“My father was a doctor,’ she says, ‘a very kind man. He died in the early ’70s, relatively young.’ She taps the cigarette packet on the table. ‘Of lung cancer.’ ‘Oh.’ ‘But the thing about that is,’ she says as she exhales, ‘it doesn’t take very long to die that way.” ― Anna Funder
This is an exploration of how life and death interact in ways that enrich life. This paradox of “life is only possible because all life dies” is a tension that few of us can hold for more than a few moments because to stare our own annihilation in the face is just to over-whelming. So, for as long as you can stand it, let’s explore this alchemical mixture as we seek to understand and accept that our civilization is on the march that all life must take; the path to its own destruction: not that this must be, rather, that it may be. To avoid our own collapse requires that we face the harsh truth that ignored the real possibility of our own demise is a sure fire way to help make our deaths happen faster. Once you have stared death in the face – then, and only then, can we get back to the serious task of not taking life for granted. Instead we can work hard and work with joy with like-minded spirits to maintain that unbearable tension of knowing that every breath is killing us and every day could be our last day and having that knowledge make us more alive and more appreciative of the miracle we call Life.
Note that these words are “borrowed” from a myriad of sources.
The Edge of Death is where you feel the Most Alive
Things die all the time. Your breath dies at the end of every exhale. Your hunger dies at the last bite of a meal. Even Jesus had his last supper. Death pervades life whether it’s noticed or not. Adrenaline junkies are familiar with it. Jumping out of a plane brings you face to face with oblivion. The thrill of rollercoasters is the most prescient when you’re slowly climbing towards the first drop. It’s these times that you’re on the edge of death that you feel the most alive. And the more you notice death the more you can embrace it. When you’re going on a run and pushing yourself it can feel unbearably hard. So many times I’ve had the thought, “I’m dying,” during a challenging workout. It’s this strong sensation of pain that makes you feel alive. You’re definitely, without a doubt, feeling something. And pain is akin to dying. Instead of giving in to the pain and giving up you can go harder, feeling every detail of it, gritting your teeth, and yelling to fight the inevitable death of that experience, unleashing that raw, primal sensation of life and the will to keep living.
Every Breath is Killing Us
Oxygen is killing us. While its role as the breath of life is well known, the destructive nature of oxygen is more clandestine, slowly chipping away at our health until symptoms emerge. Oxygen can break down the very cells that make up our tissues and organs, our bones and blood. It can damage DNA and critical enzymes. It can injure and stiffen our cell membranes, making the movement of nutrients in and out of cells more challenging while ruining our receptors for various hormones including testosterone, insulin, and thyroid. We can hold our breaths for as long as we wish, but that would probably create an even bigger problem. Darned if you do. Darned if you don’t. How does oxygen kill? The same way metal rusts and a half-eaten apple turns brown, by a process termed oxidation or oxidative stress.
Thanatos: The Instinct for Death
The pioneering Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was a person with few illusions about human nature and civilization. In fact, he had been relentlessly exposing what he saw as the hidden strivings and conflicts beneath the mask of civilization. Even Freud, though, had not expected such a catastrophic violation of the values of civilization. Entering the sixth decade of his life, Freud had observed too much self-destructive behavior both from his psychoanalytic patients and society at large. He had grown dissatisfied with some of his own theories and felt the need to address more decisively the human propensity for self-destruction. His version of the question of the times became: Why do humans so often act against their own best interests—even the desire to survive. Freud came to the conclusion that humans have not one but two primary instincts. He called the life-favoring instinct Eros, one of the Greek words for “love,” and the death instinct Thanatos, the Greek word for “death.” It was characteristic of Freud to invoke Greek literature and mythology, but it was also characteristic of him to ground his ideas in the biomedical and physical sciences. He suggested that all living creatures have an instinct, drive, or impulse to return to the inorganic state from which they emerged. This todtriebe (drive toward death) is active not only in every creature, great or small, but also in every cell of every organism. He pointed out that the metabolic processes active in all cells have both constructive (anabolic) and destructive (catabolic) functions. Life goes on because these processes work together—they are opposing but not adversarial.
