Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Today "M" stands for Morose

I am going to write this in one continuous, unedited run. I am not even going to reread anything for continuity, and post it as-is, completely unrehearsed.

There are three extremes to which a life can gravitate: the opposites to each other, and the middle, as far away from either opposite extreme as possible.

In my case, speaking of life choices at the beginning, and perpetrated consistently throughout my days up to and including the present moment, I chose marriage and family. The opposite to this would be a monastery. The furthest from either approach would be the middle "road", which I see as hedonism: total devotion to self-gratification.

Family at this point is something I am adept (or, an adept) at: I do it without thinking most of the time. And, like all things I do, I do it well enough: competently enough to be bored with it and never excel. Had I been born and raised a Catholic (instead of Mormon), I would likely have chosen family as well. But lacking the uber commitment to it, because of the feasible and venerable and respected alternative offered within the religion, I would always have had a monastery beckoning me. Had I lacked the family attraction: had family not panned out, I would have (perhaps) been happy to deny the whole wide world and become a monk. I feel very monkish this morning: a monastery seems like a nice place for my present attitude. But it is of course a silly concept in my real world.

Had I botched my life at the getgo, and chosen hedonism, if I was still alive at my age, my life would be worse than boring, it would be disgusting and lamentable. What is more uninviting than a wasted, middle-aged hedonist? Sexual capacity largely or entirely gone; health, looks self respect, all wasted away. Confidence and hope nonexistent. Habits clamped around your vitals like parasites. A desire for self-destruction denied by a life-long habit of cowardice: which is all a hedonist really is: someone who refuses to say "no" to anything he wants, at the expense of the whole wide world if necessary. So the middle-roader can't have a family life, because he never put family before himself, and, as he goes along, his selfish wants become needs that consume and never conserve. The hedonist consumes people as easily as he consumes commodities. In his wake he leaves a wasteland.

Cowardice is sewn into our flesh. "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" defines this. A friend of mine said that bravery is impossible where there is no fear. He used two examples to illustrate this: himself, as a boy, and a late mutual friend of ours. As a boy, my friend learned to ride horses by getting on again and again: he was unafraid of horses. So even though his buddies exclaimed over how brave he was, he knew that he wasn't brave, just fearless. As a father, by contrast, he has lived in a more or less constant state of dread interspersed by intense periods of terror; yet he has always stuck by his wife (now also deceased) and his children: he knows that he is a brave man, because he still has his family and never gave up. Our late mutual friend, on the other hand, had no family, lost his female relationships routinely, could never seem to settle into any job or any place with anyone. He ate to excess and essentially committed slow, "permissible" suicide. Yet, as a young man he loved a good scrape. He volunteered for two tours with the Rangers to Vietnam. He lived violently, engaging in fights as a bouncer, rode his motorcycles with insane abandon (repeatedly injuring himself in accidents), and seemed to possess virtually no fear of physical pain or danger. Yet he was one of the most fear-riddled men I have ever known. He could not endure peacetime: his one outspoken ambition was to defend the prophets and the church like Porter Rockwell, but the "apocalypse" never happened, and he died of broken health, grossly corpulent, alone in his apartment. He was fearless in battle, and terrified of the responsibilities of being a husband and a father. He was a coward.

That is a severe judgment of the departed. I stand condemned of being judgmental; but I claim to be no jury. How our mutual (late) friend will be judged, or even if he will be judged by "God" at all, is not for me to know. I don't know what happens when we all die.

My friend who stood (and continues to stand) by his family, was raised a Catholic. We have known each other virtually our entire adult lives. He has expressed to me on a number of occasions, how he is not religious; yet he hopes that I am right, and that his wife, daughter, parents, et al, the departed, are all waiting for him as family. He once expressed to me that Italians have always believed in family forever. This came up when I noted that emphasis in the movie "Gladiator": being a Mormon, I was flummoxed to see such a central tenet of our faith dramatized in pagan society; and I questioned the accuracy of such a view of the afterlife, and my friend said: "Oh, Italians have always believed that." I was skeptical, because the Catholic church certainly doesn't have such a doctrine. "That doesn't mean anything," I was told: "People believe what they want to. The Church can teach what it wants to." I couldn't wrap my mind around a religious presence separated from personal beliefs: that is a foreign concept to a Mormon. Anyway, throughout our long friendship, my religious faith has given my friend hope: because as a fundamentalist "unbeliever", he can't hope alone for an afterlife with family, anymore than he can avoid the evidence here, of life being utterly extinguished at death. He keeps an open mind for both possibilities; but my strong faith in the afterlife, and of "God's" loving forgiveness, has always been something that my friend has enjoyed hearing expressed.

