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172352729A vital factor in who we are as individuals is how we conceive of death.

This is because how we conceive of death conditions how we value life.

Few of us value all lives equally, even when it comes to human beings.

Nor do many of us think of our own deaths in the same terms as we do for others.

Some folks may have a degree of clarity in these variations, but I suspect that for most of us the deep questions about life and death are a confused tangle.

Plenty of the day-to-day disquiet of our minds arises from this confusion.

Our mortal struggle is explored by Stephen Caves, a philosopher at the University of Cambridge, in his essay Not Nothing.

“When I squidged it, I summoned the Reaper to my desk. If only briefly, I caught his eye.”

Caves sets out the dilemmas of life/death values starkly then seeks a balance point between them.

The degree to which he succeeds at this depends upon the insight gained by an attentive reader, such as yourself.

I suggest that you read this article and come back to it on successive opportunities for at least three readings.

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Take your understanding of Cave’s analysis into conversation with people in your life.

They may embrace the topic outright, recoil at the mention of death, or dismiss the entire issue as meaningless.

In any of those cases, and the points in between them, you will at least gain a perspective on the various ways that people think about dying and accord value to the living.

 

Image Acknowlegements

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jose_fallenWhatever I anticipated on Friday morning it was not to witness the last breath of a young man.

I walk to work whatever the weather and this morning the rosy fingertips of dawn hinted at a sunny Spring day.

I had an early meeting so stopped at the corner café to organize my notes over espresso.

After coffee I set off to campus. A block away I saw something on the walkway my side of the railroad tracks.

The object looked like a sleeping bag, though as I approached it moved and I knew there was a person there, perhaps asleep.

There was a person there, but he was not asleep. He was unconscious. He had fallen face down, his left shoe at a right angle a few feet behind.

His arms were tucked under as if he grasped something to his chest as he fell.

Blood seeped from his forehead and saliva pooled at his lips.

There were no others around and I said to him; “Are you awake? Can you hear me?” No response so I called the responders at 911.

The dispatcher asked the right questions in the right order and instructed me not to move him.

One of the questions was; “How far did he fall?”

As I think back, my answer was strange; “To the pavement.”

I was not being glib. I was speaking from an image in my mind of a human body falling from upright to fully prone without catching itself. My image was of the impact such a fall onto cement must incur. That is, I suppose, what happened.

While answering the 911 dispatcher’s queries a man passed walking along the tracks. He was shouting something. I looked up to catch it. Waving his arms the man said; “He’s a drunk!”

Ignoring the irrelevant I asked the dispatcher to repeat his question. I do not recall what it was or how I answered.

While waiting for the paramedics an elderly woman approached walking her small elderly dog. She asked if the man on the ground was awake as the little dog sniffed at him. They moved on.

There was a moment of stillness – quiet and lonely. The sun was not yet high and we were in the shadow of buildings, he on the ground, me standing near.

He lay motionless but for a deep exhalation that came from his mouth bubbling the saliva which mixed slightly with the blood.

I did not see him inhale and felt this may be the last of his breath

Ancient texts from Egypt, India, China, and Israel speak of the life-force as a form of breath. The Greeks called it Pneuma.

As Jose’s life leaked out onto the pavement I said aloud; “You are not alone.” That was all.

In a moment the stillness broke with a siren wail and police were there.

They knew him as “Jose” and tried to awaken him. One checked for a pulse at his jose_response_pastelthroat. They turned him over, opened his shirt and began CPR.

A fire truck arrived with paramedics who broke out equipment and became busy.

A police officer had questions for me and I turned away from their efforts to bring Jose back to the living. He was not coming back.

The officers were respectful of Jose and tried to save him. They were kind to me.

The remainder of my day was not so eventful though I remained slightly disengaged.

My words were in a measure unclear to others and by the end of the day I felt as though I were speaking through a veil.

I walked home late by the same route and found flowers in a cardboard box where Jose had fallen.

jose_momento_pastelLater I learned that Jose was known to his friends as Francisco.

In my evening meditation I contemplated the death of a young man, just 34 years.