Without Programmed Cell Death Cancer Results
In biology, how cells die is as important as how they live. Cell death provides a counterbalance to cell division, maintaining the proper number of cells throughout an organism’s lifetime. Gaining a better understanding of how cells die is also important for cancer research. It can teach us how the body naturally fends off cancer — by preventing runaway cell growth — as well as point to new ways to target and kill tumor cells. Apoptosis can be defined as cellular suicide involving specialized initiation and execution mechanisms within the cell. Literally, the term denotes the drop of leaves from trees in the fall season, reflecting the sporadic and gradual loss of cells in tissues.
Most Religions have a Story about the End of the World
Mankind has been fascinated with the ‘end of times’ since as long as history has been recorded. In Christianity, it is the ‘Judgment Day’ described in the Book of Revelations; in Judaism, it is the Acharit hayamim; in Aztec mythology, it is the Legend of the Five Suns; and in Hindu mythology, it is the Story of Avatars and the Man on the Horse. Most of these myths maintain that when the world as we know it ends, a new incarnation of the world will be created. Are these myths and legends simply a metaphor for the cyclic nature of change seen in the rotations of day and night, the seasons, and the chains of life and death, or will humanity meet its end in the not so distant future?
Ragnarok, the Norse version of the apocalypse
Going “Over the Top” in WWI was a Death Wish but Soldiers did it Anyway
As a shield against the strain of war, the soldiers developed their own vibrant culture infused with gallows humour, perhaps not unbefitting soldiers who lived in sites of industrialized slaughter. In and out of the front-line trenches, there was a manly jousting and ribbing among the soldiers that sometimes bordered on the callous. Soldiers joked and sang about death, as it was everywhere.
Rotting bodies jutted from the trench walls and the Canadians lost their natural revulsion to these corpses over time. “We are all used to dead bodies or pieces of men, so much so that we are not troubled by the sight of them,” wrote Canadian infantryman Louis Keene. “There was a right hand sticking out of the trench in the position of a man trying to shake hands with you, and as the men filed out they would often grip it and say, ‘So long, old top, we’ll be back again soon.'”
Soldiers also embraced death with a fatalistic view on survival. The common phrase, “You’ll get it when your number’s up,” was a nonchalant swipe that the soldiers’ fate was likely one of death, but not to worry about it until that day came. If your number was up, or your name was on a bullet, your destiny was already written, so one might as well keep soldiering on until the end.
Texting while driving is a Death Wish but we still do it
Nearly a third of American drivers apparently have a death wish, based on data released this week by the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC’s study is based on data collected in the US during October 2011, and the organization found that approximately one in three American drivers send or read text messages on their cell phones while driving. This data, published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report this week, showed more than half of two demographic groups—women from 18 to 24, and men from 25 to 34 years of age—admitted to texting while driving within the 30 days prior to taking the survey.
Crime and Murder are Now the Most Popular Genre of Fiction in the U.K.
Fiction is a medium of metaphor. In both crime fiction and TV drama the reader or the audience is aware that the female “victim” is only superficially “real”. At a deeper level she’s a blue-lipped, blank-eyed metaphor. And that, precisely, is her power. Greer also said, “Human beings have an inalienable right to invent themselves”. For women, so powerfully socialised to conform to particular roles as sex objects, mothers, wives, in a society where being a man is still the default position, inventing ourselves can be a particular challenge. We are used to our bodies being appraised and poked about, viewed as vehicles for procreation or male pleasure – or as symbols first of beauty and then, in later life, of ugliness. What better metaphor for the feeling of annihilation which follows the common female experience of being valued primarily as the sum of one’s body parts than a murdered woman on a slab? At this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier crime writing festival in Harrogate, roughly 80% of the audience (and half the 80 or so authors appearing) will be women. We will also make up around 80% of those signing up for writing workshops where aspiring crime writers learn their craft. Women love crime fiction, and not just in its cosy, sanitised, Midsomer Murders version. The trend towards ever-more explicit accounts of murder, rape and torture in crime novels, often involving a female victim, is led not by men but by women. Why? Well, partly because we understand what living with fear feels like so much better than men. Most women don’t think of ourselves as victims, nor are we naturally masochistic. Something much more interesting and nuanced is going on…
Democracy Seems to be in its Death Throes
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising them the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over a loss of fiscal responsibility, always followed by a dictatorship. The average of the world’s great civilizations before they decline has been 200 years. These nations have progressed in this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependency; from dependency back again to bondage.”