Yet the faith I held has morphed. I still want the afterlife with family, but I have no dogmatic reasons for expecting it to be true; at least exclusively true. My religious concepts have both broadened to include everyones' that I can fit together, and reject all dogmatic, manmade religion at the same time. I don't believe any of it is more valid than the other beliefs humanity has or has entertained throughout our brief recorded history.

The James Michener book, "The Source", pursues the religious core of our species, from prehistory down to the present. His first historical chapter is about the stone age hunter, who is proud of his strapping son; and in the hunt, it is the son who gets gored by the huge boar, and the aging father is left to ponder "Why?" He has no answer, and there is no one or nothing to provide one. He only knows that the boar should have killed him and his son should have lived. The later chapters examine epochs of our civilizations upon the same spot of ground ("Tel Makor", east of Acre, or was it Tyrus, I forget which, no matter); the early bronze age human sacrificing cults: religion run amok, because the "priesthood" has usurped the mind and will of "God" and inflict increasingly burdensome sacrifices upon the people for each time that their failure to avert his wrath has disappointed the expected outcome of said-sacrifices. It always works like this: the hunter's son dies instead of himself, so he goes to the shaman, priest, oracle, whathaveyou, and asks his question, "Why?" The spiritual leader disposes the mind of "God", and imposes a sacrifice upon the man or whole clan: "Thus the God will be appeased and this will not happen." But the next calamity to afflict the People brings them running to the spiritual leader for more answers: the possibility that s/he might be a humbug never is seriously entertained, because getting "answers" to the terrible questions is vital to sanity and purpose. Thus the religion grows generation by generation, becoming more onerous to bear; because the probability and outcome that rules the universe will always dispense vindication upon the religious exegesis, and, operate in conflict with it also. During the seasons of conflict with the religion, the spiritual leaders must discover the fault in the People: why God is displeased with them and not blessing them. Always, in the past things were better, and to return to those "good times", the People must sacrifice enough; which means, more than they currently are. The ultimate development is throwing your own children to the flames. To make this palatable, sexual excess must be allowed at the same time: thus the fertility rites included in the chapter on Makor's religion: the man chosen as the fertility "god" for a week with the temple high priestess of sexual abandon, loses his daughter/son to the flames at the next sacrificial season. Of course, such a dichotomy of emotions -- horrible fear of death reaching out to claim one of your loved ones, and sexual addiction -- causes insanity. The man, when not chosen for a second go with the delectable high priestess, goes mad and murders the man so-chosen, out of sexual jealousy. He is hunted down in the marshes outside Makor and executed. His wife and children are forever shunned as contaminated by the father/husband's impiety. And so the centuries pass and insanity flares up and wanes; to be finally exterminated from the village by the arrival of the desert nomads, those the Old Testament calls the Israelites. Their "God" is a jealous deity, who blesses them or curses them along with the best of the pagan gods, but with this one difference: he abhors human sacrifice, and demands in its place strict adherence to personal laws of cleanliness and sacrifice: of time, talents, energies, worldly goods, but most essential of all, "a broken heart and contrite spirit." In short, the will of each follower. The priests are the caretakers of the Law. It is very strict and bloody, invoking capital punishment for a lengthy list of religious infractions. But this religion is vitally different from the bloody gods of human sacrifice: it disallows sexual promiscuity, or vice of any kind, yet glories in the joy of simple living. And it holds out promises of an afterlife of great rewards to the obedient, not just creating a blessed land in this life. The following chapters in "The Source" pursue the progress of Judeo-Christianity down to the time of Christ, through the rise of Islam, the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and into modern Palestine and the rise of the State of Israel. It is an astoundingly profound and tour de force work of writing. As you can tell, I have been greatly influenced by it. After the failure of "scripture" in my personal religion (failure, as in, I no longer believe there is anything to the notion that scripture is the inspired word of God contained within special covers), "The Source" remains as exemplary of the common man's pursuit of answers: in this case, why do we have religion? And the simple answer, is, "Because we require answers to the terrible questions."

