Death Lessons

Photo by John Katrina

To my friends who are children, I say you are experiencing an unveiling. An unveiling, at a distance, of the harsher realities of existence as a biological being on earth. The mysteries we are at the mercy of … the moral judgements we must make: life, death, freedom, economics, the prices of them, the exasperating limitations and exceptions. The consternation between adolescents, younger, middle and older adults … the politicking … the world shut down, the masks, gloves, sanitizers and the risks of vaccinating or not vaccinating.

To my adolescent and adult friends, I deliver the same message, however, much closer to the unveiling. Some of you have lived through World War II, polio, measles … and civil unrest … and the Vietnam War. And your eyes are familiar with large disaster, so you have some schema for guidance, but not for one of this nature, as insidious, as widespread and impactful.

There is no one answer, as much as we crave it, tempting as it may be to believe so … and as much as many want to believe and preach that there is … it will be to our detriment to select one for comfort. But there are better places to seek refuge and shelter in a lightning storm and there are worse places. These thoughts are aimed at scouting one of the former … to buy us time with the wisdom of the day, in late April 2021, until we design the upgraded version.

The best philosophic technology tool we can use to stay centered, and constructive while being pulled strongly into an increasingly emotional state by world events, is the “zoom back” technique.

It is a mental skill to practice, that you can apply, right now, for some clarity, relief and reconciliation … something to actually do to process the events better, more accurately, more rationally … and keep in problem solving, forward advancing mode, rather than stew in resentment, dejection and other self-destructive mental pathways.

So we will do it together. In philosophic technology, zoom back is the process of mentally imagining zooming back from Earth so you are looking at the globe from space and watching human beings as an outside observer … call yourself an alien if you want. Then zoom back over time as well.

What do we see?

We see the entire world history in which scientist estimate 4 billion species have gone extinct … and approximately 10 million remain with about 1 million actually identified. We see one species, Homo sapiens, come along and hunt and gather to survive for millennia. Then they slowly discover fire, the wheel, agriculture, bronze and iron … then eventually the printing press and antibiotics and electricity and the silicon chip. Along the way there were many deaths – 50% of children made it out of infancy, major civilizations were killed by invaders who formed their own empires that were in turn overtaken by others. Medicine was folklore or superstition and surgery was without anesthesia. People were slaughtered by governments for their religious beliefs.

 In 1346, fleas were transmitting a disease that infected rats carried, called bubonic plague. For 15 years, people tried to quarantine but the fleas and rats were not understood to be the vector of the disease, so 50 million died from western Asia, through the Mediterranean, North Africa and most of Europe. At one point, contributing, if not causing the outbreak in Europe, a descendant of Genghis Khan, Jani Beg, catapulted infected corpses over the city walls of Kaffa in Crimea as biological warfare. Eventually 50% of Europe’s people would die from the disease.

We see the emergence of the Germ Theory of Disease in AD 1000, but it would not receive credence until the mid to late 1800’s. So those scientists arguing that there were invisible microorganisms causing disease were cast off as lunatics, much as Nikola Tesla was cast off as a lunatic for thinking our voices would be carried through the air one day.

We see a harsh world, an improbable chance at life, a high probability of death by disease, and a continuing march of new diseases threatening the increasingly pampered, albeit imbalanced, human existence.

We see smallpox annihilate the Aztecs and many Native Americans because they had no immunity to the disease. So, the concentration of population in Europe and Asia were the remaining advantaged after significant portions of their populations were sacrificed. We see biology in action. Theologians, Philosophers, Scientists and Artists strive to explain life’s suffering … to provide relief, answers and hope. Politicians try to sell answers. And the answers range from sounding insane or childishly delusional, to life ending inaccuracy, to bearing more truth with less comfort.

We see freedom comes at the price of many wars, many sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, and many dollars, all of which could have been saved if we relinquished that freedom. We also see corruption is the rule, and purity the exception. Many powerful still squander the lives and livelihoods of the less powerful. But we have seen an advance from war-based, to slave-based, to economically enslaved economies, and it is progress; but still painful, and inadequate to the aspiration of pure conscience.

