Ted Cleaver

Tag: religion

Dealing with Death

One of the few certainties you have in life is that you will die. So will your loved ones. My mother passed away on the 1st of March 2003. It so happens that on that exact day of this year, friends of mine celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their crew in a club 3 minutes from the hospital my mother died in 9 years ago. This year, after no less than 9 years, was the first time I could fully live up to the promise I made to her.

She was hospitalized and comatose for a month. It is absolutely horrific how much technology is required for life support. The sheer amount of tubes and syringes going into her body, regulating her respiratory system, her cardiovascular system, and her gastrointestinal system, to name the most important ones, traumatized me. It was impossible to visit her and remain clear-headed, every trip to the intensive care ward was accompanied by cognitive dissonance. In the first three weeks visiting hours were limited to the usual schedule. After the doctors told us that there was no more hope, we were allowed to visit her daily for the remaining 7 days. Then, in the final moments, I was devastated by the unmistakable and irreversible flat line sound of her heart monitor. Seconds later her hand turned cold. These are the types of things nothing can prepare you for. You’ve heard the flat line sound before in hospital shows or movies, but if it signals the end of the life of someone you love unconditionally, it is the most shattering experience imaginable.

We had stayed with her that last night. I read one of her favourite books, Le Petit Prince by St. Exupéry, out loud. Ever since it has become a tradition of mine to read the book, or at least parts of it, once a year. My mom had good taste in literature, so this is just another blessing I received from her. One of the most memorable quotes in the book comes from the fox: “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” What the Little Prince’s unusual friend understood is that love is the essential connection. A focus on the superficial detracts from the quality of your relations. My mother had wished for one thing, she wanted for us to remember her with our hearts. That is easier said than done. The intense emotional pain, the resulting trauma, the difficulty of accepting the fact that she chose death as a way out, and the utter unfairness of time not stopping, the world not stopping to spin, made matters difficult.

Our society is obsessed with youth to the point that it negates death. A bold statement, one that is vividly reflected in the ease with which we talk about plastic surgery and botox, while explaining the indescribable pain losing a loved one causes creates social discomfort. I am most likely not representative of the average person, if such a thing exists, but in hindsight I have come to the conclusion that our society is ill equipped to deal with death. After my mother died, three influences helped me immensely to move forward. Neither came from the institutional support network. The first was a letter I received from my friend Tommy, whom I wrote about earlier in his capacity as a gifted musician. He told me how incredibly unfair it is for death to rip people out of our lives, but no matter how vile the grim reaper is, he has no power over the love and memories we hold in our hearts. This is so true and comforting, to this day I repeat the phrase to friends who have lost someone as well, and to this day I am thankful for these empathic and insightful words.

The third influence is a book from a psychologist I bought rather recently. It goes well with the Holstee Manifesto’s line that all emotions are beautiful. See, this psychologist lost his son in a car accident. Experiencing grief himself for the first time in his life, he realized that the treatment he had been offering his patients was grossly inadequate. Deeply ingrained in the field of psychology is the assumption that the psyche and emotions are manageable. Techniques for dealing with grief make this assumption rather transparent with the introduction of step programs. Thinking about it, the theoretical underpinning for a 7-, 8-, or 12-step program is evidently linear. Pass one stage and advance to the next. Even if the possibility of relapsing is accounted for, the teleological foundation of such programs is reminiscent of the fallacious adage “time heals all wounds”. Time does not heal anything, healing requires a conscious effort and appropriate techniques. It is not only the trajectory of such programs that fails to treat grief realistically. The analytical approach to neatly partition grief into distinct phases almost begs the question whether any empirical research has been carried out to inform the ivory tower. The truth is however that unless you have felt agony, despair, anguish, sorrow, hopelessness, disbelief, and frustration to the point that it physically immobilizes you, you cannot understand it. Said psychologist understood the depths of emotional pain after losing his son and developed a new approach. Instead of attempting to regulate his emotions, he let them run freely, actively fuelling them by inviting memories of his dead son. In a society obsessed with positivity, this may sound like a form of masochism. It is not. It is accepting reality, dealing with it, and thereby processing emotions, relieving trauma, and alleviating emotional blockades.