Every Mammal Gets About 1 Billion Heartbeats
Rabbits live about three years. Elephants can get up into their 80s. But both of them get about one billion heartbeats in their lifetime. It’s just that elephant hearts beat a lot slower. As it turns out, that number stays (roughly) the same across other species of mammals. [In rich countries we are breaking this rule by having 2 billion heart beats because of our good nutrition and medical advances]
Smoking can kill you. We’ve known that for at least 50 years — and yet millions still smoke, and thousands more pick up the habit every year.
Why? Their stories involve strong addictions, passionate defiance — and billions spent to make people act against their own best interest. Smoking is still the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States, and has been for decades. It kills more people than obesity, substance abuse, infectious disease, firearms, and traffic accidents. He’s tried to quit, but nothing worked. In fact, in the ’80s he had more success quitting a drug that is supposed to be more addictive. “Cocaine was a lot easier to kick than cigarettes,” he said. There’s a very good reason for that. ‘They will lose their capacity to make a free choice’. While smoking harms your health, you don’t notice it at first. That’s why the World Health Organization calls tobacco a “gradual killer.” By the time smokers may feel the effects, they’re addicted.
Extinction of Our Species is Inevitable
They say “‘tis impossible to be sure of anything but death and taxes,” a bit of financial chicanery may get you out of paying the taxman. But no amount of trickery will stop the inevitability of death. Death is the inescapable endpoint of life. And this is as true for species as it is for individuals. All species that exist today – including human beings – will invariably go extinct at some point. researchers have identified the Big Five mass extinctions: the five times over the past half billion years or so when more than three-quarters of the planet’s species have gone extinct in short order. my colleagues and I identified a physiological component to extinction. We found that the representative metabolic rate for both fossil and living mollusk species strongly predicts the likelihood of extinction. Metabolic rate is defined as the average rate of energy uptake and allocation by individuals of that species. Mollusk species with higher metabolic rates are more likely to go extinct than those with lower rates. Returning to the metaphor of “survival of the fittest/luckiest,” this result suggests that “survival of the laziest” may apply at times.
Is Being too Smart is a Death Wish?
Why are we so clever? In evolutionary terms this isn’t obvious: evolution tends to favour cheap solutions and the human brain is expensive. It consumes about 20% of our body’s energy budget yet it only makes up 2% of our body mass. There are many species that do perfectly well with only a minimum of intelligence, so why did it make evolutionary sense for us humans, and some of our animal cousins, to develop powerful brains? I always wondered – if being smart was such a great evolutionary advantage why did it take life almost 4 billions years to evolve us? Why are the most successful species so stupid? Human intelligence was born in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, as our ape ancestors evolved increasingly bigger brains. That may only have happened because of the Sun, Moon, and other planets in our Solar System. Their gravity makes the Earth’s orbit change how elliptical it is, over thousands of years. That in turn affects our planet’s climate. And looking at the fossil record, our ancestors’ increases in brain size happened when the Earth’s orbit was at its most elliptical, a time of rapid and violent climate change, when adaptability and intelligence would have been a huge evolutionary advantage. So, if our intelligence is supposed to help us adapt, why is that we are not adapting quickly enough now? My guess, is that given a longer term view, we are adapting very well, just not fast enough for our current problems. Also, scientists tell us that intelligence developed out of our need for social, cooperative behaviour. Given that the dominant American culture worships “rugged individualism” rather than our evolutionary strength – cooperation – perhaps this flawed social value is just making us too stupid to cooperate in our collective best interest.
It is only a matter of time before our Universe goes black, cold and dies
We are doomed. Our best efforts to reproduce, to conserve, protect and survive will, in the end, come to nought. We could sort out climate change, dispose of our nuclear arsenals, ban research into killer AIs, and still the end would come, as surely as night follows day.
The problem is physics itself. Our home – our planet, our Solar System and indeed our entire Universe – has a finite lifespan. All that is will be destroyed, either in fire or, as observations suggest now seems more likely, in a lingering, depressing ‘heat death’. The stars will all go out, and the expanding cosmos will be no more than a colossal, black and freezing void in which nothing of interest ever happens again. The laws of nature insist upon it.
