Friday Philosophy: Death

I sometimes (partially facetiously) refer to myself as “immortal until proven otherwise.”  This is different than I have felt about the subject in the past (witness four or five suicide attempts).  But I am apparently a survivor and see no reason for that to change.  Sure, my body might wear out and no longer function well enough to support keeping my being in contact with the world of our outward shared reality (or is that our shared hallucination?), but I cannot believe that my body is the sum total of who I am (for one thing, there’s just not enough room in there to hold all that is me). 

Our culture (is there really such a general concept?) has always seemed to me to place too much emphasis on death, about how we must “prepare” for it (some people spend way too much energy doing so, in my opinion) and how we must live our lives so that some unknown Good Thing will happen when we die.  The truth of the matter (well, it’s my truth) is that we don’t really know what will happen to us when our bodies no longer function.  All is speculation or hope…faith, if you will.  Someday my heart will stop beating.  What will happen at that moment is any body’s guess.  Think of it as passing through a Door that only permits one-way travel.  

I think the worst that can happen is that there will be nothingness, that the “me” that is connected to my physical form would cease to be.  What a waste of lessons learned that would be! 

I prefer to think in “perhapses.”  Perhaps we start over, being connected to a new life form (some posit attachment to a new human host), to once again attempt to learn life’s lessons and attempt to unravel its mysteries.  Perhaps, as some religions profess, there is some “better place” that we go (I refuse to acknowledge a concept of Hell and being a taoist necessitates that I likewise reject the notion of Heaven), a place without the  trials and tribulations of this reality.  That sounds boring to me.  Or perhaps we do move on to a new plane of existence, one to which we in our present state can have absolutely no clue towards envisioning, just as we were so clueless when we entered this one.  Whatever it is, I hope only that I can proceed onward with the same sense of wonder, anticipation and excitement that I have come to feel in this existence.

My views of death have colored my reactions to the deaths of those who I have known…my parents and grandparents, other relatives, some friends from my early years, my doctor, my therapist.  Interestingly, the only ones which struck me a hard initial blow were the deaths of my doctor and my therapist.

When I transitioned in 1992, I was given the name of a doctor who treated transfolk.  He was a good man who treated me with respect from the beginning.  He died in 1993 of anaphylactic shock induced by a medicine he took.  I have not had another doctor treat me with such respect since then.

When I learned that my therapist (Kurt) had died, I felt a sense of loss that I had not even felt when my parents died.  But it was a selfish feeling (Who would I turn to when I needed help, help that he had offered to me that no other person, not even my own father and mother, had offered?).  I knew that Kurt had been released from the pain and sickness that was eating up his body.  I still miss him, but I know…correct that…I believe that he went on to a new reality and I wish him the best.  I can do no other.

In fact all of my immediate reactions to hearing of deaths of those I have known and/or loved have been selfish ones.  How can it be otherwise?  I cannot know how the person who has died (or is dying) feels.  My emotions don’t apply to them.  I can feel sad for myself or someone else who feels pain or loss because of the death, happy that the (physical or emotional) pain of the sufferer is gone, or angry that the death was needless.  But those are my feelings, not those of the person who has died (or is dying).  And their feelings are what should matter most.

This I believe.

Maybe what made Kurt’s death more meaningful me is related to our last session.  Kurt asked me to tell him what I knew or suspected about death.  We spent our hour, it seemed to me, with our roles reversed.  It marked a passage, I think, for both of us.



At some instant

one day

the words will cease to flow

their creator (or vessel)

having passed through

the Door

between herenow

and therethen

The words left behind

the ideas they expressed

the actions they instigated

will be all

that remains

to weigh the meaning

of this particular existence

Regret is extinguished

if the words

have expressed


concern and care

and a life lived well

–Robyn Serven

–September 21, 2007


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    • Robyn on September 22, 2007 at 00:04

    There is nothing temporary about what I desire, which is an end to war.  All war.  Erasure of the concept from human consciousness.


    • tjb22 on September 22, 2007 at 00:10

    happen is “nothingness”.  And even that “nothingness” might not be bad when one has lived an entire life.  Life is difficult, and I think we tire.  Maybe “eternal rest” is what we’re really longing for by the time we’re done.