The Gazette Times had an article about the incident in which Jose is identified and I am designated a passer-by.

In truth, I am but a witness to the passing by of Francisco “Jose” Semadeni.

 

He did not die alone.

Yama_tibet_cropped_sharp

Yama – God of Death and Dharma

Among those who contemplate death, few are as thorough in detail and depth as are Buddhists.

A traditional Tibetan book, Bardo Thodol, is often referred to in English as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, though a more accurate translation is The Great Liberation through Hearing.  A modern classic of Tibetan Buddhism is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.

Two contemporary Tibetan Buddhists, Patty Winter and Gregg Ruskusky, share their understanding via workshops – one of which is coming to Portland OR this April 28-30.

This extended session addresses care-giving for the dying and grieving with a overall objective of opening insight to our personal mortality and self-care.

I have registered and am looking forward to learning! Maybe I’ll see you there.

The workshop is sponsored by Maitripa College, the single degree offering Tibetan Buddhist College in the US.

Our Common Ground: Death and Dying
Patty Winter, RN, and Gregg Ruskusky
April 28-30, 2017
Friday, 7-9 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10am – 12:30pm and 2-5pm

Information and Registration
https://maitripa.org/event/death-dying-workshop-2017/


Conversations on topics such as in this post are common at Death Café Corvallis, in which you are welcome to participate.

Image Acknowledgement

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yama

starkAs family matters go, death is surely a big one.  How families respond to the deaths of loved ones is likely a primary determinant of a culture’s treatment of mortality.  Death is not a common social topic in the U.S. and I have sometimes thought that stemmed from a form of denial.  On the other hand, perhaps it is a function of propriety in which as a family matter, death is left to the family.  Still, it is my experience that death is not a common topic within families until someone within dies.

The W.H. Stark House in Orange, Texas is a museum that took an interesting approach to the typical silence on death with an exhibition specifically about the aspects of death in a family over a decade.  At issue is the Stark family who lived in the mansion that has since become a museum.  The exhibit – A Death in the Family – explores the private lives of the Starks in the context of loss and mourning.

Stephanie Fulbright reviewed the exhibit noting;

“By grounding the conversation in someone else’s story” the exhibit “opened the door to the conversation about death and mourning and offered people an avenue to think and talk about mourning and loss in their own context.”

Effectively representing personal experience with death in a publicly accessible way is an accomplishment that will hopefully be continued in other venues.

 

Image Acknowledgement

stark.jpg
https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g56398-d3178967-Reviews-W_H_Stark_House-Orange_Texas.html

 

Tdad@92his first spring day my father turned 92.  He was in the hospital for a fall, but without much damage, so he bounced back fast.

His room provides a terrific view of the harbor and snow capped Mount Baker of the North Cascades.

The hospital staff conveyed one key point – Dad has a great sense of humor.  Everyone who knows him will concur.  Whether I live past 60 or 100 I know that the soul of wit and levity is too dear to be lost.  Forsaking humor for the sake of discomfort or fear is to lose all.

My father taught me patience of a particular sort born of persistent focus such as time may not weaken.  Humor sharpens focus and disassembles diversion, hence reinforcing patience.

I visit my folks every month and am looking forward to Dad’s 93rd day of birth when we may share a laugh in the new spring morning.

 

bed and light, kalama community conservancy, northern kenya-fromImagery often carries meaning beyond words.  Documentary photographer David Chancellor’s recent exhibit, ‘Handle Like Eggs,’ continues his investigation into life, death, loss, and other forces that bind humans together.

Chancellor’s exhibit presents photographs taken in Southern Africa.  All are evocative, some perhaps disturbing.

Chancellor makes use of color and mass to shape the sense of his compositions.  The images are packed with potential emotion, though the subjects in them rarely express the feelings overtly.

Photography has possibly changed our concepts of death more than any technology. Let us know whether Chancellor’s discerning eye impacts your own.

death_pill_grayscaleThe Massachusetts State motto contains the phrase “peace only under liberty.”  The liberty to seek final peace is being sought in court by Roger Klinger, a Massachusetts physician with prostate cancer.  The cancer has not responded to treatment and is diagnosed as terminal.  Klinger wants the option to deal with that terminal condition on his own terms, by taking a fatal dose of medications prescribed for that purpose.  Massachusetts law prohibits its citizens from ending their own lives.

