Death’s War of Words

“Without the creation of abstract images of the enemy, and without the depersonalization of the enemy during training, battle would become impossible to sustain. But if the abstract image is overdrawn or depersonalization is stretched into hatred, the restraints on human behavior in war are easily swept aside. If, on the other hand, men reflect too deeply upon the enemy’s common humanity, then they risk being unable to proceed with the task whose aims may be eminently just and legitimate.”
(Richard Holmes, Acts of War, quoted by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, in his book, On Killing)

Grossman’s book is about the military history of killing the enemy. And his conclusions are fascinating: getting the enemy killed has not been an historically easy thing to do! Soldiers don’t want to kill other soldiers and many, many of them- based on statistics and evidence gathered from all of America’s wars- have shot over the heads of enemies, or not at all.

Empathy is something we, for many years, thought we learned about in civic class or Sunday School. It may have been enhanced in those settings, but it turns out that our brains are wired for empathy- the million year evolution of our species demanded that we cooperate with each other in staying alive. Mirror neurons in our brains allow us to read, to an important extent, the minds and feelings of others. We can then match our actions to theirs, either consciously or, more often, unconsciously. It’s silly and obvious to say but, under normal circumstances, we know what the person near us (sitting beside us, or in our gunsights), we know how that person feels about their own death. We read it in their face and in their body language in exactly the same way, it turns out, that we feel it in our own body. Thus, it is very hard to pull a trigger. And thus, military trainers needed to do something about that.

And what was successfully taught beginning, Grossman documents, in the early stages of the Vietnam War, was a purposeful, dedicated de-humanizing of the enemy. Slopes, Gooks, and other such words were not only used (words like that have always been used in war), but they were institutionalized during the soldiers’ training! It makes it not so hard, at the time, to kill an old Gook, even one that appears harmless. (Those Gooks are up to no good! They’re not like us! They don’t have feelings like we do! They speak mumbo-jumbo. There are too many of them. They’d kill us if they had the chance! Etc., etc., etc.)

The empathy we feel toward another person that prevents us from killing them, is the same empathy that causes us to share food with a stranger who’s hungry, or to support orphanages, etc. We understand, without jabbering about it, that Death is also a big deal to the Other. The only way we can get past that empathy, the military has shown us, is to artificially re-shape the Other into another, lesser image.

And I’m wondering (which is the point of this off-the-path excursion into war) I’m wondering if we haven’t been encouraged by a whole line of people through history to artificially re-shape and re-make our ideas of Death into something other than what they naturally are. Have we been coerced perhaps into fearing Death in ways most of the world’s inhabitants historically have not? Have we become too eager to fight Death without knowing how or when to stop “raging against the dying of the light” as Dylan Thomas wrote?

I wonder if it might be possible to be able to see our present reality from a slightly different angle? Maybe in the final years we should have a greater opportunity to tend, rather than to mend; to move toward hospice rather than the hospital. It sounds cruel what I’m saying, doesn’t it? But I’m saying that these gentle suggestions of mine have made to sound cruel. We have, so many of us, been trained to be good soldiers in the economic battles, right to the end.

The Death of Death!!

“The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one.” (Jose Saramago, Death With Interruptions, Harcourt, 2008, p.1)

In Saramago’s most recent novel, everyone in a particular small European country inexplicably stops dying. The Queen mother, on her deathbed, stays there. Healthy persons who are injured or become ill go to hospitals and stay there, too. Life goes on the way it always has, until it is time to die.

Chaos follows. Nursing homes and hospitals overflow, life insurance companies grow wealthy, while health insurance and pension funds and the funeral industry go broke. A calamity overtakes the church, and the hierarchy from the pope on down, begin praying that God return death as a fact of life! Death- the fear of it, the theological threats able to be made because of it- had become the primary sustenance of this country’s church and nobody’s dying meant no one was bothering with church anymore!

Saramago is one of the world’s living literary treasures- he sees the world differently than most people; he sees beyond the superficialities of life and into the real and true underpinnings that define the ‘stuff’ of life. And he doesn’t hesitate to indict us as a society for our peculiarities and vagaries, even though he does it with humor, even gently. Death he says, is a big deal- of course! But we also tend to make it into an even bigger deal for financial, religious, and other societal reasons!

