is simply just an older child who was never taught to see the value in all people and that we are all brothers and sisters on this planet. It is akin to me being upset at someone for not knowing calculus. How could they if they were never taught? It always seems to be assumed that as an adult we have choices to just change the way we think in an instant. This is clearly not true, and in fact it gets harder as you get older, not easier.
The biggest paradox I see for those people who are both “pro-life” in relation to abortion, is that they tend to be conservative in their views on capital punishment, war, and gun control. Abortion is a tough issue, no question, and one where I truly understand the “pro-life” point of view. What is clear to me is that no legislation should force a woman to go through something that profoundly effects her body, and for which there is no such equivalent or societal requirement on the father. And the cold reality of the matter is; mothers ending the lives of their infants are a natural part of our psychology. It is uncomfortable to accept such a cold fact as this, partially because it almost makes no sense in a modern society. It is important to remember though that most of our evolution did not take place in civilization, but in the wild. And in the wild resources are often scarce and raising a child, as anybody even today will admit, takes a lot of resources. So in our brains when we feel like the child is not going to be able to get the support it needs, women will make the logical choice of abortion. There is some logic to it. Yes I said it. Our brains are not programmed for birth control; our brains are not programmed for a society in which adoption is possible. In the end, our world is the one right in front of us and in that moment ending an unwanted pregnancy is sensible. This is why abortion rates are lowest in countries with adequate health care for all citizens, especially mothers, easy access to birth control, and plenty of education about sex and the consequences thereof. Then of course there is the issue of whether a fetus counts as life, counts as human? I don’t think that it can be answered anytime soon. All I know is that it is not my place to decide what happens to an embryo inside a womb in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy.
But if I weep for an aborted baby, then why do I not weep for all those people killed in war, shot down by gun violence, sent to the electric chair, or for even that matter the 20,000 people who die every day from hunger. The answer comes down to the fact that killing is serious business and we have to justify it. Perhaps abortion is just killing that we have justified. But then it is no less immoral than any other killing that we find acceptable. If we can justify abortion based on the grounds that it is not a child so early in development, then is it not the same reasoning we use for any other type of killing we support and even call for? It comes down to dehumanizing people. Whether it’s Muslims, criminals, poor people, minorities…whenever we say that any human life has less value then our own you will find things like abuse, torture, and killing. Dehumanizing at a fundamental level involves two things. First is the stripping away of things like the individuality of a person (i.e. All Muslims hate Americans). Secondly it focuses on making out their desires to always be about negative things. Things that we consider the worst qualities of humanity or just the opposition of the virtues that we value most highly in our species. So we can say “All Muslims hate freedom”, rather than suggesting that they are more like us than different, and that all Muslims want is to have a livelihood, take care of their families and have self-determination in their lives. Something we all want.
This same reasoning can be applied to how many people think of the poor, other races, political affiliations, criminals, etc. It concerns me that in this country that there seems to be a decreasing value placed on life. The Travyon Martin case exemplifies this all too well. Not just about his murder (it is at the very least manslaughter) itself but by the “Stand Your Ground” law. If being threatened is enough to justify killing another human being then I think we need to seriously address this philosophy in our society. Something must have gone wrong somewhere for such a law to even be proposed. Should someone’s existence end for stealing a television set? There was a recent story about a woman who shot at a car for turning around near her driveway. There were 4 children in the car and children could have been shot. Luckily the bullets only hit the car. The woman’s explanation was that her driveway was getting ruined because people were turning around on it all the time. What does it say about our society when something so trivial as a driveway takes precedence over life?
As far as we know it, death is the very end. Even if it isn’t, this existence must have value or we would not be born into it. We must therefore question ALL killing. We must be forgiving and believe in redemption. We must look at a human as a product of his experiences rather than a creature who always has the power to make conscious choices to do acts of good and evil. This planet teems with life and we are connected to it all. Nothing that lives has more right to life than anything else, and yet killing is also natural whether it is for food or for protection. As a species we have the ability to kill with the strength and power like no other species, but we also have the equal ability to find alternatives to killing. The latter should always be our goal. We should be continually striving to find ways to survive that do not deny the right to life of others even if killing happens along the way.
My first experience with death happened when I was 5 years old. Sadly my cousin who was 2 died in a trailer fire. It is safe to say that I really didn’t understand what death meant. Like many children I was a bit selfish, and perhaps somewhat used to a life where for the first 3 years I was the oldest grandchild and was likely doted upon, and I felt resentful of my younger cousin who always seemed to get first helpings of things like watermelon or cake, even though I was also hungry and, in my own opinion, more important. It’s safe to say I did not care for her. I remember distinctly my aunts and uncles sitting around looking quite sad obviously. Then I opened my big mouth and said “Well who cares no one will miss her anyway.” To this day I don’t know why I didn’t get a severe beating, but I am thankful for the wisdom of my elders for recognizing that I was only a child and didn’t understand. One of my uncles simply looked at me and said “Well what if you died, and we said ‘Well who cares no one will miss him anyway?’ “ The words made me understand, as is often the case, when we turn the things we say upon ourselves we can sometimes see their true measure. To this day, I find it hard to forgive myself for uttering those words. Understanding grief like I do now, even coming from a 5 year old, those words I uttered had to hurt. I’ve carried those words for a long time, and if there is no sympathy for a foolish child, then at least know that I truly believed it shaped me into a more compassionate adult.
I can safely say that at the time, however, the gravity of death wasn’t something I completely understood. It’s not easy to really understand when you’re very young and have so much growing yet to do. The world is full of adults and so it seems impossible that you won’t at least make it to the age of your parents or aunts and uncles. I’ve always liked the saying “death is an important part of life”. Because ultimately it’s true as paradoxical as it sounds. We have a beginning and an end. And while we are barely conscious at the beginning (which is really a shame to be robbed of remembering that experience of coming out into the world for the first time), death is something we are all too conscious of.
One could argue that life and death are the only true things that we know in this world. We are alive in this plane of existence and eventually that life will end. Now many believe in an afterlife and that’s fine, but ultimately that requires faith, but I believe that everyone, somewhere at their core, has a seed of doubt about the afterlife, even if they don’t want to admit it. Few people can freely give up their life here for the afterlife. Those that do still believe that their last earthly act will have an impact of value in this existence, and thus are still, at least in some sense, grounded here. Of course many of those people one could arguably say are crazy (i.e. suicide
bombers). Others, while heroes, when they give their life they do so to preserve it for others and I would argue the afterlife is still not their primary goal. It seems to me that notions of an afterlife regardless of whether they have a punitive or rewarding nature are simply but another to try and cheat the evitable. Non-existence.
As natural as death is, it is clear that all life fights it. The will to live and survive is in every creature, and as humans our awareness of death means we are much greater fighters than many other species. Life is the battle against death. In any other situation one is unlikely to enter any battle they know they will lose, but this battle is one we never asked to be in, one that we have to fight, and so all we can do is make the best of it. It does no good to focus on this inevitability, when you do life becomes much more pallid.
I think it’s also interesting though that when you don’t worry so much about death, you start to see that survival really only involves living. And that if you focus on how to live better, then you start winning that battle against death in a much more meaningful way. You will still lose in the end, but you are at least fighting with honor and dignity. The value we place on life (not only our own) has a lot to say, I believe, about how we behave in this world and this will be the subject of a later blog.