Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Smells Like Immortality

Since so much of what I write about here on No Disassemble Charlie No. 5 is about connecting smell to loved ones (many of which are no longer with us), I thought this would fitting to post on here. No matter what your religious views are, I'm pretty sure my wise friend Keaton's thoughts about passing things down will ring true. I hope reading this gives you reason to pause and think and reflect, as well as share you as see fit. Also, please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

Thank you, Keaton for writing this amazing, though-provoking piece: and I'm sorry it was brought about by sorrowful circumstances.

Death in 2,163 Words.

Yesterday, after having spent the vast majority of my time over the past two days sitting in the ICU waiting room, I had the exceedingly rare experience of saying what I thought would be my final goodbyes to my last remaining grandmother. I have not had the opportunity to speak with my other grandparents before they left because their various medical conditions rendered them unconscious. That situation sort of makes you a bystander, or just someone who is powerless to affect the environment around them, waiting for the end to come. And it does come- sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently, but always inevitably. My grandmother is fortunate because she is in the rare position of being cognizant of her surroundings, being in control of her situation, and being able to decide just how she wants to meet the end. What quiet, dignified strength she possesses! She was undoubtedly the least emotional person in our little universe of people waiting for the end to finally come.

As I stood at her bedside, holding her hand, mumbling and trying to find the right words, the only thing I could find to say were the words, “Thank you for being who you are and who you’ve been your whole life.” At the time, I couldn’t wrap my brain around why that statement would appear so clearly in an ocean of possible things to tell this great woman. Surely I should have said something like, “I love you so very much,” or, “You don’t worry about a thing. We’re all here, and we’ll take care of everything. We all love you,” or some other endless variation of that statement. So why, why did I feel the need to thank her? The real haymaker question is this: why did it feel so very RIGHT to thank her?

As I drove home, the answer to this question slammed into my brain, and thoughts stemming from that answer came in waves, crashing into me one by one by one…

I find that death is ultimately more about the people being left behind than the person who is leaving. Sure, a group of people, standing or sitting in a hospital waiting room, or standing around a bed in a private home, are there to celebrate the life and mourn the passing of someone who has touched their own lives. We love the people leaving us. But, invariably, we find ourselves thinking about our own, personal relationships with that person. We dwell on the emptiness and the loss that we will feel after our loved one is gone. We have dignified services with kind speakers and lots of flowers; some nice religious man or woman says words to comfort those affected by their loved ones’ departures. In the end though, the loved ones go into the ground, or into the fire, or into the tomb and everyone leaves. Those words and flowers and tears and condolence cards are NOT for the departed, but the living they left behind. What use does a dead person have for flowers? None, of course. No, ultimately all those things we do after someone leaves us are expressions of the living, for the benefit of the living.

Humans like the idea that this life, this everyday life we spend driving, sleeping, drinking, singing, etc… is just a transitory phase of existence. We like to think that we are all immortal. Some believe we have a soul that departs our worldly body, goes to a place with pearly gates and gilded streets, to spend the next eternity on our knees worshiping someone we’ve never met. And let’s not forget the alternative: being cast into a burning, sulfurous lake of fire, spending the next bit of eternity paying for these bad things we do in this transitory, “everyday driver” life of ours. There are other variations. Some believe that our soul departs the body and enters it’s next life, perhaps as an ant, or a tree, or a fruit fly, in an endless cycle of death and rebirth. Yesterday’s ants are today’s people, and today’s people are tomorrow’s great white sharks; that the amount of life in this world is FINITE. Fixed. There are no more souls in this world today than there was when it winked into existence long, long ago. Ancient cultures tended to believe that the departed could take whatever he/she wished to the afterlife with them. Elysium, Valhalla, Heaven, Hell, the River Styxx… all represent places that humans have believed the soul travels to after death. The only thing any of these ideas have in common is our preference to believe in the immortality of human beings- this life just can’t be all there is, there must be somewhere, some place we go from here. We believe this because the alternative is nothingness- oblivion; the total destruction of your life force. It is a very unpleasant idea.

What I came to see on my drive home is that I don’t really believe in any of that nonsense. Gilded streets, life as a great white shark, Elysium… pleasant thoughts all, but ultimately these ideas are just another way to get around dealing with a stark reality: we are all going to die, and that’s the only thing that is certain in this world.

You might, at this thought ask yourself, “What’s the point, then?” but the answer occurs to you almost immediately. You live your life so that those who come after you will have a better life. The thing that makes human beings the top of the food chain is not opposable thumbs, or bi-pedal walkability, but our ability to use our minds. Perhaps the lion could be the top of the food chain, the supreme animal on the planet, if only he could figure out how to build a gun, or plant a crop, or farm antelope. But he can’t; he doesn’t have the capacity. Only humans have that ability to use their brains to change their environment, and since our beginnings, humans have changed the world for one purpose: make the world better, easier for those that come after.

