Sunday, June 13, 2010

Deathbed Scenes

We’ve been traveling widely again and will spare you the itinerary, save that we are now on an island that rims the Caribbean Sea. We’ve come to say our goodbyes to our grandfather, who is on his deathbed.

Thoughts, thoughts… absurd thoughts, perch on our shoulders. It is hard to organize how we feel.

Seeing him thus brings home the absurd in a tangible way. We think about all the moments in a life, the things one might change, the worries one might shed, if – if – one truly believed the deathbed scene was a fate unavoidable.

As much as it seems obvious, and as much as people would admit that they will die someday, their actions betray them. If you truly and deeply knew it would end, would you worry as you do? Would you behave as you do today?

It’s easy to think back on a life for moments you thought were greatly important, only to realize how trivial they were years later. A pitch swung on and missed that ended a game seemed a big deal at the time and is now hardly remembered. A pot roast burned. A train missed. A favorite shirt ruined. A watch lost. Upsetting at the time, but clearly trivial now…

It’s harder to think back on a life and realize that all moments were equally unimportant. This is the absurd view – and it does not come naturally.

We use this line of thinking often however, questioning ourselves in the present as if we were thinking back on this moment in the future. If we are upset that the floor is so dirty or the kitchen a mess, we think of the deathbed scene. We doubt we will say then, “Gee, we wish we had washed the floor and cleaned the kitchen on that Sunday afternoon back in oh-ten.”

In fact, we doubt we will remember much of what’s passed. Disappointments, anger, envy – all seem to dissolve in time, like an antacid pill in water. Knowing this is helpful in maintain one’s sense of equanimity in the present.

We find it helpful when we are irritated – or annoyed or worried or whatever – to stop and ask ourselves why, and to really try to pinpoint exactly what burr is under our saddle. Is it something specific hanging over our heads that we must do? Is it something else?

Whatever it is, we identify it. Or if there is more than one item, then we list them in our heads. And with each one we trivialize it – no matter how important it might seem! We tell ourselves it isn’t important and it doesn’t matter. We recall the deathbed scene.

Then, we feel better almost immediately. It works for us. Try it and see. It may work for you, too. It helps us see the world in a more absurd light – and restores that sense of equanimity.

To paraphrase some old Scotch proverb – better to enjoy our living moments, for we are a long time dead!


  1. This post really hit home with me. I follow a very rigid diet in order to stay healthy and live to be really old. Many of my relatives have lived to a hundred years old, independent until the day they died. They mostly ate crap, so I figure I'll live to be at least 110. Ha ha. I've often wondered why I'm so obsessed with living a long time. I know why I want to avoid disease. Because I'd rather be climbing a mountain than sitting in a hospital bed. Interestingly enough, most of the people I admire in life, whether they be friends or strangers, live like there's no tomorrow. They smoke and drink, and eat whatever they want and they seem completely content. Sometimes I really wish I could be like that instead of planning every single meal that I eat. I'm working on it though. Thanks for doing this blog. Love it!


  2. Inigo,

    This is the epitome of the useful utility of the absurd. I sincerely hope that your appreciation for the absurd will help you cope with the all too human emotions that will inevitably result from your grandfathers passing, and help you appreciate those qualities and fond memories that you valued while he was yet vital and in full bloom.

    As to the failure of man to fully accept the inevitability of his death, even though he may intellectually acknowledge it, has, in my opinion, a lot to do with the recursive loop nature of the mind, which also goes a long way in explaining why it is so common.

    The nature of the mind, how it knows anything, is by experiencing something and recursively comparing it to past experiences to catalog, compare, contrast, and evaluate, this allows the mind to make judgments based on this near infinite recursive loop of reference. Since it is logically impossible for the mind to experience its own non-existence, it has nothing to compare the concept of death with, the closest it can come to is some medically induced unconsciousness, but it really doesn’t experience this either. Some might compare sleep, but we all know that the mind is busy during sleep and so even though we are largely not conscious of it, the mind is still busy doing its recursive thing.

    Since the mind has no real experience of its own non-existence it cannot fully accept the concept, it can only conceive of weak comparisons, so even though a mind might intellectually know that one day it will not exist, it does not fully believe it, or more precisely cannot fully conceive it.

    Your method of reminding yourself of the silliness of most irritations, how meaningless they will seem when we are on our own deathbeds, is a good and useful strategy to overcome the minds inability to conceive of its own non-existence.


  3. I hope your grandfather is content at his present moment and is thinking of the time he has enjoyed on this planet...

  4. RH,

    If you have ever been sky-diving, there is usually a 3-5 minute window of free fall before you pull the chute. During this window, you are free to imagine a situation in which your chute does not open and how you might respond to such a situation. I like to conjure that feeling to jolt myself into absurdity, like Inigo's deathbed scene. If you can live every moment of your life feeling like you just fell out of a plane with no chute, you won't have any regrets on the deathbed. I mean we're all basically in that situation the moment we're born anyway, we just tend to forget about it. Humans are like skydivers who jump without a chute and suffer from short-term memory loss.

    Talking about the metaphysics of consciousness is great, but I think the best conversations are the ones with practical application, like this post. We're not actually going to come to any conclusions about free will, self v. no-self, universal meaning, etc., but we can definitely talk about how to make our lives count.

  5. RH,

    I just read the thread in which you bring up sky diving. So I wasn't plagiarizing, just not as clever as I thought!

  6. Enzo,

    No worries! I initially wondered if there was some link, with my using sky diving so recently, but reading your post I quickly surmised that it was just a coincidence. The important thing is, did you enjoy the exchange in the other thread where I used the sky diving example?!?