Letting Go of our Civilization
The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Civilised and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.’ [B.Russell] What he is getting at is a simple fact which any historian could confirm: human civilisation is an intensely fragile construction. It is built on little more than belief: belief in the rightness of its values; belief in the strength of its system of law and order; belief in its currency; above all, perhaps, belief in its future. Once that belief begins to crumble, the collapse of a civilisation may become unstoppable. That civilisations fall, sooner or later, is as much a law of history as gravity is a law of physics. What remains after the fall is a wild mixture of cultural debris, confused and angry people whose certainties have betrayed them, and those forces which were always there, deeper than the foundations of the city walls: the desire to survive and the desire for meaning. It is, it seems, our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality. There is a fall coming. We live in an age in which familiar restraints are being kicked away, and foundations snatched from under us. After a quarter century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall, the end of history, the crude repackaging of the triumphalism of Conrad’s Victorian twilight – Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis. Now a familiar human story is being played out. It is the story of an empire corroding from within. It is the story of a people who believed, for a long time, that their actions did not have consequences. It is the story of how that people will cope with the crumbling of their own myth. It is our story. This time, the crumbling empire is the unassailable global economy, and the brave new world of consumer democracy being forged worldwide in its name. Those who witness extreme social collapse at first hand seldom describe any deep revelation about the truths of human existence. What they do mention, if asked, is their surprise at how easy it is to die.
Elyne Mitchell, in her book Soil and Civilization (1946) was attempting to explain to Australians the importance of the connection between human and ecosystem health. In the context of the impoverishment of the Australian environment by agricultural activity she writes: But no time or nation will produce genius if there is a steady decline away from the integral unity of man and the earth. The break in this unity is swiftly apparent in the lack of “wholeness” in the individual person. Divorced from his roots, man loses his psychic stability. It was this concept of loss of “psychic stability” that further stimulated my interest in land health – human health issues. We see this most strongly with the social problems experienced by traditional indigenous cultures worldwide and their connection to loss of culture and support environment – but it now looks like we are next in line. In the Australian context, Indigenous people experience physical and mental illness at rates far beyond those of
other Australians. Their social problems; unemployment, alcoholism, substance abuse (particularly glue and petrol sniffing in youth), violence against women and disproportionately high rates of crime and custody and an epidemic of deaths in custody, lead to community dysfunction and crisis. Indigenous leaders are attempting to deal with the sheer scale and scope of
these problems and they and non-indigenous academics have presented accounts of them. Tatz (2001), for example, has highlighted the relevance of what is called ‘existential suicide’ for the explanation of the tragically high and increasing
rates of Indigenous suicide within custody in Australia. Based in part on the work of Albert Camus, existential suicide is connected to issues such as ending the meaninglessness and purposelessness that afflicts Aboriginal life. Camus saw the “undermining” of the goals and purpose of life as being at the core of recognising ‘absurdity’ and the anguish that can follow such an existential state. While Tatz concentrates on the social dimensions of the tragedy of Indigenous suicide, it must be recognised that an element of the situation is tied to the imposed break between humans, ecosystems and the land. Albrecht, Glenn & Sartore, Gina & Connor, Linda & Higginbotham, Nick & Freeman, Sonia & Kelly, Brian & Stain, Helen & Tonna, Anne & Pollard, Georgia. (2007). Solastalgia: The Distress Caused by Environmental Change. Australasian psychiatry : bulletin of Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. 15 Suppl 1. S95-8. 10.1080/10398560701701288.
Life is sweet. Life is wondourful. As the Greeks said: “Better to be a pauper in the land of living than a King in the land of the dead.” However, life only has real value and is only truly appreciated when we realize that death is always around the next corner. The moment we take Life for granted Death makes its ugly appearance and takes our Life away. We, as a culture, seem to have taken the Earth which nurtures us for granted and abused the Earth to the point where we are about to be reminded that Death, not Life, is the normal state of things. To live is to strive and to struggle and for us humans to do that together – using our intelligence to cooperate and overcome any challenge. So, let’s face the fact that while death is inevitable Life, because it is so transitory, is so sweet, sweet, sweet.