The first cavemen had it really bad: harsh, hostile environments, limited knowledge on how to get food or make shelter, no tools… It must have been a really low quality environment. But, slowly, that caveman uses his mind, creates ideas to change his situation. He goes from surviving to thriving. He changed his environment- but then something spectacular happened. He invents the paintbrush, uses his environment to make paint, and draws pictures on his cave wall to give instructions on how to hunt to his sons. He passes on his knowledge. Eventually, all this knowledge forms a system of values, based on what is “good.” Hunt this animal this way, so you don’t get killed. Build a fire like this, because if you don’t, your measly fire will go out and you’ll be cold and you and your family will die. There are probably thousands of examples. The enormity of this caveman’s actions cannot be overstated. Just imagine if he hadn’t taught his son all these things…

These days, we don’t struggle for things like food and shelter, for the most part. Our value systems have made procuring these necessities very efficient. Of course, we still value these things at our very core, but we don’t worry about it as much as that first caveman. Today we value other things, and these values have spawned radical changes in the environment. We value things like the ability to travel long distances more quickly, which has spawned the wheel, then the cart, then the carriage, then the bicycle, then the car, then the airplane, then the jet, then the space shuttle. Who knows what’s next in that chain of inventions? Another thing we value is communication. That led to the invention of speech, then writing, then scrolls, then books, then the mail system, then the telegraph, then the telephone, then the computer, then the internet, then the smart phone… It just goes on and on, in millions of little examples like these. And each of these examples comes from very simple values. Values- they make the world go around.

I’ve come to realize that who I am is entirely made up of the values of the people who have come before me, particularly the members of my family. Sure, we pick up other values from the environment and other people around us in a kind of “interpersonal value sharing” that allows new ideas to be injected (sometimes forcefully) into existing family value structures, but the VAST majority of anyone’s values comes from his/her family. That statement seems small, but is not. That statement is the sum total of every human being alive.

 I’ve received many values from my mother and father, most of which I accept, but some I reject. This rejection is what keeps me from being carbon copies of my siblings. I also receive values from the culture and environment in which I live, but these usually get accepted or rejected based on those values I’ve received from my family which act as a filter of sorts. For instance, my father values hard work, using reason to solve problems, politeness, responsibility, and many others. I value these things as well, in myself mostly, but in other people too. My acceptance or rejection of the cultural and environmental values is based on these core family values passed on to me by my mother and father, and their parents, and their parents’ parents, and their parents’ parent’s parents, and so forth. There are literally thousands of people who have contributed to the value system that is Keaton Watson. In fact, that line goes all the way back to that caveman inventing the paint brush and drawing pictures on the wall.

What I have in my mind now is a person running, bearing a torch. He runs and runs, and eventually closes in on the next runner in line, who is bearing an unlit torch himself. As our running men come together, they touch their torches together, igniting the second torch. The next runner then begins his own leg of the journey. Their torches are different, look different, feel different, but the fire is the same. Now imagine billions, trillions even, of these running men and women, each bearing their own torch, handing the flame to the next in line. That flame is what illuminates the entire world.

Now, I can go back to my grandmother in her hospital bed, and my final farewell to her. Her body is dying, failing her, after having been her faithful companion for 88 enormous years. In those 88 years she’s created life, shared love, compassion, and wit with the world around her. She has, just by being alive, improved the quality of our world. She has also experienced great loss and pain. Her husband, her best friend of more years than she can count, died 11 years ago.  She’s very tired. She is, at her core, lonely.  She wants to sleep. She’s refused the dialysis treatment that would prolong her life. She’s choosing her own end. “No more pain, no more fighting… Just sleep, rest,” she says. She’s content with this, comfortable with the idea of eternal sleep. She wants nothing more, needs nothing more, and can give nothing more to this world. She’s completed her leg of the journey and has already passed her flame to the next torch bearers. She feels complete.

While I don’t believe that my grandmother has an external soul, bound for some journey to a distant planet, or place with gilded streets, or needs any money for the boatman, I do see now that the value system that is my grandmother will live forever. She is immortal. She is immortal because her values are my values. She lives on through me. All of my grandparents do- and all their parents, and all their parents’ parents… Ideas, values… they can’t die with a body. You can’t shoot them with a gun, cut them with a knife, or run them over in a car. Values don’t get cancer. They will all live on through me, my kids, and my kids’ kids’, and my kids’ kids’ kids for infinity. My grandparents, whom I’ve known and loved all my life will live forever. And perhaps some of the values my grandparents held, that my parents hold, that I hold, will affect this world in some positive way. Maybe my descendants will be teachers, or inventors, or writers who are just changing their environment and improving the quality of their world. If the human race figures out how to travel to distant planets, and one of my descendants end up changing the environment on another world, well then me, my brothers and sister, my parents, my grandparents will be right there with them- our values giving little mental and emotional nudges towards a quality we all strive for.

We are every one of us, immortal.

*Reprinted with permission by the author.

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