The funeral industry, the entire insurance industry, and (Saramago would say) the church industry- all are built upon the foundations of death’s inevitability. Those “industries” depend on death (again, Saramago says). Therefore, death in a modern sense gets dressed up in ways death was never dressed up in before. Jessica Mitford’s 1963 book An American Way of Death, was an expose of what she named the “death-care industry” in America: the funeral business. Hers was an indictment not only of high pressure sales techniques being used at the time, and of genuinely underhanded marketing, but of the industry’s simply making of a much, much bigger deal about funerals than any other country in history had done for persons other than royalty. What we had come to think of as normal- funeral homes, embalming, sealed and expensive caskets, and flowers- Mitford exposed as purely American ideas, successfully sold! (In the later, revised edition of her book, she added a chapter on the frequent collusion of funeral homes with local pastors: “Nosy Clergy” the chapter was called.)

Death had become- and largely remains- Death as a series of exclamation points!!!!! And that emphasis obscures the true nature of Death’s marking the end of a life, the end of a period. The Death of a body need not be a disruptive, climactic extravaganza. The death of a body is the cessation of breath, stillness, and the preparation of those nearby, for burial. The remembrance of the soul, the person, the consciousness which gave the body animation and distinction- that remembrance can be, should be acknowledged and honored. That remembrance is a very real psychologically and emotionally necessary period at the finish of a time. But it is not easy to do. There are decisions to be made, people to call, flowers to be ordered- Did anyone call the florist? There are clothes to be chosen and- one limousine or two? How many songs, which songs, who should pray, and- oh my god- do we go with ebony, bronze, or walnut, or- gross!- plywood? Do you have the checkbook with you? Open? Open? What, I have a choice?

Such is life, but c’est l’muert, too! We need respect and quiet, and we need to be able to note the passing of time without trying to stop the passage of time. We need to remember, and keep walking. Others have always done it that way, and we used to. We’ll be looking at some ancestral memories of those times soon.

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.

Sister Death

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in their sins!
Blessed are those that She finds doing Your Will.
No second death can do them harm.

We praise and bless You, Lord,
and give You thanks, and serve You in all humility.

(from Canticle of the Sun, by St. Francis of Assisi)

I think about Death, because I think deeply (as deeply as I can) about Life. It is in honor of Life, in a very real way, that I pay homage to Death by wondering, thinking, studying, talking about and now writing about Death. Sister Death, St. Francis called it, in perhaps the most comfortable evocation of its nearness and familiarity. And Sister Death I will often call it as well, with a nod of gratitude toward Francis and an opening of the door to my- our- oft neglected (or shunned) sibling.

In writing about Sister Death, I am not unaware that some will leave this blog, perhaps never to return.
It is easy in a culture which is afraid of Death- and that’s what we are, largely- to regard talk about it as a talisman or as a conduit. “I don’t want to think about it,” he/she/we says because thinking about means facing its inevitabilities, its finalities, and all of its inherent Mystery, if only for a few moments. The trouble is, like a Sister, once Death has been acknowledged, it cannot be unacknowledged. Poking at the dead fly on the windowsill as a toddler, is the first of a lifetime of questions about the Sister’s nature, followed by greater questions about her immanence, and then even greater wonderings about her permanence.

Death is not a crazy Sister, though, that we can keep locked in the basement no matter how much we may want to! It’s appearance, more frequent in some locales and personal decades than others, is a relentless reminder that we do not live in a static universe. We are always in the midst of change, in the throes of Creation, and caught in the chaos of many dimensions . The deaths of solar systems play out over light years while the deaths of mayflies begin and end in a single day, making the evidence of our existential similarities to either, difficult to observe. Culturally, we can ignore the Sun’s cataclysmic metamorphosis into a cold, ashen meteor and laugh nervously at the mayfly’s short and fragile grasp of life. And we can institutionally further close our eyes and minds to Death’s omnipresence by grasping at the testimonial straws offered by hustlers on the sanctuary circuit: “I died on the operating table and saw the third heaven!.” (more- much more- about that religious vocation in a later article.)