And we see how little we understand about disease, the nature of it, the transmission and the prevention and cures. Why are some immune while others die? We don’t know. We mostly don’t know anything. We live in uncertainty, and we are fragile. We tenuously cling to a planet and a climate that happens to support life as no other, and we have yet to find intelligence or a life supporting planet out of the hundreds of trillions in the universe.

We see back in the hunting and fire days, gods invented or perhaps discovered … countless gods and myths, and then religions, as if trying to install the human operating system to reconcile all of what, at times, seems like the pure insanity of the human condition. We see us trying to establish a north pole of wisdom, right and wrong and an answer for everything … how to proceed in times like these. Worse times. Better times. All times.

And we see a government born almost 7,000 years after the ancient Greeks first mentioned “freedom of speech,” with a constitution establishing it as the first right of its people. A right to bear arms and a republic of many mixed ethnicities and religions, further distinguishing it as an advancement in philosophic technology. And a short time later, we see the emergence of an eroding American dream, corruption, and cancerous growth of that government, as all governments have demonstrated, and we see the unrest.

So, we do see these things … and many interpret the government as benevolent saviors of countless lives during this COVID-19 pandemic … and many interpret the government as a violator of constitutional rights.

And there is truth in both, and that is the imperfect beauty of our system even while it needs to be fixed. We are not being slaughtered in the streets by an invading army … we are not being trucked off to be slaughtered in camps … we are not being enslaved physically … but we are being enslaved economically, and quarantined. The economic enslavement had been in force since the great middle class era of 1945-1965 … worsening gradually until healthcare and college prices ballooned to criminal heights in recent decades.

Now, disease. Maybe it would have been a disaster because of the asymptomatic transmission, maybe we would have reached herd immunity and slightly more would have died but fewer would be ruined financially … what if it was 1,000 more dead? 10,000? 100,000? 1,000,000? Where do we place the intersection of diminishing returns when it is someone else’s human quick death by virus versus slow death by poverty?

We come to the unavoidable question of what is a human life worth, don’t we? We do not shut down the world for every flu season. But we should, based on history, exercise extreme caution with new, unknown diseases.

We don’t even really know the origin of this disease, nor life itself … but sometimes we act like omniscient beings pouring righteous wrath upon those who disagree with our thinking.

Again, we mostly don’t know anything. And it is time we got use to that because it is the rule. We call the process of operating in it “active uncertainty.”

This isn’t intended to make you feel better, short term, but to make you confront reality with better tools to process it, to feel better long term.

Yes, some people in political circles are looking to advance their own careers and causes with this crisis.

Yes, some, the vast majority, we would say, are trying to do the right thing.

Yes, we acted too late …

Yes, we could have done more …

Yes, we could have done less …

And we still don’t know which nation faired the best … again, we don’t know.

But if these gods and religions have failed us, because science can’t tell us the value of a human life … if they have failed to help us understand what life is, let alone who and how many should die … then we better at the end of this catastrophe realize at least one thing:

We need a better, more wholistically inclusive and compatible code for human life itself. Because it is not simple. Countless lives are sacrificed in war to save magnitudes more, but we need to end war. Evolution itself creates stronger individuals and therefore proliferates stronger genes in letting the weakest succumb to the predators and plagues, but we need to end pandemics. And if we do not have a firm center of the value of the unborn, children, young adults, middle-aged adults and old-age adults, then we are living a palliative illusion to avoid the central question of what life actually is. It is the other half of death. So, then what is death, and what do we learn from it?

Life is the exception; death is the rule. So, we offer the aforementioned tools to advance this cause, and avoid backsliding the entirety of humankind into just another barbaric horde of rebels, fueled by a particular brand of sentimental illusion.

Published by John Katrina

TCB Member, Father, Co-Founder of The Citizen Body, technical philosopher, and artist.

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