Five US states have laws allowing physician assisted suicide; Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana, and California.  The first such US law was Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act which allows terminally-ill people to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose.  Oregonians enacted that law in 1997 though initiative petition.  Twenty years later the Oregon experience provides a model for the nation as other states deliberate similar liberties.  The Oregon Department of Public Health publishes an annual report on the Act. The reports are very instructive.  For instance, since 1988 1,127 Oregonians have ended their lives using the law.  The majority of those chose to die at home.  Only 64% who are prescribed lethal drugs under the law actually use them.

The political and moral issues of physician assisted suicide are complex.  The Oregon experience with the law and its practice stands as a guide for the nation.  But after all, Oregon’s state motto is “Fly on one’s own wings.”

Klinger focused his proclivity to helping people by becoming a facilitator for a Cape Cod Death Cafe. That event and those like it around the globe provide opportunities to discuss issues related to mortality.  Death Café Corvallis is such a venue now in it’s third year.

Peace and best fortune to Dr. Klinger and all people facing terminal illness.



Conversations on topics such as in this post are common at Death Café Corvallis. You are welcome to participate. Information at Death Cafe Corvallis.

22816When Paul Moon’s Grandfather died, he had already seen several dead people. Paul’s father was a Funereal Director and as with many sons, he became familiar with his father’s work.

Moon’s reflections in his New York Times article, A Father’s Livelihood Imparts Lessons on Death, are meaningful to those of us to think and talk about mortality.

Being a child with funerals as the family business have impacted his mind in a broader scope;

“I gained an understanding of death that has shifted my outlook on life.”

Most of us experience death primarily when it happens close to home; when a friend or relative dies. It is instructive to contrast that perspective with another view that comes from contact with death people in less personal conditions. Moon’s experiences lead him to an observation that is significant to us all;

“Death shouldn’t be swept under the rug. It’s the most certain thing to happen in our lives.”

This thought is consistent with the modus operandi of Death Café Corvallis at which individuals meet weekly to converse about topics related to death. By facing the reality of death in thought and talk, we are addressing truths that are typically veiled in fear and avoidance.


Conversations on topics such as in this post are common at Death Café Corvallis. You are welcome to participate. Information at Death Cafe Corvallis.

catrin_o_ferainSome philosophers have argued that being conscious of death is a path towards living authentically with personal integrity and self-determination.

In Being and Time Martin Heidegger writes’ “Death reveals itself as that possibility which is one’s ownmost, which is non-relational, and which is not to be outstripped.” In other words, my death is personal, individual, and inevitable. Fear of death stems from rejection of these facts. Recognition of these facts is part of taking total responsibility for one’s own being – authenticity.

Elizabeth Seto (Psychology,Texas A&M) and colleagues set out to test this philosophical position empirically. They found a correlation between the vividness of thoughts about death (e.g., memories) and attitudes related to personal authenticity.

Their paper is insightful for anyone, particularly the Introduction and Discussion sections.

Study finds link between vivid thoughts of death and authenticity
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11031-016-9556-8

An interview with Seto at PsyPost is also a valuable read.

The association between vivid thoughts of death and authenticity
http://www.psypost.org/2017/02/study-finds-link-vivid-thoughts-death-authenticity-47692

The drift of this philosophical/psychological issue is: if you want to get real in life, get clear about death.

Image Acknowledgments

Catrin_o_Ferain.jpg
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yorick#/media/File:Catrin_o_Ferain.jpg

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Conversations on topics such as in this post are common at Death Cafe Corvallis. You are welcome to participate. Information at Death Cafe Corvallis.

5449002019_c15cd9cc3a_b_editI have awoken to an America that I do not recognize.

The 2016 election shows that what I thought I knew about national politics is wrong and I feel humbled.

Nearly all of the expert analyses of the election turned out flawed including my own amateur efforts.