The second influence is as much constructive as it provides much needed balance. Buddhism has a way of dealing with death that by far surpasses Western religions. It is not my intention to rant, although I must admit that with spite I once asked a Catholic priest if my mother would go to hell. The Catholic Church displays the same measure of compassion for suicides as it does for homosexuals: they are considered moral evils. Of course he evaded the question, perhaps sensing that I was more than willing to challenge the inept dogma of his faith. However, what I learned from Buddhism is that difficult situations sometimes require simple solutions. The eye-opener came from a lecture of the Dalai Lama who posed a simple question accompanied by some simple facts. In line with Buddhist teachings, when a person dies it is their karma to die. Hence, they die. Since death is not escapable and we all die, would it not be wiser to accept the situation fully and act accordingly? An important aspect of the Buddhist take on death is the concept of desire. I object to the idea that all desires should be abandoned, however relinquishing the desire to keep someone alive who is dying makes perfect sense. Instead of wishing for the life of a loved one to continue when it is impossible – oh the many subtle ways in which this desire stealthily manifests itself – one should wholeheartedly wish for the loved one to die well. I believe my mother died well. We had the opportunity to say goodbye, a gesture powerful enough to transcend diazepam-induced coma.

Combining these three influences has proven fruitful. I cherish the love and memories in my heart, accept that karma is inescapable and respect death, and I allow all emotions to flow freely. In the end, the pain caused by losing someone is an expression of how much and intensely we love that person. My mother was loved by all who had the opportunity to meet her. She was popular with our friends because of her humour, openness, hospitality, and generosity. She knew what was important in life. Of all the useless advice I received from various sources, hers rings forever true. She always encouraged my brothers and me to follow our hearts, go for it, and chase our dreams. In my case that meant writing, dancing, and finding a French girlfriend. Well, I am certain she would have adored most of the girls I have been with, whether they were French (they weren’t) or not. One of the coolest things my mother ever did was to join in with my breakdance training, just like I helped her train for her marathon. She learned the six-step when she was in her late forties.

It so happens that on the 1st of March 2012 I spent the best part of the day very close to the hospital where she died. It so happens that on this day one of my best friends, more like a brother actually, and I entered a battle for old times sake. We used to train together for hours on end and she supported us all the time, mostly by ensuring we always had space to practice. This day and this night were the first 1st of March that I felt no pain. There was nothing but gratitude and fulfilment. The anniversary was a celebration of life and everything that makes life worth living for.

As personal as this account is, I hope it does not come across as the story of an ego. My intention is to share experiences in way that provokes thought and tackles a notoriously uncomfortable subject. Timethief’s blog post on how Eastern philosophy, from Buddhism to Ikebana, helped her deal with her mother’s death gave me the final nudge to dedicate a post to this subject. With utmost sincerity, I hope my experiences and insights will help someone in the future. It helped me, when I had the opportunity to say farewell to my uncle three days before he died. If eyes are windows to the soul, I saw his soul radiate pure light. All it took to witness this miracle was to say: “Thank you for everything. I don’t know where you are going, but I love you and I wish you a pleasant journey.”

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Piece of Mind

“When you are full of yourself, there is no room for others.”
– T. Cleaver

I’m a sucker for quotes. A true heavyweight champion in quotes is The Duke, who added one crucial word to the second phrase. Such a matter should not be taken lightly. These sayings work so well because of their simplicity. Expressing much with little is a difficult feat. If you manage to do so, you have the advantage that the reader fills in the blanks for you. “Room” is the perfect choice; it can denote physical, social, emotional or symbolical space. Or, if you’re English is really bad and food happens to be on your mind, you might read “no room for others” as the impossibility to eat more of what you are craving. Foolishness aside, I’m happy with this quote. So I googled it to see if anything pops up. For ef’s sake! Religious folk coined it centuries ago, replacing “others” with their deity. Here we go.