My father is dying. Not nearly fast enough to satisfy me. He is in his 84th year. When he was in his 63rd year, he opted for bypass surgery, and has been more or less umbilically attached to the medical profession ever since. Right now he is not capable of engaging in conversation, but a couple of weeks ago (before he fell and received a concussion), he expressed to me (again) that he regrets not working longer, of not making more of his life: he had, by his estimation, a lot more talent and opportunity than he ever made use of: but he chose accounting as his job because, "I didn't know what I wanted to do." At the time he opted for bypass surgery, I asked him if he wanted to pass up his chance to go quickly in the high tide of life; he was maybe choosing a messy, slow, degrading death in place of a quick, clean death. He thought about that for maybe one minute, then chose to continue with the operation. A number of years later, he had to go into the hospital again to repair an aortal aneurysm (caused by the bypass, of course). After that, he increasingly battled feelings of uselessness. He tutored my younger children in reading, but when the last was "graduated", he had nothing at all left to give immediate purpose to his existence. That summer he slipped into further depression, suffered (we later learned) a number of small strokes, and finally ended up mentally collapsing. For the last two and a half years, he's been a mere shadow of himself, never rising above a rudimentary level of taking care of his personal needs: Mom has been a babysitter for the last three years of the marriage. Now, hopefully, the end is near.

Which leads me to ask: Is the "Greatest Generation's" refusal to admit death completely admirable, or was the Amerindian approach more noble? The legendary "walk out into the wilderness to die" pulls at my soul: the hospital-bound, lingering death of a body that can be kept "warm" long after the mind has ceased to enjoy living, repels me like nothing else I can think of. The old Amerindian who was now a burden to his family and tribe, did the noble thing and went away. Later, they would find him or her and bury their loved one properly, tenderly. This lingering shadowlands kind of life that we put our spoon-fed old people through: that is hell, both for them, and for the caregivers. How is that superior to accepting death at the time of your choosing? Suicide isn't what I am advocating. Simply choosing the time of your passing: like Aragorn, king Elessar, of Gondor, when he felt his body changed and old age's dotage creeping upon him. He lay down after bidding final farewell to his queen and lover, then "gave up the ghost." If only we could do that!

I had a dream-experience once, where I did that: I awoke in the wee hours, beside my wife's back in the bed, and felt the "switches" shutting down all over inside my body. For a brief instant, I panicked and clenched, and the shutting down stopped. Then I said to myself: "What are you doing? Let it go, let it happen. This is the way it is supposed to work." So I relaxed and let my body finish shutting down. I barely had breath to whisper "Good bye", then I was "gone." I found myself in the bleakest of wildernesses imaginable; no light source, just enough gleam on the distant horizon to show that there was a horizon and firmament. All was colorless and featureless. Not a breath of air stirred. I did not breath. Turning 360 degrees offered no feature to indicate that I had in fact come back to the starting point. It was as voidlike as is possible for a "place" to be. I waited for a few minutes, or longer, I cannot tell, but no one came, nothing changed, I continued to stand there, for there was nothing to move toward. I realized that I was premature, and needed to go back. I decided to do that, and awoke in the bed, everything alright, my wife breathing softly with her back to me still. "That, was interesting," I said to myself. And ever since then, I have retained the conviction, that when I feel the "switches" shutting off, I will throw them myself if that is possible. Most people, I believe, hang on far longer than they need to, because they are cowards when it comes time to die. I hope that I am not a coward. But I may not be brave either: maybe dying, for me, is like my friend learning to ride his horse: I don't fear it enough to be brave. "Death is certain, Life is not." What could be more obvious and inevitable. Why fear the inevitable?

(light edit for some spelling)

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