Monday, November 18, 2013

O, Death

Kno - Death is Silent

I don't fear death. I certainly don't want to face it any time soon (I don't have a death wish or anything) but I have come to terms with my own inevitable demise.

On the other hand, when death is in the vicinity of my loved ones, it's harder for me to accept. I've been very lucky to not have lost many friends or family, but even when death takes a friend's family member or a friend of a friend, I start to question the wisdom of the universe's routine of granting sentience to beings just to snatch it away so mercilessly. I'm quasi-Buddhist so I get the whole yin and yang, need-the-dark-to-appreciate-the-light philosophy, but fuck all that. Death fucking hurts. Life would be just fine without death, I'm sure.

When I am far enough away from death, though (or rather, when death is far enough away from my friends and family) I can see the beauty in it. If we can separate ourselves from the pain a little and take a lesson from it, it does make us appreciate our short time in existence. But more than that, as my favorite author stated, when it comes down to it, there are fates far worse than death.

We've probably all considered this notion after watching countless tv shows and movies featuring a person in a coma and the family deciding whether or not to maintain life support. I remember as a kid thinking, "keep that shit on motherfucker!" (I listened to a lot of Wu Tang as a kid). Some point in college, it evolved to, "The answer all depends on whether or not the practical value of keeping me alive outweighs the practical value of removing life support." (I read a lot of John Locke in college.) Now, my official stance on it is: "Let me go." Basically, if I've missed two or more episodes of Boardwalk Empire, pull the plug.

As I said before, I don't fear death...but I'm terrified of any kind of brain damage. It's almost an obsessive fear. When I get headaches I start to think about my brain splitting and having to speak like Sylvester the Cat for the rest of my life.

"Sssufferin ssstroke victim."

Cut off all my limbs and I think I'd have a strong desire to still live, but mess with my brain? Just get it over with and kill me.

I'm exaggerating a little, but it's an honest fear. And its a very good likelihood. Every year, 795,000 people in the US have a stroke, and 135,000 of those stroke victims die. Fuck.

Then there's traumatic brain injuries: 1.7 million TBIs every year in the US alone. You gotta be out of your mind (no pun intended) to play football and suffer concussions regularly. I'm not trying to forget my name at 55 years old. Even if I avoid high contact sports, there's always the possibility of a car accident or a hard fall, both of which I've had. Fortunately I only broke some bones and not my brain.

What really concerns me--and strangely fascinates me--is that my mind will just snap one day. It has always fascinated--and concerned--me how little control we have over our brains. The brain is an organ, and just like any other organ it can malfunction. There have been times where I've felt on the constant verge of breakdown. I have studied (to some extent, I'm certainly no scholar on the subject) the way the brain works, and the scientific consensus is that we really don't understand the brain that much at all. It's very easy for someone's brain chemistry to change and cause an alteration in that individual's personality. A particularly vicious knock to the head, or a parasite, or a virus, or even the ingestion of certain substances can change a person's identity, the essence of an individual. Just think about the last time you got really drunk. You become another person for a while, to the point where it's almost a viable excuse to say "I must have been drunk" when our bad decisions come back to haunt us.

Even if we are perfectly sober and healthy, we still have less control over our own minds than we believe (which is weird in itself because our minds are the mechanism that allows us to "believe" so you'd think it would know best). One of the biggest functions of the brain is memory, which helps us create a vision of ourselves. Unfortunately, memory is tenuous at best. That link is to an article describing all the bizarre things that affect our memory, and that's just the start of the list. So this ability of ours, which is so important to identity creation, is very weak, and as we age, or if it is afflicted with certain diseases, it gets even weaker. Great.

Memento was like a horror film to me. How can you live with no memory of yourself, or your life, or especially (like in the film) with no memory of the past at all?

That shit scares me. What if I just wake up with no memory one day? It could happen. Or what if I wake up crazy? That happens all the time, too. Even Oprah almost suffered from a nervous breakdown. What if I go into work one day and see Nick Jake's 607th bandana and I just lose it?

I sympathize with people who have mental breakdowns. I never sympathize (or condone, obviously) those who harm other people, but I can understand. They're not thinking straight, that's the problem. A lot of them don't understand what they're doing at the time or the ramifications of their actions. I've read too many true crime books about all types of killers to think that they are much different from the rest of us.

That last fact scares and comforts me (I've mentioned that paradox is my favorite word before, right?). The majority of us are living on the verge of crazy. We all do our best to suppress it, and some do better than others. Sometimes external factors cause a snap, sometimes our own personal decisions and mistakes lead to a breakdown, but either way, it's a reality we all could face a lot easier than we assume.

The world is fucking crazy, and if we really paid attention and contemplated all the fucked up things happening in the world for very long, we'd probably all go insane. That's the beauty of human nature. We persevere, we carry on, despite it all.

We prepare for the worst and do our best to understand the realities of life, but that doesn't make life easier. It just makes it tolerable. And that's the most we should ask for out of life. That part of Buddhist philosophy I have completely bought into: life is suffering. A lot of people hear that and think it's really depressing. I think it's a beautiful philosophy, because it means that if we are lucky enough to have a life that's anything but constant misery, we should be thankful for it every second of every day.

Then again, it's hard to maintain that thankfulness. I always thought a particular scene from The Sopranos was the perfect summation of the human existence (not the scene where Christopher gets high on heroin and sits on Adriana's dog, but that one too, I suppose). Tony was recovering from being shot, and he goes to Dr. Melfi's office to tell her he's becoming depressed again. He knows that life is precious, now more than ever, and he knows he should appreciate every moment, but it's just so...well, I'll let him tell it: "This isn't painful. Getting shot is painful. Getting stabbed in the ribs is painful. This shit isn't painful. It's empty... dead."

It's the mundane, endless minutiae of life that gets people. It's why people turn to drugs and alcohol, or any addiction really (and just like with mental breakdowns, it's much easier to become an addict than we all assume). The monotony of life is what drives people crazy. There is no purpose to life in and of itself, we have to do our best to give our lives purpose. Life is suffering, so we do what we can to ease that suffering. I have learned to focus on the positive, and I'm mostly successful in that endeavor. I keep up with the horrible shit (aka "the news") but I balance it out with pictures of puppies, and stories about Malala and heroic acts from average people. Positive psychology scientists (those exist!) believe that  it takes a 4:1 or 5:1 ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions to keep you balanced, so it's important to get a good dose of positivity throughout the day.

And it's important to spread positivity throughout the day as well. Any little way you can. Never underestimate the power of a simple, kind gesture. Sometimes people just need somebody else to hear their stories.

CHiPs saves the day again! California Highway Patrolman Kevin Briggs, aka "The Guardian of The Golden Gate," convinces Kevin Berthia that there are alternatives to ending his life. Berthia is one of hundreds of people Briggs has saved. 

There are people who may be beyond the point of no return, especially if drugs and alcohol are a part of the problem, but it's worth at least trying to help. Otherwise, one day we may be the ones on the wrong side of the bridge, with no one to hear our stories.

Man that's pretty dark. Sorry. Did you know that it has been scientifically proven that optimists live longer? Here, I'll end it with a picture of a dog pulling a kid on a skateboard:

He should really be wearing a helmet though, he could crash and...shit. Sorry!

Epilogue: As I revised and prepared to publish this post, I read a facebook post from a friend of mine. He had just decided to randomly talk to a guy who looked upset. The guy was very depressed and talked about his problems for about an hour. He had been headed to a bridge to jump, but telling his story to a friendly stranger made him change his mind.

And that is the shit I live for.

I Love You All (it's not just a tag line, it's real)...Class Dismissed.

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