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For some people the simple act of driving home from work carries the weight that they may be pulled over for suspicion on no grounds other than who they are. Some parents live in persistant fear that their children may be harmed by the very officers who are empowered to protect them. For some people even open cooperation with power is met with cruel violence.

Ancient Athens was An original experiment in rule by the people (albeit flawed by its omissions) [1]. The three principles of Athenian democracy being: equal right to speak, equality under the law, and equality of vote. In the wake of a ruinous war the Athenian democracy was replaced with an authoritarian government later known as “The Thirty Tyrants.” There are always people in any community who are eager to inflict authoritarian control. The first order of business for the Tyrants was systematically reversing the democratic principles of law that were carved into a wall in city center, the Agora. The Tyrants turned the army against their own people leading to arrest, seizure of property, and executions without trial.

One of the methods of the Tyrants was turning the Athenian people against one another. They summoned certain citizens with the order of carrying out the arrest others. This policy was designed to undermine any unity of populace and integrity of individuals. Twentieth-Century East Germany made a total culture of betrayal by recruiting hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens to spy their families and friends.

Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.) was called before the Tyrants and ordered to arrest a fellow Athenian. At his own trial (which ended in the death penalty) he recalls;

When the oligarchy came into power, the Thirty Commissioners in their turn summoned me and four others to the Round Chamber and instructed us to go and fetch Leon of Salamis from his home for execution. This was of course only one of many instances in which they issued such instructions, their object being to implicate as many people as possible in their crimes. On this occasion, however, I again made it clear, not by my words but by my actions, that the attention I paid to death was zero (if that is not too unrefined a claim); but that I gave all my attention to avoiding doing anything unjust or unholy. Powerful as it was, that government did not terrify me into doing a wrong action. When we came out of the rotunda, the other four went to Salamis and arrested Leon, but I simply went home.” (Apology, 32 c-d).

Socrates refused to participant in perpetuating an unjust government. He accepted that his civil disobedience might lead to punishment for him. Later, after the Thirty Tyrants were overthrown, Socrates was brought to trial for “impiety and corrupting the youth.” Basically the charges amount to his showing people how they may think for themselves rather than be controlled by power, reputation, and appearance. His doing so, of course, offended people in power.

There are many tyrants in our lives; the bully on the schoolyard, the internet troll, the angry talk show host, the cruel parent, the insensitive boss, the impersonal bureaucracy, the politician who sees the increase of their own power as the only good. Yet the most dominating of tyrants is the fear in our own hearts. It is the fear that we too may suffer and that we might be criticized or mistaken. This inner fear causes us to shrink back while others among us are oppressed. It is this moral paralysis that Socrates addresses in his recounting his appearance before Thirty Tyrants. They gave him an unjust order under threat of death. But Socrates did not fear death, so he did not fear them. He could not be manipulated by the great weapon of all tyrants – fear.

Look into your own heart. Do you find fear? Do you want to act on the side of justice but find no clear way to do so? Another ancient philosopher, Siddhartha Gautama of 4th century B.C.E. India, was asked by a student; “But what can I do in the face of such great suffering and injustice in the world?” The philosopher answered;

When you see great injustice and suffering in the world, take it as a sign to you to increase your loving-kindness for the people you see everyday.

There are people now who frame peace as antithetical to justice and kindness as an obstacle to equality. Beware, this is a long worn formula for self-righteousness. From that vantage justice serves as justification, usually of violence. They will also speak of the absence of options in the situation, such as; “We have no choice except to…” (fill in the blank with whatever the righteous one truly desires).

We always have options. There is always something that we can do to choose justice, compassion, and truth. Fear is an innate rejection of change. Yet all is change, so all that we really have to lose is our fear.

In good spirit,

Jon

Notes
[1] Athenian democracy was limited to adult male citizens. Women, slaves, foreigners, and children were excluded from participation in the political process. 21st century democracies still have room to improve upon that ancient example.

Images
photo-1558258932-d435783a2626.jpg, luliia Isakova, @asredaspossible, Unspash, https://unsplash.com/photos/gY6y01Me55s

photo-1587951326187-c9baa4606bff.jpg, Tyler Scheviak, @tylerscheviak, Unspash, https://unsplash.com/photos/-Edg-zf49O4

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One way to characterize philosophy is as the art of questioning. New questions and new types of question open previously unexplored possibilities. The assumptions of an entire culture or generation can be altered by the posing of new questions.
Questions are often not welcome. One way to deal with questions is by force of authority:

*Many times I have witnessed young children asking questions which the attendant adults dismiss as irrelevant, silly, or worse.

*History shows many situations in which asking certain questions is dangerous to the individual. For instance, authoritarian religious leaderships have often equated questions with doubt and then unbelief. In cases such as The Inquisition, questioning is dealt with by severe force.