    I don’t know what happens.  I tend to believe that we are here to learn, or to do, something and that maybe, this influences what happens to us in the next phase. 

    • snud on September 22, 2007 at 00:15

    one thing’s for sure: This place sure has been fucking weird.

  1. or die trying.

    Woody Allen I believe.

    Death is another thing we are hugely NOT good at dealing with. But that is true of just about everything that involves big emotions.

    When I lost someone dear to me I was STUNNED at the way people judged me on the way I grieved.

    Just a month after she died a very close friend told me to “stop wallowing in it.”

    That was when it clicked for me that it was HER way of dealing with the loss….and projecting it on to me since I was the surrogate for the departed person. And also that all of our rituals around dying ARE centered on those who are still here. Not having too much to do with the person that was gone but “selfishly” dealing with our own feeling of loss.

    “Selfishly” in quotes because it is not REALLY selfish at all, even though we are taught that the we are supposed to be focused on the departed…etc.

    But…they are gone…we are still here, and so it is selfish whether we like it or not and no matter how many times someone says something like “it is wrong to think of yourself at a time like this”

    End of ramble….except to say that those Puritans REALLY screwed us up.

  2. that right-living now will yield a positive result after we die (hence my user-name!!) is one of the things that attracted me to eastern philosophies.  judeo-christian and western attitudes toward doing right because you get something out of it…with death being your ‘payday’…always struck me as particularly false and ultimately more about population control than right-living.

    id like to leave this planet with AT LEAST ‘neutral’ karma, if not a little bit ‘paid forward’…but as to what happens then, well, i like to keep my mind as open as possible.  i have guesses, but mostly i think the experience is beyond comprehension by an earth-brain.

    and, like buhdy said…most of what we imagine/create is to comfort the living, anyway.  once im dead, none of that will matter.

    • KrisC on September 22, 2007 at 01:39

    Difficult subject, humanity’s largest unknown.  I don’t know what death holds for us, me… is not death itself that I fear, and I’ve looked at this many, many times.  I feel the most difficult part of death (in my eyes/mind) is the actual dying in and of itself.  No one knows “how” they are going to go.  I witnessed my mother suffering, so deep, so long and so profoundly that I fear the “pathway” to the door.  In that death is a doorway to another….dimension, reality, energy, whatever, the possibility of suffering for an unknown amount of time….just absolutely baffles me to no end.  All a human-being can do is hope for an easy way out!
    I’m sorry for your loss in Kurt, he sounds like a remarkable human!  What a beautiful tribute you wrote on Robyn’s Perch!

  3. that I’ve seen, anyway. This and the First Blood one (whatever it is you named it). Simple and effective.

    I think our culture has unhealthy attitudes about selfishness. It’s both assumed to be the norm and condemned, especially in women. It’s one of those taboo concepts, that we’re too afraid we’ll find in ourselves (and have to change?) that  we’ll deny its presence (except in others) and its value. And I’m imagining that that sets up an arrangement of reflecting mirrors around a mind, so that those who won’t reflect on themselves find only their reflections in others…

    Of course people have selfish reactions to grief and death. You’re the only person who lives inside your own heart all the time. Who else is going to hold onto it every moment until it heals?

    • plf515 on September 22, 2007 at 03:09

    I think that the ‘thing’ that makes us, us – call it ‘soul’ or ‘self’ or ‘ego’ or ‘consciousness’ is not a thing but a process.  Like a flame. Is a flame a thing? No, it’s a process.  What happens to a flame when the fuel is consumed?

    • RElland on September 22, 2007 at 04:50

    You get over it.

      • Robyn on September 22, 2007 at 01:22

      the way people judged me on the way I grieved

      In my case, I guess it is the lack of grieving.  I’d rather celebrate the person’s life.

      I have this belief that as long as someone is remembered, that person is still with us.  Why shouldn’t we share our knowledge of the person, both good and bad, so that we can remember.

      Sort of Enderish, I guess.  Someone should speak for the dead.

    1. want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” – Woody Allen.