In short, I want to to dance with Death. But I want to do it here, in digital space- not at the edge of a canyon or in high stakes game of Russian Roulette! By exploring here, I am looking down in the dark basement myself, where we know our Sister stirs. We have relegated her there, most of the time, and I think it has been to our detriment. We’ve missed her songs; we’re missing her symphony. No matter how darkly we have been taught to hang the curtains around Death and regardless of how sonorous the basso-profundo chords are being played as we allow Death to stand in the Light of our Inquiry, we must know Death better. We must. In honesty, I tell you that I feel the desire already to retreat, to chicken-shit shut this door and go play somewhere else. But I think- I suspect and I am almost sure- that we are missing a great deal about Life by treating Death in this way. I think we must put our hand out and hold Sister’s hand in ours as we look her in the face and see the reflection of ourselves in her eyes. And then, because she will embrace us in her everlasting love one day, perhaps we can come to feel comfortable enough to allow her to sit closer, talk more often, and even- from time to time- put our arm around her shoulders and feel her heart beat with our own.

Each day, I will be building my thoughts and also deconstructing some of them, with the help of some great writers and thinkers who have challenged me. There are others reasons I write about this subject, too, and I will be sharing those as well.

If I die before I wake.. (you know the rest..)

What’s good for General Motors, is good for the U.S.A.

That’s how America used to work. And it’s exactly how America must never work again. 

Automobiles, television, and a grid of roads going everywhere. That was the holy trinity of both 20th century economics and modern civil religion. That was the three-headed god which we genuflected to with our financing plans, sacrificed to through an international oil industry, and the imagio dei into which we allowed ourselves to be born again. For some persons this morning, GM’s bankruptcy filing is like hearing that Jesus’ bones have been unearthed in Jerusalem. The foundations of their lives, as they knew them, are crumbling.

Nothing is permanent; that’s the primary lesson from this which must be embraced again and again. Just because a few generations of Americans grew up with Chevys, aspired to Cadillacs, lusted for awhile over GTOs, then settled for their father’s Oldsmobile, didn’t mean- it turns out- that GM was the end all and be all of the American GNP. And because GM was so familiar to all of us, we all have the ability (we think) to figure out what went wrong.

Why did Americans by the millions go sneaking off to trysts with Toyota, Datsun, and Honda? The answers we have are all- in part- valid ones. Because GM (and the other American automakers) held such sway in America, and because we were all its willing victims and supplicants for almost a hundred years, we all have the right to have answers, too. We are all kind-of experts on the auto industry. 

So, here’s what I think: Hummers didn’t kill GM, but they were the final tumor. Like the smoker who won’t stop smoking and then pours the family fortune into a final two years of chemo-drenched half-life, GMs arrogance toward the American consumer finally caught up with it. They claimed car and truck buyers wanted big muscle cars. And when a company controls huge advertising dollars, it can make its misbegotten notions seem true, for awhile. Scare enough men into believing their virility is dependent on massive horsepower, and corporate wishful thinking will prevail, for awhile. Kill off the 1st American electric car- the EV1- because of narrower profit margins, while forcibly inserting Hummers onto the roads by making them the internal combustive equivalent of Viagra, and sales projections will maintain the illusion of an erection, for awhile.

And the kind of dull, but harmonic and dependable music of Toyota, Nissan (now), and Honda played on. And plays on, still.

I still want a Cadillac SUV. I do. That’s a desire I have learned; it is not a desire I was born with. The idea that such a vehicle will enhance my life is a false one, I know that- I really, really do. But GM had psychologists, behaviorists, and -who knows?- maybe even spiritual advisors all figuring out ways to get their vehicular seeds into the soil of my very American, very consumer-oriented mind and soul. And they were successful.

That’s the part of American business which must be re-examined. Have we been brainwashed, or taught? Are we cajoled, or informed? Are we being pushed, or led? Advertising is much, much more than something which interrupts reruns of ‘Seinfeld.’ It has redefined who we, as humans, understand ourselves to be and, because that image in recent decades has been a false one, it was inevitable that we would run into a brick wall.