*Sometimes when people ask questions of their governments the reactions are strong. In some cases, when the questions probed too deeply or challenged to much, they are not acknowledged at all but rebuffed with accusations; such as “You are anti-Soviet, anti-Turkish, anti-American, enemy of the people, etc.”

*In interpersonal situations, among friends and family, unwelcome questions (i.e. those which challenge the status quo) may be met with anger, ridicule, or denial.

*Questioning ourselves to ourselves can be very difficult. Some thinkers have aptly described mechanisms of the human mind that resist change and challenge. It is not hard to test this on yourself by trying to seriously question your most basic and cherished beliefs in a sustained way. The defenses go up pretty fast – and they really are convincing when we are the ones putting them up. Here is one simple way to detect a defensive shield against some area of questioning in yourself: study some topics that are quite different from your usual interests or invest effort into understanding views that are opposite to your own. If you find yourself reacting with strong and involuntary emotion, especially with immediate and intense judgement of the topic as “pointless,” “boring,” “ridiculous” etc. – chances are you have identified a personal defense system that protects you against new, thought and potential change. Self-knowledge of this sort is very valuable.

*Even in education we can find questions to be unwelcome. In 3rd grade I recall being in a class in what was then called “New Math.” The teacher showed us the various symbols of operations including =, >, <. One symbol was called “less than or equal to.” I asked; “Since there is already an equal sign and a less than sign, what is the use of the ‘less than or equal to’ sign?” The teacher was angered by this and told me; “Stop asking stupid questions and just learn the lesson!” Instead, I responded by refusing to learn any more lessons from her ever again. At that moment I closed my mind to math altogether. Have paid the price for that defensive reaction my whole life with sub-par math skills.

I realize now that the teacher really did not understand my question. I meant it honestly. I suppose she thought I was smarting off (I was also known for asking unwelcome questions in catechism [i.e. religious doctrine] class). Even as I look back on this experience, I think that my question made sense. After all, a quantity can be less than another or equal to it, but not both. I know now that there was a mistaken assumption in my question, but that did not make it a poor question (much less a stupid one).

The problem was that I was not asking a question that fell within the domain of assumptions. If I had asked a question that accepted and made use of the symbols, how to work within the system, the teacher would have likely been glad to sho

w me what to do. My question, however, was about the givens. It challenged the reasoning for the system itself. If you want to get yelled at, shunned, ridiculed, fired, failed, etc., an excellent approach is to ask serious, intelligent questions about the assumptions of the given system.

When we ask questions such as “What is truth?”“What is reality?”“What is Good?” – or “What is reason?” we are asking to open the system itself to examination. deep-thought-1296377_960_720They are calling our most basic givens into question. It is natural that some people will receive such questions as ridiculous, irrelevant, and a waste of time. Some folks are inclined to say; “Stop asking stupid questions and just get on with it!” To be fair, perhaps those folks have a point worth considering. Maybe some things are not meant to be questioned. Maybe it is impossible (nonsensical) to pose some sorts of questions. But see? Even by opening this possibility I am doing it again! I am inclined to take their thought seriously even if they dismiss mine as worthless.

What is your own experience with questions? What are your most important questions? How have those questions been received by others throughout your life? Do you have an idea about how questioning will influence your future? What is the single most important question that you may ask yourself.

It seems to me that a question is a form of openness. By asking a genuine, serious question, one presents oneself as incomplete and uncertain. There is a vulnerability in the sincere question and an assumption that the universe remains open-ended in some respects.

I think that the idea of an open-ended universe populated by incomplete minds comes into conflict with some other ways of addressing reality. One common view (or my interpretation of that view) assumes that most of the important questions have already been answered and all that remains is filling out the details. Asking questions such as; “What am I?” and “Does my life have purpose?” and “What is death?” are impertinent and silly from that perspective.

I believe that how we respond to such questions shows much about our assumptions concerning the structure of experience, the relationship of the individual and authority, and the limits of human possibility.

My plea is this: when you encounter a question that evokes intense reaction such that you are inclined to dismiss the value of the question entirely, consider the possibility that your interpretation of the question and associated ideas is incomplete. Maybe it is not, but this is always a hypothesis worth testing.


Assignment – Pose and ponder these two questions several times in the next year:

What is the single most important question that I may ask myself.

What question about myself do I least want to ask?

 

Sources

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Arabic_Question_mark_(RTL).svg

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https://pixabay.com/en/deep-thought-mind-question-1296377/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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CC Search
https://www.google.com/search?site=imghp&tbm=isch&q=fly&tbs=sur:fmc#imgrc=CIN3LOAQzl1Q4M:

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CC Search
https://www.google.com/search?site=imghp&tbm=isch&q=dead%20fly&tbs=sur:fmc#imgdii=DNvEtB8JNqrgzM:&imgrc=jPoxNHWDTTGEfM:

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.

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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

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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.

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