Excuse me . . . my mortality is showing: meditations on life and death

September 28, 2009 | By | 5 Replies More

Have you ever wondered why so many Americans wear clothing when it’s warm outside? Are they really covering up for sexual propriety—because of shame? Or could it be that they are wearing clothes to cover up their animal-ness– their mortality? I’m intrigued by this issue, as you can tell from my previous writings, including my posts about “terror management theory,” and  nipples.

This issue came to mind again recently when I found a website that allows you to completely undress people. The site has nothing to do with sex, I can assure you, but it has a powerful set of images that raise interesting questions about human nakedness. To get the full experience, go to the website and select an image of a fully clothed person.  These are absolutely ordinary looking people, as you will see. Then click on the images of any of these men or women and watch their clothes disappear.

If you are like me, when their clothing disappears, this will not cause you to any think sexual thoughts. If you are like me, you will find yourself thinking that these people looked more “attractive” with their clothes on. For me, the effect is dramatic and immediate, and it reminded me of a comment by Sigmund Freud (I wasn’t able to dig out the quote), something to the effect that we are constantly and intensely attracted to the idea of sex (duh!), but that sex organs themselves often look rather strange to our eyes–sex organs are not necessarily sexy. I think the same thing can be said for our entire bodies. Nakedness isn’t the same thing as sexuality or else nudist colonies would tend to be orgies (which, from what I’ve read, they are not). Rather, sexual feelings are triggered by the way we use our bodies. We do many things that are sexual, and most of these things take some effort. Simply being naked is not an effective way to be sexy.

In America, people constantly confound nudity with sexuality.  I admit that the media presents us with many ravishing image of sexy naked people, but the sexiness of such images is not due to the mere nakedness. There’s always a lot more going on than mere nakedness. Consider also, that when people actually mate, they often bring the lights down low, further hiding their bodies.

Then why do Westerners cover up with clothing to be “proper”? I suspect that anxiety about death (not so much anxiety about sex) contributes to our widespread practice of hiding those naturally furry parts of our bodies—those parts associated with critically “animal” functions relating to reproduction and excretion of body wastes.

Based on my review of TMT,  I suspect that our anxiety about mortality is a contributing factor to our nervousness about nakedness. I suspect that the sight of Janet Jackson’s nipple was offensive because it confronted people’s fear of mortality. If people were worried about sexuality, they should have been much more concerned about Jackson’s highly sexualized performance prior to the nipple exposure. Certainly, it’s hard to believe that any person could ever be injured by exposure to a woman’s nipple.

I often think about death. Perhaps my heightened concerns about death are more understandable because I’m not religious. I don’t believe that I will continue living after I die. I see myself firmly metaphorically locked in place on a conveyor belt moving inexorably toward my death. I’m trying to enjoy my time on earth in the meantime, but the thought that my death is certain (and more so, the realization that every member of my family and all my friends will also someday die) often invades my thought process. Sometimes I’m a little bit jealous that religious folks can somehow choose to “believe” that they will live forever in heaven. Even little children claim to be able to believe in eternal life, but not me.  Some believers seem to be able to wall off the toxic thought that death might actually be the end of sentience existence. For me, however, the only kind of life after death is “shelf-life,” the amount of time that passes before a body starts to decay and stink.

The past week I’ve been reminded about death more than usual.  These repeated reminders inspired this post.

For instance, one my co-workers reminded me about her mother’s repeatedly expressed desire that she’d not be buried in the ground. Instead, she wants to have her body chemically preserved and placed inside of a clear glass coffee table so that she can be near her family whenever they gather in the living room. My co-worker advises me that her mother’s wish is not tongue-in-cheek; she really truly wants to remain part of family gatherings long after she’s dead. This “coffee table coffin” request reminded me of an institution (“Holland House”) that a high school buddy and I had conjured up back in high school. The idea is that many families might be willing to pay big money to preserve the bodies of their loved ones in living poses. At Holland House, the bodies of loved ones would be taken out of bed every day, dressed, and posed in a wide variety of “living people poses” throughout the day (e.g. shuffleboard, or seated at a card table with other corpses), before they are dressed in their pajamas at put back in bed every night.   Family members could visit their dead relatives, reassured that they are not quite dead yet.