What is frustrating about the failure of professional and academic analyses of this election is that the methods used to project outcomes are the same methods used to explain the outcomes.

That makes it hard to trust any analysis as to why Trump and the GOP succeeded against expectations; it also makes it hard to trust analyses of what Trump is doing and where our country is going.

A source of error in the projections was that the pollsters and the media did not accurately represent the portion of the electorate who made the difference and that turns out to be half of the voters.

That omission is important to reflect upon because the nearly 60 million people who elected Donald Trump are misread by those of us who were caught unawares on election night.

Trump supporter and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel provides a clue about that misreading;

“I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media always is taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally. I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously, but not literally.” [1]

Thiel’s distinction makes all the difference in how we interpret one another across the political divide.

For instance, I suspect that many on the left suppose that Trump cannot practically deliver on promises that he made in the campaign and conclude that this inconsistency will disillusion his supporters and weaken his base.

That conclusion follows only if Trump supporters interpret his Duck-Rabbit_illusionpromises literally and I have come to believe that Trump voters construct his meaning not all literally, but symbolically.

If there are multiple ways to make alternate meanings out of the same words, we must strive to comprehend all of those meanings together.

Unless the people on the opposite sides of the political divide become visible and clear to one another the prospects for national unity will continue to dim.

In the political struggle that fractures America, most of us are boxing with shadows.

I do have one data point to rely on in my account of this election because in August I attended a Trump rally in Everett, WA.

I wanted to find out personally what attraction this unconventional candidate held for his followers.

I want to tell my progressive colleagues and readers that Tump supporters are not bad people; not deplorable.

I talked with a dozen rally attendees and observed hundreds and for the most part, I liked them as individuals.

The rally was thousands large and had a festive atmosphere with families, kids dancing and no physical violence that I witnessed.

The campaign rhetoric was jarring to my ear and I had difficulty referencing what people told me.

They all said that the economy is failing, the military is in decline, billionaires are incorruptible and that America’s core values have been undermined.

None of it looks that way to me, but I did not argue, I listened and listening may be the most important part of dialog.

In academia and on the left of center we have not been listening to half of the electorate and we paid the price for that insensibility on election night.

candle-335965_960_720Perceiving the need to listen to people whose ideas we reject lights a path to a way forward for those of us who value dialog and the exchange of ideas as a means of growth.

The opportunity is to step up to the challenge of creating conversations between people who are not hearing and seeing one another.

This conversation is possible because we all have so much in common.

This conversation is hard because we generally disbelieve what the other side sees as true.

This conversation is necessary because finding our common ground is the one hope that we have to transcend our growing national chasm of ideologies.

To Trump supporters reading this I want to say that those of us who emphasize justice, equity and individual rights are not bad or deplorable either.

We are operating with caricatures of one another, you and I, and it is to our mutual interest to understand how those false images come about and to what purpose.

You know as well as I that election victories are temporary and the political pendulum will swing back in time, so what matters to the good of our nation is how we manage the change together.

I genuinely want to understand what you think and what you trust and what kind of world you aspire to.

flag-american-heart_editWhen enough of us recognize the reflections of ourselves in the human beings on the other side, the bridge building will begin.

I pledge to work towards producing opportunities for political reconciliation and human communication across our community.

I hope that you, dear reader, will join that effort in your own way to make America work together again.

 

Sources
[1] Roller, E. Peter Thiel Wants You to Take Trump Seriously, but Not Too Seriously. November 1, 2016.
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/01/opinion/campaign-stops/peter-thiel-wants-you-to-take-trump-seriously-but-not-too-seriously.html

Image Acknowledgements

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https://c2.staticflickr.com/6/5298/5449002019_c15cd9cc3a_b.jpg

Duck-Rabbit_illusion.jpg
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/45/Duck-Rabbit_illusion.jpg

candle-335965_960_720.jpg
https://cdn.pixabay.com/photo/2014/05/02/12/41/candle-335965_960_720.jpg

flag-american-heart.jpg
http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=85942&picture=flag-american-heart

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