Reflecting on Death//May 2018

 

The following started as an attempt on writing a more analytical evaluation of “death”, and how our attitudes towards death affects how we view the meaning of life. 

The reality is it was overwhelming for me to do in a short essay. Death is immensely complicated. Perhaps more accurately, it seems like our attitudes towards death is complicated. So I scrapped that for now and wanted to start from my own experiences first, reflect a bit on how death affected my thinking about my life. Blog is a good place to output that.

How do you see life when you know you’re going to die?

A Story

I’ll never forget the day one of my closest friends and I ran through our community college campus to find the ambulance that would wheel away a student who had fainted in class. 

We were in anatomy class. On this day we had a dissection presentation by the professor using that semester’s human cadaver. 

Everyone showed up that day. He directed us to move to the back of the classroom, next to the storage facility. My professor wheeled in a covered cadaver cart. There was an odd tension in the room. To call it anticipation would seem insensitive, but there was an awareness we were about to confront something unknown. For the majority of us this would be the first time seeing a dead body in person. 

Our professor spent some time reminding us to be respectful…there would be no photography or videography allowed…Remember this was once a living person…His last wish was to be donated for the purposes of education…we should all respect that. 

He looked around, seeing we were all quiet and focused, he was satisfied his point was received and uncovered the cart. 

Male, in his 40’s, died of heart complications. 

I was positioned near the cadavers face. He had died relatively recently. He was in good shape, at least as a cadaver. It was a surreal moment. If you just looked at his face, he didn’t look as though he were dead. My mom-who went through medical school in Poland-would tell me stories about old bodies they would have to dissect for her human anatomy course. This was not like that. Our cadaver had been preserved pretty quickly after his death. Other than his pale and blueish appearance he looked as though he were asleep. In this way, it was an artificial presentation of death. Medicinal/academic, fascinating, and humbling.

Our professor let us take everything in for a few minutes, but not enough to linger or enter into any ridiculous personal crisis. The anatomy class that was a step above us began the dissection on the leg. It was a very small section exposing muscle tissue. Our professor drew our attention there and we got to it. He discussed the process of human cadaver dissection, while with his gloved hands he gently pulled and pointed out the muscles and nerves that had been exposed.  

We were all extremely focused. And then…

My professor hooked one of the muscles with his fingers when in the corner of my eye I saw movement and what at the time was a startlingly loud thunk. Classmate had passed out. He hit his head pretty hard so we called the paramedics. Realizing they might have a hard time finding where we were, my friend and I began our sprint through the halls of the science building. 

So ended our presentation.

Shortly after everything had settled with what we called the “ER moment”, my friend and I began laughing.

Reflecting 

Though it was sterilized medicinal experience it was a humbling experience. This was one of the many moments that I believe bonded my friend and I. Being confronted with death, being called into action (it was a bit dramatic but we had confronted a dead body). 

As I would soon discover, it put other deaths into perspective. Shortly after, another professor of ours who had a significant impact on me committed suicide. I believe because of my human anatomy experience, I had a profound reaction to it. I knew he was now a body, with no consciousness in it. 

Incidentally, I also have a profound interest in the nature of the universe so I spend a lot of my evenings looking into the night sky, trying to comprehend the seeming infinite and perplexed that we don’t even understand time. That we are here right now seems awesome (in the most profound sense of the word).

Seeing how fragile the light of consciousness was, death had a profound finality to it. To chose to end that light was a heavy decision. I felt a deep sadness that he needed to make that choice, but profound respect that he had chosen that. I still don’t have the words to quite describe what I mean here succinctly, 

From then on, as it goes, death and close calls of loved ones has brushed it’s echoes in my life. Suicide, cancer, heart attack, old age, unknowns…reminding me when I’m most reckless, of both the resiliency and fragility of our own mind and body. Life is very temporary. 

However one thinks of death, whether we continue on or not, many of us can agree that we know our existence ends in some way. 

What this has all meant for me is I’m not sure if there is a meaning to life, whatever that may mean. But when I look at the cosmos and reflect on how strange life is in the cosmic background, how horrible we can make it for each other and how wonderful it can be, I can’t help but feel gratitude that I am here even if there is no “reason” for it. 

I’m not afraid to live life as vulnerably as I can. I love learning the lessons life has to offer. I think the greatest lesson death taught me was to respect my time and to love more openly. I admit when I love someone close to me now. I keep a small circle around me  I love my friends and family. Life is incredibly complex and tough, so I want to make sure they know that they have love. 

Moreover, the Earth and the life we can have here is pretty cool. One day, I won’t be part of it and won’t have the ability to live to work towards that potential. Even if none of this has a reason to it, I want to contribute to making it an amazing experience for us all. The world can be an ugly place. People can do horrible things to one another, but I’d like to make it so that more of us-all of us-can live a happy life. 

This will be an ongoing attempt at clarifying my own thoughts about my own experiences. Additionally, my experiences and how I reflect on them are not generalizable. Still overwhelming to think of trying to do an analysis of death as a whole.

So, TLDR (though you would’ve by now) version is I don’t know what to make of death and life, but I know-that with what it is that I do know-I’m going to try my best to make the most of what I have.

Moreover, there’s a lot of delicious salsas out there to try.