I’m not trying to be offensive in raising the serious topic of nursing homes, but it is clear to me that no one I know wants to be kept alive past the point where their brains have deteriorated such that they can’t recognize their family members and they are incapable of incorporating further memories. Consider Norman Cousins’ quote: “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” Everybody I know (and this includes dozens of people with whom I’ve discussed this) insists that they want to be “put out of their misery” before they get to that point. They don’t want to be drugged up and rolled in front of TV sets for their last 17 years. They would consider themselves to be “already dead” in his mental state, even though their hearts were still beating.  Friends commonly explain that this type of existence would be an assault on human dignity as well as a horrific burden upon their families.

I find it interesting that when it comes to end-of-life decisions, so many of us (and I’m talking about people all along the political spectrum) consider the functioning cerebral neural network to be the thing that makes us meaning fully human. Many of these same people (who don’t want to be kept alive if they cannot mentally function) currently have parents or grandparents who are living in nursing homes in this same highly-impaired mental state. My acquaintances who have relatives suffering from massive dementia feel it to be their duty to keep their highly impaired parents and grandparents alive as long as possible.  Special note for those who might accuse me of being a heartless Nazi: many occupants of nursing homes function at high intellectual levels.  I’m only referring to people with severe dementia, who are parked in front of TV sets most hours of the day because they are not capable of doing anything else. Consider, also, this article by bioethicist Jacob Appel, who is sharply critical of the nursing home industry and the dehumanization that occurs inside of many nursing homes.

What makes us special animals? When people are not striving to look sensitive and polite in front of others, they admit that this must include things like our ability to consciously think, to remember, and to have a sense of aesthetics and a sense of history. Without these faculties functioning, we might still look fully human from a distance, but we are no longer special. Which brings me to another incident this week that reminded me of death: I passed by an antiabortion demonstration on my way to work. Many people are aghast at the thought that a woman would abort a fetus that does not yet have any of the above qualities.

Many thoughtful people on both sides of the abortion debate scratch their heads wondering how in the world their kind and decent neighbors could possibly take the opposite side of the issue. I suspect that it has to do with whether one believes in a “soul.” (scandalous “photo” here). If one believes that a supernatural “soul” has attached to every breathing human body and that it clings to that body as long as there is any brain activity; it certainly makes certainly makes all human animals equally sacred, as long as they are breathing or as long as their hearts are beating.   Belief in souls is totally unsubstantiated and it is the source of endless mischief.  People like me who don’t believe in “souls” tend to take the position that a human life is sacred (i.e., alive) only to the extent that it has the ability to function in the ways that humans animals are unique (things like having an ability to consciously think, to remember, and to have a sense of aesthetics and a sense of history.).

I didn’t drive on past that anti-abortion protest last week. Rather, I stopped my car and got out to chat with some of the folks who were protesting.  Some of the protest signs clearly declared that having an abortion is “murder.”

Image by Erich Vieth

Image by Erich Vieth

Five or six of the protesters confirmed for me that abortion is “murder.”  Inspired by a video I viewed earlier, I asked several protesters this question:  Are you in favor of passing laws making it murder to have an abortion and then throw all women who have abortions into prison for many years, just like all other murderers? Each of the protesters I spoke with choked on this question. “No,” they said. “Women don’t realize what they are doing. They are forced to have abortions. They are brainwashed by society. We should only treat abortion doctors like murderers.”

I took this hesitancy to treat “murderers” as murderers as an admission that killing a first trimester fetus is not the moral equivalent of killing a healthy baby that had already been born. It seemed to me that based on these answers, the kind of killing associated with abortion should be called something other than “murder,” because it is something less heinous than murder. But this is all inconvenient to those who wield signs saying “Abortion is Murder.”

I had an especially long conversation with one of the protesters, a woman in her 50s. She asked me whether I thought that a six-week old fetus in the womb is “human life.” I told her that it absolutely is human life. It is human because it has 46 chromosomes and it is certainly alive and growing.  I admitted to her that I considered the abortion of a healthy 8 1/2 month old healthy fetus to be murder.   She was then dismayed when I told her that I nonetheless would prefer that the right to terminate a pregnancy be totally up to a woman and her doctor, certainly for the first trimester.  I gave her a Sophie’s choice hypothetical. What if some sinister tyrant forces you to kill one of two “children” that are both in front of you?   One of them is a two-day old embryo that is still in a petri dish, and the other is a healthy baby that was born two weeks ago. She told me that in this terrible dilemma, she would save the baby that had already been born.  Everyone I know would save the already-born baby, at the expense of the embryo.

