Over the past few days and weeks, end-of-life issues have surrounded me. A wonderful blogger friend of mine is having problems; on my wife’s side of the family, several of her relatives are gravely ill and not expected to live very long; a former colleague of mine took his own life just a few days ago.
Although I never got along well with him, I can’t stop thinking about his suicide. He was a deeply religious person who continually spoke about following the tenets of the Torah. For a person who tried scrupulously to follow the rules (he thought) set by God I can’t understand how he could do such a thing. What could trump a deeply religious person’s beliefs and daily devotion to what he believed to be the will of God and cause him to commit such an act forbidden by Jewish law? There are a couple of possibilities: 1) he wasn’t really sincere about his beliefs in the first place – which is not for me to say; 2) something stronger than his religious beliefs drove him to act in the way he did.
Being someone who leans toward biological determinism, one answer to this question is somehow, his state of mind – as determined by thought patterns, chemical balance and involvement of the emotional circuits in his brain, made life unbearable for him and caused him to abandon what was the most important thing – his devotion to living by the Jewish law. This is such a shame.
Thinking about mortality
One of my favorite quotes is, I believe, from Woody Allen: “I don’t mind dying I just don’t want to be there at the time.” That sums it up for me. The concept of not existing is interesting to contemplate, but experiencing the transition from life to no life is daunting and frightening. I remember being a child wondering how people could live from day to day with the full knowledge that they would eventually die. No matter what one does in life, I thought, in the end it is death and nothingness. It was very difficult to put that question out of my mind. I wasn’t that happy a child.
Thoughts while dying
I wonder what a person who is dying thinks, if one indeed does think during the process of dying. How could one even articulate one’s state of mind in that condition?
Dying by fading away gradually is different than being in pain while dying. The saying, “I was so sick, I was afraid I wasn’t going to die,” is one of those folk sayings that address the aspect of suffering. The idea is that dying, as frightening as it may be, is preferable to unbearable physical pain.
The Kübler-Ross model proposes five emotional stages a person goes through when faced with impending death: 1) denial; 2) anger; 3) bargaining; 4) depression; 5) acceptance.  I wonder how this applies to suicide. I have a feeling that anger and/or depression are the primary factors that cause a people to end their lives.
How does the topic of dying relate to the mission of my blog?
The common denominator between the subjects of dying and autism is the seeming impossibility of communicating states of mind in either case. For instance, I have no way of knowing what my autistic, nonverbal, low-functioning brother is thinking or if he thinks at all; similarly, there is no way to communicate what it is like to die. What happens to the state of a dying person’s mind? Is it pleasant? Is it walking toward the light? Is it an unspeakably horrible panic? There is no way for a living person to know.
I have quite a few after-death accounts on my blog from various types that I have channelled in the past, and there is always a common denominator among all accounts and that is that many of them are not even aware that they are dead, then realisation sets in and they move on to another existence, whatever that may be. Of course one has to entertain the notion of life after death in the first place, which of course I do, with good reason. When I was a child death was one of those issues that deeply bothered me too, that and what lay beyond the apparent ends of the universe. I just couldn’t comprehend that death was so final and that there was nothing beyond. Of course I have since realised that our notions of death are based on human beliefs, and the scientific belief that consciousness is somehow a product of physical life. So if the body dies, consciousness dies right? A fair assumption. But as with all our beliefs they carry limitations often of huge proportions, with there being so much more to understand regardless of how long it takes the world of science to catch up. We are imbued with our own sense of things, the innate knowledge that we all have within us that gives us a sense of whether we are barking up the wrong tree or not in exercising our inquisitive natures. Personally I would prefer to think in less limiting terms because it makes me feel better, which invariably will add more quality to my life. That is the working theory anyway.
Having faced the very real possibility of death myself many times, I have to say I am very resolute about it and actually quite excited to discover what happens next so to speak, my guess is that I won’t even notice. The one thing that has struck me however each time is the deep sadness of leaving my children behind, and not being able to experience them growing up. But I don’t know if that is just a worry of my physical self or not. I would imagine it is.
I am very sorry to hear of the loss of your colleague, and of the health problems within your family. I’m thinking of you Jack, and I’m still here. Interesting post.