GM’s bankruptcy is one of those brick walls. There have been others, of course. And there must be more.

Speaking of heroes, how about that pizza delivery guy?..

As something of a follow-up to the comments below, I note what may be the most..interesting..designation of “hero” to have been made- so far- this year. I don’t remember the particulars- where, who, and specifically when- nor will I spend even 30 seconds retrieving that info; it is irrelevant! If you had the TV on during the last few days, you’ve probably heard the story anyway and I do you no service by re-heaping the details onto your already creaking-with-overload memory.

A pizza was delivered to a home way outside of town, in some state, near some medium-sized town. While inside, the deliveryman saw a woman with her hands tied who was mouthing the words “Call 911.” Now, I’m not going to quibble about the likelihood of understanding someone’s mimed plea to call 911; try it, you’ll see the words are not easily seen. And, it would seem to me that the tied up hands and wrists would probably be a sign, adequate unto itself, that something was amiss.

All of this non-verbal information was being passed, by the way, while the client had his back turned to the deliveryman and his victim, WHILE HE WAS SIGNING THE CREDIT CARD SLIP for the pizza! One must ask, if you’re going to be a kidnapper, and if you’re going to feed the victim, wouldn’t it be a good idea to meet the delivery guy outside the house, with cash? That’s not relevant, really, except that it goes to show why the status of “hero” is deserved even less than it may have been deemed to be deserved at first glance. Stick around, it gets even less deserving.

The pizza guy left the house, got in his car, and called 911. That’s no big deal; if you’ve done it, you know what I mean. I’ve called 911 twice; the first time was the day after 9-11-01, 9-12-01, if I must spell it out. It was evening and I was sitting in the backyard. I was home alone when a transformer on the telephone pole behind my house exploded. Being 9-12-01, it crossed my mind- I’ll admit- that the 9100 block of Clemson Drive in Garland, Texas was under attack. The second time I called was when I was trying to help a man stand up who was trying to faint. He wanted to sit down, but we were outside and all I could aim him toward was a riding lawn mower. He had a bowel movement before he was seated and while I was trying to tell the operator the address. As difficult as the circumstances were in both cases, the dialing of the numbers, the placing of the call, was easy.

The pizza guy had none of those extenuating circumstances. He simply called 911. And then he waited for the police to arrive so he could provide- his words- “back-up” ! What, one must ask, might the back-up have been which he could have provided? Good intentions aside- and I’m sure they were good- but what could he have done? What might have been needed to be done? Face it, I say..the guy hung around- as I would, as you would- to see what was going to happen. In fact, the police would have had to forcibly remove me from the scene for me to have left such a scene of interesting potential!   (When I was in college, I delivered pizza for a year; not much that is exciting happens while delivering pizza. An event like this would have been regarded by most of us drivers at the time as a gift from an almighty and loving God.)

The woman was rescued- hallelujah!- from the cashless kidnapper. He will probably be able to kick himself in prison for quite a few years for not stopping at an ATM machine on the way home from  his criminal activity. Adding further insult to injury, I’m guessing  his story will take on mythical dimensions of stupidity and ineptitude after a few years of being embellished by  various cell mates. I refuse to imagine anything else that may befall him beyond this point.

But I continue to wonder about the pizza delivery guy, as I wonder about all persons like him who seem to hang around long enough to talk to a news reporter. What would he have said to enquiring minds who need to know? “Well, I held the phone firmly with my left hand, and dialed with the second finger of my right hand because I had previously injured my first finger- the one I would normally dial with.” I’m not- no way, no how- demeaning what this guy did; I’m just saying, who wouldn’t have done the same thing? A person is in trouble- it’s easy to make a contribution toward the solution; do it.

Hero? Again, the guy who falls on a grenade is a hero. The woman who runs into a burning house to save children or pets is a hero. The employee who blows the whistle on a criminal employer, and risks their job to do so, is a hero. Calling 911 is not heroic. It is practical. It is the proper thing to do.