Over the years, I’ve had these sorts of conversations with quite a few thoughtful people who oppose abortion. Quite often, the issue boils down to whether a fetus, an embryo a blastocyst, or even a single fertilized human egg, should be considered to be a “baby.” I suspect that belief in a supernatural human “soul” is the mental move that allows a person to consider a single fertilized cell to be a fully human “baby.”

I can’t buy this argument.  If there is no such thing as a soul, life grows along a continuum, adding functions along the way.  Embryos do not consciously think, because they don’t yet have any biological machinery that allows them to think.  An acorn is not a tree; and even though they are both points on a continuum, reasonable people can distinguish between the two. People like me who do not believe in a soul look toward the degree of cognitive function to determine the degree to which a living animal is human: when the fetus is five weeks old, it is not yet cognizant to any meaningful degree. It has no ability to consciously think or remember; it has no sense of aesthetics or sense of history.

The woman protester then asked me “But then is it okay to kill all the retarded people?” I told her that it depended upon how much mental function remained. Are we talking about Terri Schiavo? If so, she had no mental function remaining, and we should not be spending society’s resources to maintain a living corpse. The woman protested, insisting that Terri Schiavo “might have been much more aware than you suspect.” We had agreed to disagree on Terri Schiavo. As far as most people of reduced mental function, I told her that it is murder to kill people who can consciously think or remember and who have some sense of aesthetics or history.

Nonetheless, her question made me uncomfortable, because I don’t know how to confidently draw the line in tough cases. Then again, I think my questions should have made the protesters uncomfortable. The problem is that there is a continuum running from that which is not alive/not able to function as humans to that which is fully alive/fully able to function as humans. What should we do about the gray area? It seems to me that it might boil down to a question of aesthetics or disgust (and see here).

As morally intense as it is to talk about life and death issues with the abortion protesters, there were more incidents that occurred this week that further reminded me of life and death.

Anybody following the healthcare debate has heard the accusations that some of the proposals would amount to “death panels” and that it would result in the rationing of health care. I find this concern to be absurd in cases where the person raising these concerns refuses to admit that healthcare is already being rationed. If you don’t have enough money, you don’t get the health care—that’s the current system. And if you don’t receive healthcare (because of your lack of money), the system in place, a system that fails to provide basic level of healthcare to every citizen, is already functioning as a “death panel.”

Speaking of death panels, I sometimes think of an earlier post concerning a husband and wife who traveled to Switzerland with her children in order to commit suicide.  For me, this was a highly rational-sounding decision and a beautiful story.  I approve of this couple’s right to say good-bye to their loved ones and to end their lives.  I’m fully aware that millions of Americans would feel justified in refusing to allow this couple say goodbye to life on their own terms.

This suicide story reminds me of another recent post dealing with the logistics of traveling to Mars.  It’s becoming increasingly obvious that a one-way mission to be the only way to get astronauts so far away. Assembling machinery and fuel for a return trip would probably make such a trip to Mars impossible. It might be that the only feasible way to get astronauts to Mars might be to ask a few older astronauts to volunteer for a one-way mission. Their trip to Mars would be the last thing they ever did. After a few weeks or months on the surface of Mars, their food and air would run out and they would make Mars their cemetery. My children were disturbed to hear about this plan for a one-way trip to Mars. Their concern was driven by the fact that this trip would “kill” the astronauts. I reminded them, however, that these astronauts were going to die anyway on earth. It’s simply a matter of whether they want to live an extra 40 years on earth or whether they would rather go down in history as some of the most famous and courageous people ever. That re-framed the conversation quite a bit. A Mars mission wouldn’t be the first time we honored people for a suicide mission—it happens in the military.  We don’t criticize soldiers for marching into enemy gunfire, or for consciously making the decision to sacrifice their lives for what they consider a greater good.

Here’s another incident that reminded me of death this week.  A friend and I found ourselves discussing medical powers of attorney this week. Quite often, people assign their power of attorney to someone very close to them, usually a spouse. My conversation with my friend focused on whether this is a good idea. Perhaps the person who makes a decision about whether you should be kept alive should not be someone emotionally close to you. Perhaps it should be someone who knows you well enough to keep your family’s best interest at heart, but who isn’t so close to you that his or her judgment will be clouded by intense emotions that might tempt them to keep your heart beating regardless of your quality of life.