Warmest regards, your friend
I’ve been thinking all day about these issues. Your comment, like your others, makes me think. There must be something about my makeup that doesn’t allow me to make the leap and just have faith in just about anything. I’m a skeptic, I’m cynical, I’m doubtful. On the other hand – (I think its on the other hand), I am intrigued by those who are able to meditate and have control of their brain states. I would truly love to be able to do that. I’m so not disciplined at this point to try.
I believe that some scientists have the idea that consciousness doesn’t need a brain. I haven’t read enough about it to be skeptical or cynical yet…
I’m about to sit down to write my post for the day. I want to expand on these issues, but it is really a draft of a more full treatment I wish to write some day.
Thanks again for your thought provoking insights,
Warmest regards, your friend,
Hi Jack, I’ve been thinking a lot about your reply and how you view yourself. To be honest I am just as much of a skeptic as you. I don’t believe in having blind faith in anything, probably explains why the concept of religion or God never appealed to me and still doesn’t. I don’t like not being able to substantiate what I believe in. I’ve grown up in the same scientifically skeptical world as many others, so my approach to life has always been one of questioning, analysis, and testing my hypotheses over and over until I was convinced without a shadow of a doubt that my findings were workable models. So the beliefs I have now are based on years of rigorous testing, cross verification, comparing my own experiences with many others from many different sources. That my findings are not considered standard in the view of mainstream skepticism, does not mean that they are not testable or valid. What I’m saying is that my confidence in what I believe comes from countless instances where I have been able to corroborate my findings with ‘real world’ evidence. Not in every instance, but because I know the model works then I trust that if I were to look for evidence I would find it. I still have doubt, but I think that’s a good thing because it keeps me alert and able to keep asking pertinent questions about my beliefs and the nature of my reality and the world around me.
There is also much to be said about each of having a very unique neurological make-up, so that in effect we are all wired differently and thus predisposed in certain ways to experience things in ways that no-one else can. Although I don’t believe that it is necessarily a fixed state, as proven by the many years of research and practise that has gone into fields such as NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) which is all about reprogramming neural pathways in order to change mental and physical states. It is extremely effective. In fact whenever we learn something new, new neural pathways are created in our brains, so we undergo physiological changes. Much like learning to play a piano, or driving a car for example, with enough practice muscle memory kicks so that it becomes a seemingly effortless task.
If you think in a certain way for long enough then anything that does not fit your neural mapping will seem strange and difficult to comprehend, but it isn’t beyond being stretched and re-mapped if so desired.
Warmest regards my dear friend,
I am trying to put into words some of the thoughts that your comment provoked in me. First of all, I think I am a curious mix of skepticism and intransigence. Perhaps it is living in this stupid country of mine, where the so-called ‘reasonable’ people make it so damned hard for everyone else. For example, the idea that government isn’t necessary and everyone should be able to fend for himself, is just wrongheaded and I try not to give an inch to those arguments, perhaps to the point of being closed minded. There are so many ulterior motive among the politicians here, inextricably linked to the money pouring in from the corporations that our illustrious supreme court deemed to have the same rights as persons. Sometimes being reasonable doesn’t buy much here…
But I digress… I agree that one constructs a model of life that works, and adjusts when it doesn’t. The model a child constructs is torn down in the process of growing up, and – hopefully, relatively seamlessly – replaced with one that works from the perspective of an older, wiser person. Conflicts arise when one is told what one should be thinking, or told how to characterize the empirical evidence one is presented with. The stronger person, as you have done, puts more faith in the evidence and less on a pre-digested version.
Somewhat related to this is the idea that, if evidence contrary to the ingrained conventional wisdom is presented, it can be quickly, if not unconsciously dismissed before it is even processed. I guess the term for this is closed-mindedness, but it is more than that I think. It is like a short circuit, where contrary views are not even considered (I should talk, given my admission in the first paragraph, above).
You mentioned rigorous testing, cross comparisons and corroborations of the model you adopted. I wish I could come up with some kind of methodology like that. I have not dismissed out of hand, the existence of things I don’t know about. I do believe there is a realm that may be unknowable to those of us living human beings; modern science supports this – Heisenberg uncertainty leading to quantum physics. The impermeable barrier between the two aspects of the dualist view of mind and brain, where there is the physical brain and the ‘other’ non-physical mental ‘stuff’ is perhaps resolved in some other realm… I don’t know.
I hope some of this makes sense; I’m feeling a bit scattered. I am in awe of your process in modeling your view of life and that you arrived at a comfortable and workable solution.