OK. I’m not only sliding this soapbox back out of the way, I’m taking an ax to it. You might want to hang around in case the ax head flies off. You can call 911, and tell whoever asks, about what might have happened. Shoot, some would say you’re already a hero since you’re willing to take on such a job. In fact, you ARE a hero! You are!

You are. Really. You and the pizza guy.

Hero- overused word of the hour..


“…be thankful for new young heroes.”

Those are the final words of an article by Gil LeBreton, in the sports section of today’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram, regarding last Saturday’s collapse of a large fabric and metal practice facility. The article is his contribution to the new pastime of American media-types: find the hero! LeBreton continues,
“These weren’t firemen or policemen. These were players who, within seconds after the collapse, were courageously kicking in a window to free a team scout, lifting heavy steel supports to free a sports writer or ripping apart vinyl with their bare hands to free others.”

My God- can you believe it- “Shredding vinyl with their bare hands” ? And, “courageously kicking in a window” ? These are young football players who have turned around and gone back into a vinyl and metal building that has fallen down. It was not a burning building, and it was not about to explode. There were no known or suspected I.E.D.s anywhere near the facility. There were people yelling for assistance, who had been trapped by the metal beams, one of whom- Rich Behm- was permanently paralyzed.
Is it wrong for me to think that these men who went back to help others are not heroes? What they did was not in the least dangerous to themselves- the players were, in fact, still wearing their pads. They helped lift metal that they were very capable of lifting. They tore vinyl to get at people caught underneath it. They responded as humans for a million years have responded to other friendly humans in trouble, and with very little possible risk to themselves in this case. They were good guys, as almost anyone in their positions at the time would be.

I find the rush to call anyone heroic who does something well, rather silly and very diluting of those few very real heroic efforts which do happen from to time. I personally don’t even call Sully Sullenberger a hero for doing what he did very very well when he landed his aircraft on the Hudson River. A fine, and very cool, and extremely competent pilot? Yes! Give the man a raise, a fine cigar, and a book deal! But he did what he was supposed to do: he landed the plane. He’d trained for such an emergency, hoped he’d never have to use that training, but did use it very well when called upon to do so.
A heroic effort is that which involves entering a conflict when not doing so would be advisable and understandable, in order to ease the burden or danger of another person (or other living being). Heroic efforts do not include-ever- a sports person working to win a game. We have seen some ballplayers recently who forfeited games by doing altruistic things for the other team. That’s heroism. Cutting left, then right, then lowering one’s head as the touchdown is run toward- is not. They do not include little children calling 9-1-1 because their mommy’s unconscious. A terrific kid, well-trained, smart, cute, savvy, etc..absolultely! But there was not a choice involved; he/she did the only they could do.

Heroes (and heroines- it’s a word I’m not using here because it is awkward to do so; understand, though, that there is no gender implied within ‘heroism.’) are not people who offer help at no risk to themselves just because there are people who are paid and the way to do so (EMTs and police or fireman). There is nothing heroic about a 275 offensive tackle in pads helping lift a metal bar off someone who is trapped by that bar. He’d be an absolute ass if he didn’t help!

The absurb overuse of hero designation is a phenomenon of the media, primarily. I do not hear, in normal conversation, the word ever being used. I think there is an intrinsic understanding among most people that there is a hallowedness implicit in the word and that the use of the word hero should be spare. But that is not true of the news-spitters on Channels 4,5,6,7, or 11. Watch them tonight and you WILL see one or more of them succumb to the apparently always-audible sirens’ song of invitation to sing of the great Ulysses’ glorious deeds. The fireman climbing the tree for a cat, the 7’3″ mega-rich forward going in for a layup, and the clerk who ran out of the store and up the street to return a forgotten purse to a customer: sorry, but I’ve seen the pictures of firemen heading up stair cases that are about to come tumbling down. You have, too. And they are my benchmark now for defining heroism.

That may be an impossible high standard, but so be it. Those firemen (and other genuine and real heroes) do not deserve to have the memory of what they did sullied by a local newsman’s desire to inspire and be memorable to his viewing audience. Nor do we deserve to have our own standards lessened.