Language and the Arts

Last night I attended a lecture that is part of a series called Recovered Voices. It’s an initiative aimed at highlighting composers whom were suppressed by the Nazis. This week’s lecture was particularly interesting for me, as it took on a philosophical slant. The following stood out to me: from a practical standpoint, how do we-if at all-encourage people to attend concerts that highlight these voices (this will be an interesting usage of the term, as will be evident in a minute) without it seeming to exploit music that may have originated under horrible circumstances? If music director’s opt to highlight these pieces, do they have a responsibility to highlight the circumstances and context under which the music was composed when presenting the pieces to a wider audience? This will largely depend on how we philosophically understand music, or the meaning of it (if it has meaning at all). The following is an excerpt from the supplemental reading of the lecture (which I recommend reading as it will be much more succinct with expertly observations):

“Of course the battle for and about musical meaning has been going on for centuries.  For some, music is nothing more or less than the relationship between tones in “musical space,” gloriously abstract and preferably untainted by too much contact with other aspects of reality.  Others insist on a general connection between human states of mind and behavior and musical gestures, while still others wish to forge closer connections, arguing, as did Mendelssohn, that music is actually the most precise commentary on human existence.  Finally, in Terezín artists and musicians also used music as a means for sending messages that exposed the propaganda lie of the camp.”

http://orelfoundation.org/journal/journalArticle/what_kind_of_historical_documen

I’ve often wondered how we view the meaning of art. It’s communicative but is there a meaning to these pieces? Additionally it seems like (at least from personal reflections on my own experiences, which is a weak measure) different arts will lead to different reflections (perhaps differently depending on the person).

I remember some years ago, I went to the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art (LACMA) for guided tour that coupled the paintings of an era/location with foods that may have been served during that era and location. My food motivation runs deep.

As we walked through the exhibit the guide explained the context of the paintings and what made them so remarkable (the food if you were wondering, was not remarkable. Though I met a German who was a professional sommelier of water…yes, water).

The following paintings stood out to me (keep in mind this was some years ago):

 

John Singer Sargent, "Portrait of Mrs. Edward L. Davis and Her Son, Livingston Davis," 1890

 

https://unframed.lacma.org/2016/10/31/haunted-lacma-wanderings-john-singer-sargent-portrait

http://brownboygenius.com/2015/02/black-man-sued-right-vote-1780-youve-probably-never-heard/

The portrait on the left is of Maria and Livingston Davis, a mother and son from a prominent family. Though visually it is striking, it’s significance comes from context. Looking at it from today’s perspective it may seem like any other nice depiction of a mother and son, however this type of posture and the tenderness depicted in the painting is in context extremely unusual, especially of a family of prominent class. Paintings like this were typically very postured, perhaps even rigid, to signify class. Here there is a warmth and casualness that is extremely unusual.

The other is a commissioned portrait (possibly) of Captain Paul Cuffee, a freed slave who became a prominent and wealthy business man. Though the painting is not a technically remarkable portrait, the significance of the painting comes from the ability of Paul Cuffee to commission such a portrait. It is extremely meaningful in context.

Perhaps we may say that that context doesn’t give the painting itself meaning, but only our understanding of it. Is that so? (Spoken language relies on understanding meaning from context quite a bit)

Now with this lecture that touched on the meaning of music and it’s ethical applications, especially when we consider music composed under horrible circumstances, I wonder how far we take context to understanding the meaning of music (if it has meaning at all).

Thinking about this now, I think there are two concepts to flesh out: enjoyment and meaning. It SEEMS from my own perspective (which is a horrible metric) like context is less important for the enjoyment of music than it is with artwork, which I wonder if it may get confused with meaning. For example, I truly enjoyed learning about the context of the paintings, it made it more meaningful to me. But with music I’m not sure that understanding the context affects my enjoyment of music. This may be a bit too centric to my own experience, but I think it may be a valid point with respect to the arts. Does something become more meaningful if it becomes more enjoyable? What do we mean by ‘meaningful’ when we talk about the arts?

More things for me to think about.

Time

At this very moment, I’m on a quick trip with one of my closest friends. This point in time for me consists of navigating through odd and complicated life crossroads, but I’ve never been so sure of myself. I’ve never been this happy, content, and surrounded by support.

Additionally, these are the last few hours of being 28. Time is an odd beast, and the older I get the more I realize it.

In university, I developed an interest in the nature of time. From a philosophy of language standpoint, indexicals in particular grabbed my attention. I’m really fascinated by how-probably mostly metaphysically- ‘I am here now’ is meaningful.

My very specific interest in philosophy of language found it’s home in philosophy of time, when I had one lonely but incredible course on the philosophy of space and time. It challenged some deeply engrained assumptions I had about how I understand the world around me. Is time real? What would that mean for it to be real (or not)? In what way does it exist? If it doesn’t, how do we make sense of our experience?

I also acknowledge that though it’s fun to play around with ideas, I want to understand the implications of those philosophical conclusions in various real world contexts. It seems fine fun to challenge the reality of time when we think about comfortable scenarios. But what about the uncomfortable ones? Not that those situations should mould our understand of what is, try to force something. However, I tend to think when we only consider the mundane examples, it does just that. It let’s you play with fun abstract ideas, but doesn’t help you get to what the reality is (whatever that may mean).

Currently, I’m beginning to piece together what some physicists have to say about our understanding of time. In essence, they don’t. At least not very well.

Something so seemingly absolutely fundamental to our understanding of our place in the universe-our existence- is so unknown. A mundane thought takes time to experience.

It’s bewildering and exhilarating. To the adventurer in me, it’s a unknown frontier that I want to explore.

So the older I get, the less I understand but in a strange way it’s had the effect that I value my time-whatever that may mean-more than ever, and spending it with the people whom I care for and care for me.

So-here’s to a 29! May it be filled with hygge, exploration, and a lot of love (reciprocated with the people who earn it 😉 ).

I am here now.