Death, and the Community of Life

“Each individual life-form has its own historical appearance, a moment when it must assert its identity, fulfill its role, and then give way to other individuals in the ever-renewing processes of the phenomenol world..

“In our Western tradition, this passing of our own being is experienced as something to be avoided absolutely. Because we are so sensitive to any personal affliction, because we avoid any threats to our personal existence, we dedicate ourselves to individual survival above all else. In the process of extending our own lives, we imperil the community of life systems on the planet. This leads eventually to failure in fulfilling our own proper role within the larger purposes of the universe.” (Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts, Sierra Club Books, 2006, p.35)

Berry speaks as a one-time priest who went on to become an environmental thinker and philosopher. He died this past June at the age of 94. He spoke and wrote of Creation not in divine terms, but in holy terms. To his thinking, the processes of the Universe and of the Earth were sacred- to be in awe of, and to respect and protect. We do not stand ‘over’ those processes: we are not in charge of them any more than we were responsible for setting them into motion. Yet we (and I’m speaking here of humans) insert ourselves into those processes again and again in an effort to..make them better?..patent them? ..demonstrate to God how it should be done?

We dam rivers because we decide where to build cities. We drive cars because we’ve to get ‘there’ more quickly, we splice the genes of grain to yield more nutrition grown per acre, we build 4000 sq.ft. houses because the neighbors have a 3500 sq.ft. home, we fill lakes with antibiotics to kill off the algae, viri, and other biotics we’ve caused, for other former reasons, to grow there, and we do whatever it takes to live as long as possible. Or, in some cases, exist as long as possible. And then, in these and all things, we ask the God of our choosing and the government of our location to bless us: “Take care of us iun the manner to which we’ve made ourselves accustomed!”

By 2011, there will be seven (7) billion people on Earth. I once heard a conservative radio commentator point out that the entire population of the earth could stand in state of Oregon, and that each person would have something like 100 sq.ft. on which to live. He was pointing this out in order to pooh-pooh the arguments of what he called ‘over-population alarmists.’ What he said about living space is, indeed, true. But what he didn’t say is also true: he didn’t address the need and locale of arable land, potable water, storage and transportation of food and water, septic tanks, and the ease with which every virus, germ, and flea-laden brown rat could wreak havoc! Building supplies, climate control, and fuel are easy to ignore during the moments one is broadcasting vitriol-disguised-as-humor to a radio audience. But, in the eastern desert of Oregon, occasional shade will be necessary. Someone- picky, picky, picky- might need new shoes. And certainly there will be a need for shovels- lots them!

But, our broadcaster has helped a significant number of people again turn a blind eye- at least for a little while- to the inevitable problem of too many people! It is part of the blindness, or perhaps a result of the blindness, with which we have almost all turned toward Sister Death. We don’t like Death, so we postpone it as long as possible. We spend as much money in the last weeks of our lives on medicines and medical procedures as we have previously spent in the first 70, 80, 90 years!

We are choosing and able to live longer and longer lives. Which is nice on one hand for many of us; but for many others of us, the too-old age diseases of cancer and Alzheimer’s are like those hooks reaching out from behind the curtains to drag us reluctantly off the stage we thought was ours forever.
We are afraid of dying and we are institutionally committed to squeezing as much time from eternity for ourselves as possible. Quantity trumps quality for many at the end stages of life. We call the fights against cancer, for instance, courageous- and some of them are, absolutely! But there are also fights being fought against various diseases in which the winner (if we must use such a word) is easily predictable. And the battles in those cases are not born of courage so much as they are of being afraid of what is inevitable.

In the meantime, the sheer numbers of human beings increases. The fact that fewer and fewer of them are dying on the evolutionary and/or God-imaged timetables that thousands of generations before us have died on, causes that human population to be even larger than it would be through improved birthing methods and better nutrition. We are, by our numbers and our need for calories, crowding out others who are also in desperate need of the Earth’s surface!

But, (I ask, in Mr. Berry’s words) are we compelled to regard the “passing of our own being .. as something to be avoided absolutely” ? Must we continue to stiff arm our Sister when she insists on a conversation, then fighting her for the seat beside us she will, absolutely will, soon be sitting in? Or should we talk about it, with each other at first, with genuine thinkers within our various faith traditions, and with the thinkers in other faith traditions? I think we should, because we must. I don’t want to be pushed out of the way by the younger world surging behind me. I have earned no special situational graces by virtue of having lived longer than 90% of all humans who have ever lived. I want to be accommodating and gracious myself. I want, when my time is come, to not fight selfishly, but to take the final steps expectantly and hopefully, for those many generations of all other life systems I am preceding.

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One thought on “Death, and the Community of Life

  1. As I minister to more and more of the aged and see what the extending of life at all costs comes to – I chose quality over quantity. Yes I want to see my grandchildren, but I dont want to sit in a chair, oblivious to the world, just because they can keep me alive. I once heard an elderly gentleman in a Nursing Home – yell out continually thru the day: “Please Jesus, take me now!” He had a feeding tube. Who is he being kept alive for?
    Maybe this doesnt have anything to do with what you wrote, but this is what it made me think of.

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