Just when I think that I’ve moved on from death issues, something else reminds me about death. It happened a few days ago at the dentist. Every time I go in for a check-up, I’m handed a sheet of paper on which I had listed my medical conditions. Each time I go in, I need to sign the sheet to indicate that there are no relevant changes in my medical condition. When I was handed this sheet last week, I noticed that it contained almost 20 signatures, each of them by me, the dates covering more than 10 years of treatment. It was a reminder that life is passing by all too quick, because it didn’t seem like my first visit to this test was more than 10 years ago. And I certainly don’t have many more of these ten year intervals remaining in my 53-year-old life.  It was another reminder of that “conveyor belt.”

As you can see, death is a fascinating topic for me, but not usually distressing.  I try to draw lessons from these many reminders.  My gut feeling is that we would all be much better off if we could deal with death more candidly, more honestly, less politely and more bravely.  I think we’ve be better off if we could all agree that when we’re dead, we’re dead, as I argue here.  To me, it would seem to be such an obvious thing to anyone who knows anything about biology or neuroscience (though I admit that some prominent biologists believe in life after death).

The ways that we acknowledge death (or refuse to knowledge it) certainly affect many of our most important decisions. Consider, for instance, the way that our media covers modern wars. We conduct “bloodless” wars nowadays, because that’s the only way that the public would tolerate military actions that often kills innocent adults and children by burning them or shredding their bodies.  We try so hard to sterilize death, or to make it not-death, as happens when we hire funeral directors to dress up the corpse.  Amy Goodman recently raised this issue of the highly censored media coverage and I think she’s got it exactly right. If we would only publish graphic photos showing the casualties caused by our military actions close up (including photos of our own thousands of dead and maimed soldiers, there would be a public uprising and we would be out of Iraq and Afghanistan in a few months.  Thanks to our media (which works hand-in-hand with our government’s wishes), however, we are not burdened with the need to visualize the terrible things that happen to the bodies of innocent people when we start wars. This makes it so much easier to pretend that wars are not highly-charged moral hotbeds. Instead, we can focus on the glitzy images of our high-tech weapons being launched from a distance.

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Image by Erich Vieth

As I write this, Summer has suddenly changed into Fall. Sudden season changes are common for me now. Months now change as quickly as weeks used to change. When I was a child, a summer day was an eternity–I remember being an 8-year old boy who sometimes desperately wanted to know what he could “do” to occupy an entire summer day. At present, a day is merely a handful of hours; it’s almost over before it begins.  A watched pot never boils–that conveyor belt zooms along whenever you get busy living your life.

Despite my apprehensions, I don’t consider death to be a terrible thing, either in the abstract or in reality. I tried as best as I can to acknowledge that I will someday be dead. I try to be honest with myself that I will someday be permanently thoughtless and emotionless. Someday, I will be only as sentient as a chunk of rock. None of this is evil or terrible. This is simply the way of nature. This is part of the wheel of life. Not that I like the idea of dying, however. I would echo the sentiments of Woody Allen who stated: “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

I admit that the thought of my death does concern me, but my concern is not so much caused by the thought that I won’t exist anymore. Instead, I am concerned about the people that I will someday leave behind, especially my children, and the fact that they too must someday face death. But there is also a component of fear that does have to do with the fact that someday I won’t any longer exist. Again, I’m a little jealous that religious folks are able to convince themselves that death is not the end of life. I’m amazed that this kind of mental gymnastics seems to work for some religious people.  Sometimes, though, I think that all of this heaven-talk is a mere front, and that believers know that it’s a front. Much like Halloween is an opportunity to mock death because we fear it. Perhaps all this talk about heaven is a classic case of whistling in the dark.

Now what about those of us who don’t believe in God or heaven? Is there some way for us to go through life without feeling that we’re being chased by the Grim Reaper, without carrying any sort of annoying burden that all of this will someday not be? And what about the burden of

Image by Erich Vieth

Image by Erich Vieth

going through life thinking that everyone currently living on this planet will be dead and 150 years? Maybe it’s the atheist version of heaven to think of one’s life as causing waves on the surface of a large body of water, and that these waves we cause will continue to affect things for many centuries to come, albeit in greatly diminished magnitude as time goes on.