Bashing religion with rational arguments is like beating minesweeper on easy mode. Tricky on your first attempt, but understand the incredibly simple logic behind it and you’ll sweep away. Many great comedians excel at bashing religion, and I wholeheartedly admit that I fell out of my chair laughing many times, for instance while watching Carlin’s performances. A Dutch comedian said it best in a live “debate” – more like a rhetorical massacre – with three head scarf donning hypocrites: Religion, all organized religion, has the pretense of having a monopoly on truth. In a democratic and open society, the freedom to meet flaws and fallacies with satire is a necessary function. It reminds us to not take things too seriously and accept the pluriformity of perspectives. In the live TV incident, the comedian exposed the three hypocrites as such by pointing out how they openly discriminated against homosexuals on earlier episodes, and now cried wolf for being referenced in a pornographic context by the antagonist. He was actually the voice of reason, as grimy as it was. Quick quote:

“I was Catholic until I reached the age of reason.”
– G. Carlin

The problem with religion lies in ontology and epistemology. Can’t know, can’t prove it. That’s why poking fun at organized faith is no challenge. I’m bummed out. Who in the world would accept the warning that you must not let your ego swell, on account of the “room” a make believe omnipotence requires in your mind?
Here’s the thing. Look at religion functionally and it is very useful. It provides a moral compass, an ethical framework, social morphology, social cohesion, meaning and purpose, each of them for better or for worse. And the list goes on. I completely accept and respect people who choose to follow a faith, will however laugh at their believing in what essentially is a magic being. Since I try not to have double standards, I invite anyone to deride my run-of-the-mill conception that “there is more between heaven and Earth, I just don’t want to put a label on it.”
But the quote, which my pious forerunners claimed and wasted, has nothing to do with function. Sure you could wring it in, but fundamentally it is about idealism. In your mind, there should always be room for the invisible man, with his list of 10 things he does not want you to do (George! Genius!). Keep your self in check and let that set of abstract assumptions rife with unrealistic expectations nestle deep in your mind.

“When did I realize I was god? Well, I was praying and suddenly realized I was talking to myself.”
– P. O’Toole

“In your mind”. Science is advancing quickly. In your mind is a concept that is becoming more and more measurable. Take mirror neurons. They literally simulate in your mind what you perceive in the outside world. An abstract concept in a way does transform into a physical entity in your brain. Neurons and synapses build actual networks in your brain, representing whatever it is your CPU needs to process. So taking that into account, who do you want in your head? An old man with a beard, which is completely sexist; or your loved ones and sexy lover? In case anyone sees merit in this argument, thank you, I’m afraid neuroscientists would shake their heads at the over-simplification.
Let’s go at it from a different angle. Do you ever hear voices in your head? I hear voices in my head. I think situations through. This process is scenario-based and usually involves more than one actor. My scenarios are advanced enough for the characters involved to get speaking roles. Unless you are mentally severely impaired, the voices of others are a part of you. “What did Mr Freeze advise to do again? Lift the heavy thing?” He actually cautioned us to wear warm clothes, but regardless, point is that if you saw Batman & Robin and appreciate the brilliance of Dylan Moran, you might have just heard a commanding “get down” in a heavy Austrian accent.
The voices of others are part of me. My brain, like any functioning brain, constructs networks that represent what I know about the world. Who or what I know best gets special privileges like more room. Everyone will agree that the people most important to you occupy a special place in your life. Apart from the fact that we allocate more time to being merry with our loved ones, they have more influence on us. Influence is not only exerted during conversations, but also indirectly by taking into account the other’s expectations. If this happens consciously, there you have it, representation of another person directly in your mind. A representation that does not magically exist, but is the result of hardwiring a network and firing it up with electrical impulses. Our brains create the equivalent of entities in our mind, a repository for labels and information, memories and expectations, positive emotions and negative.

When you are full of yourself, there is no room for others.

It works so well when “other” refers to family, friends, and people who have stories to share. We are social creatures. We learn from each other, and we derive happiness from being with loved ones. I damn well make sure that there are many others in my life, many people whose attitudes and dispositions in life resonate with mine. For someone who’d throw me in a fire pit on a whim, no dice. But then again, one function of nonsensical propositions is to challenge, recalibrate, and reassert the validity of your own assumptions. I’m pretty clear on the matter.

Ego up. Mutual respect +1. Allowing yourself to let other people in, 1up.