  4. …as per your comment on another thread, death is just the topic to make me click in!

    I would add, to the idea of selfishness, that our tears are for ourselves — that I don’t think that’s completely true, though I did for a long time.  I think that all we get for immortality is in the memory of the living; our grief touches and shapes that memory, with greater or lesser honesty and care; and all that can be saved is whatever they gave us, that we saw, or understood.  So I try to remember those things, more than the feeling, or the wish, or the story I know they’d prefer.

    Heh, dark tonight :}

    • lezlie on September 22, 2007 at 07:06

    that in the words of John Lennon, we should all be “living for today”. Imagine…

    • Twank on September 22, 2007 at 08:00

    Hi Robyn! 

    We may have communicated via email some weeks ago when I was an even more inexperienced blogger.  I asked about hidden comments, etc.  Maybe it wasn’t you or maybe it was.  I identified myself as Dr. Denny.

    Anyway, I’ll be launching a new “religion” at Docudharma on Sat/Sun, Sept. 29/30 and I would value your “attendance”/opinion, especially after reading this essay I’m responding to.

    I’ll have to go back and read and reread your essay and all of the comments/replies linked to it.  Interesting.  Our previous connection and now here.  It all somehow makes sense.  Or is that the wine talking?

    More communications later.

  5. I have lived in Miami and Los Angeles and what I have believed based on my observations is that in these communities the focus in these areas (and certainly spreading) throughout our society is that of an obsessive attention to physical attractiveness, the use of plastic surgery and the revulsion felt toward the process of aging are all signs of a society, community, population afraid of change. If nothing else, change is the pre-requisite for death. To fear change is to fear death. And to fear death is ultimately to be afraid of taking a chance on living. How else except through embracing the reality of ones movement toward the end of this physical life can one realize and exploit the sweetness of this stage of being. Nieztche (sic) speaks of the “eternal return,” the idea that one should live each moment of their life as if they would have to live it eternally. This demands an amazing appreciation, exploitation and celebration of even the most banal moments of lived experience. How else can one live in such a celebratory mode except by understanding that one day the opoortunities will no longer be available (i.e. you will die). Thus I accept everyday the possibility of my demise. I am not suicidal by a long shot. I have a beautiful wife and two indescribable children and would not willingly leave them under any circumstances. But I also know that every moment with them is not guaranteed a sequal nor will the moments I spend with them be placed on rewind and play. Death or rather the knowledge of the eventuality of transitioning to another plane of existence should sharpen the edge of living and bring it to a heightened point. Because ultimately whatever you do, you will die. It is not the end that defines you but the actions of your life preceeding the end. 

    • Diane G on September 22, 2007 at 13:47

    This moved me on many levels.

    I experienced many deaths in my life of family and beloveds, and you and budhy are right, many people judge you by how you grieve.

    I remember at 6, when my oldest sister died, my Mom saying, “The only way she lives on is by passing on to others any good she did to you.”

    Kind of an “Unseen Ripples” ideation, back in 69… nice take.

    I later read that if Death is your ally, there can be no greater adviser on your actions.  For with Death standing over your shoulder, one sees what is fallacy and pointless and what is not. 

    My cousin, dying of AIDS once repeated the great line to us, “When your life gets shorts you learn two things.  Don’t sweat the small shit.  Everything is small shit.”

    Remnants of my Catholic upbringing remain, yet I am unsure what follows, if anything at all.  I somehow can’t buy all we are are biological processes, there is more hear than meets the eye.

    Then I think about string theory and smile.  It supports the we are all connected thing I have always believed.  The endless probabilities and possibilities, and planes of existence… perhaps too our souls are not just particles and waves, or immeasurable flame weight, we are lines tied to everything, and our lines reform and are still part of the whole.

    Not a platitude when I say, Kurt is part of you and lives in you then connected by those ripples, those lines and “whats next” is small shit really.

    The best you can do is live in the immediate.

    And pass it forward.

    I have to say, first thing I read this morning, this essay will make this day a fuller one for me.  It made me remember to look over my shoulder at my Death, and want to live a day with full intent on living it.

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