Maybe the best way to deal with death, for those of us who don’t believe in eternal life, is to distract ourselves by doing the things we consider to be important here on Earth. Things like taking care of our families and acting with kindness toward others. And maybe our goal should be to live our lives in ways that make us proud to have lived our lives at all.  After all, we’re all like those astronauts that might someday take a one-way trip to Mars.  Since we can’t live forever, let’s hide our decaying bodies in clothing if we must, andlet us do what we can to be decent, putting on a game face as long as we are able.

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Category: American Culture, Good and Evil, Health, ignorance, Law, Meaning of Life, Neuroscience, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Sex, snake oil

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Erich-

    I don't know if you're familiar with Peter Singer, but much of his treatment of ethics deals with issues similar to those you've raised in regards to abortion and euthanasia. I don't know if he provides the sort of bright-line you are looking for, and I'm somewhat uncomfortable with pure utilitarianism, but perhaps in this area it's a different way of looking at the matter. From Wikipedia:

    Singer states that arguments for or against abortion should be based on utilitarian calculation which weighs the preferences of a mother against the preferences of the fetus. In his view a preference is anything sought to be obtained or avoided; all forms of benefit or harm caused to a being correspond directly with the satisfaction or frustration of one or more of its preferences. Since a capacity to experience the sensations of suffering or satisfaction is a prerequisite to having any preferences at all, and a fetus, at least up to around eighteen weeks, says Singer, has no capacity to suffer or feel satisfaction, it is not possible for such a fetus to hold any preferences at all. In a utilitarian calculation, there is nothing to weigh against a mother's preferences to have an abortion, therefore abortion is morally permissible. Similar to his argument for abortion, Singer argues that newborns similarly lack the essential characteristics of personhood — "rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness"<sup id="cite_ref-30" class="reference"><span></span><span></span></sup> — and therefore "killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living."<span></span>

    I doubt that the "pro-life" crowd will ever see much value in this sort of utilitarian calculation either, so it still doesn't help us towards a common ground. But at least it's a way out of the dead-horse arguments as to what precise moment life begins.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    With my mother in hospice and my cat dying of AIDS before my eyes, I have somehow been avoiding deep rumination of my own mortality.

    The cat hasn't eaten in two weeks, and has shrunk to half of his healthy weight in that time. He doesn't appear to be in pain, so we just wait as his body malodorously consumes itself.

    My mother has been at death's door a few times in the past couple of years, but major medical intervention brought her back. She neither fears death, nor is in any hurry to be done. Skilled nursing care is keeping her going and mostly out of pain.

    Thanks to her short term memory loss, she expects to go back to her middle-age lifestyle when she gets better. We allow her this false hope; it gives her comfort. But she is regularly puzzled about where she is, and wonders why she has trouble breathing every morning.

    Her daily complaint is, "I think I'm catching a cold." But she has advanced COPD now with less than 20% functioning lung tissue. This has been explained to her hundreds of times by many people. Maybe she just prefers not to know.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Do 20 week old fetuses feel pain? This article from In These Times says no.

    Let’s get one thing straight: 20-week fetuses do not feel pain. As the New York Times makes clear, the National Right to Life Committee settled on its legal strategy first and canvassed for fringe experts later.

    This issue has been extensively reviewed by bodies of medical experts in the United States and the United Kingdom. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists concluded in 2010 that fetal pain is impossible before 24 weeks because the basic neural structures of pain perception are not yet formed and functional. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists maintains that fetal pain is unlikely before the third trimester, which starts at 28 weeks. It’s not a foregone conclusion that fetuses experience pain in utero even late in pregnancy. Some experts believe that sedating hormones from the placenta keep the fetus in a state of natural anesthesia.

    Quite simply, 20-week fetuses can’t feel pain because their higher brain centers are not fully developed. At minimum, in order to feel pain, pain signals from the nerves must be transmitted from the spinal cord to the midbrain and finally to various parts of the cerebral cortex. Pain is such a familiar part of life that it’s easy to forget what complex, multifaceted phenomenon it really is. A lot of information has to be processed in order for a person to recognize that a sharp pain in her foot and experience the sensation as unpleasant. Pain has both a sensory (“sharp pain in my foot”) and an emotional component (ouch!), which appear to be controlled by different regions of the cerebral cortex. Thanks to functional neuroimaging, which allows scientists to observe live brains as they process information, we now have a pretty good idea of the pattern of activity in the cerebral cortex that is associated with painful stimuli.

    http://inthesetimes.com/duly-noted/entry/15397/the_fetal_pain_argument/

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