To Die For (A Beginner’s Guide To Dying)By: Steve Ostrow (Jan 1 2001)
I am dying. But then again, so are you. So are we all.
From the time of conception, we begin the process of dying, which some call living. Whilst living has only a measured existence, dying is what takes us out of the finite and into infinity. It is why death is celebrated in many cultures, and in fact, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, one is not considered to have lived until one has died. And that is why the day of one’s death, and not that of birth, is celebrated.
To arrive at the day when we are freed of this physical state of decay, and the total of our life’s enlightenment comes to fruition, is indeed a time to celebrate. In this short but, I trust, confronting, treatise, I hope to explore the phenomenon of death and dying in such a way as to alleviate the morbidity of death and elevate its validity. Rather than wait till the incontrovertible day when we must all die, why not consider now, what is one of the only questions Man has not been given the answer to by our creator? We do not know how and when we will die, but we can explore the possibilities. In any case I think it’s time we started to prepare for that most wondrous trip of all: our release back into the cosmos.
Chapter 1: The Hereafter
The mystique of the hereafter—or whether there is one—has been postulated by many religious cults and theologians. As to science, the more pristine the scientist, the more they will eschew its credibility.
But I, in my naive layman’s understanding of the basic laws of the universe, beg to differ. One of the incontrovertible precepts of all natural laws is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It simply moves from one form to another. Water boiled will become steam. That steam will condense back to water, and so on. The energy of a match goes into the flame. The flame takes oxygen and transforms it into carbon dioxide, etc. I’ll leave the proper formulation to the scientists. But you get the point.
And so it has been clear to me through meditation and, indeed, revelation, that there is, for sure, a hereafter. But not the much-promulgated hypothesis of heaven and hell, complete with angels and devils (take your pick). No, I rather see that, contrary to the atheist approach—that this is it, and nothing endures after death—this is it. And in its being it, determines our existence in the hereafter.
What do I mean by that? Well, my concept is that each life we touch in this present existence, and the nature of what that imprint has been, will be the nature of our life in the hereafter. For every soul that we nurtured and loved, we will experience heaven. For every life that we demeaned, we will experience a hell. For those who remain on this earth will, through the energy of their thoughts transmitted by the electrical impulses of human neurons, create our hereafter. The more people we have touched and loved, and who remember us as so, the more we will, in their thoughts, be alive and heaven-blessed. And conversely, those whom we have maimed will, in the negativity of their remembrance, create our hell. Either way, there is no doubting our existence if we are still alive in memory. That’s why people of the ilk of Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Jesus Christ, Moses and Buddha, for example, live on as if they were alive today, as indeed they are in the memory and thought of millions. And every thought from the people that they touched is a balm to their soul.
On the other hand, the Hitlers and evildoers of the world are remembered only for the misery they have left behind. So each thought from their sufferers will be a prick from the proverbial three-pronged fork: not an enviable hereafter.
And so, if you can resonate with my concept, which is as good as any one else’s, for no one yet has proven otherwise, then it behooves all of us to know and accept that we are dying, and indeed will die. But, that in this life, we are preparing the nature of our own individual hereafter. The message is clear: Go out into the field and water the lilies. Feed the birds and protect the animals. And along the way, bring love and solace to every human life you encounter. For within them are the seeds of your survival. By whomever you deem to be our creator, we have been given free determination. We must use it wisely to create our own heaven or hell. The choice is truly ours.
Chapter 2: Consider This
The sun dies down. The wind dies. The music dies. The laughter dies down. There’s dying all around us, every moment of the day. What’s here today is gone tomorrow. The thought we just had is forgotten in a millisecond.
So why do we deem it as such a tragedy when someone dies? All things die. It’s the natural order of things. And while we’re on the subject of natural order, there is only one that is uncontested, and that is that nothing stays the same. In simplistic terms, the only constant in the world is change. This is a law that all philosophers and scientists attest to. And it is on this premise, this irrefutable fact, that I believe we can assert that there has to be an afterlife. Why? Because if not, we are saying that death is a constant. And we have already conceded that the only constant is change. It then follows that the state of death has to be transitory. But to what?
Again we go back to Einstein’s postulation: that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It merely changes form. Therefore the energy of our physical matter—the iron, calcium, nitrates, sulfates, etc—replenish the cosmos. But the electrical thought waves that pass from neuron to neuron and form our intelligence then regroup, unfettered in the solar system, to constitute our souls. There, free from the limitation of our physical mass, they are fed and nurtured, or pricked and chastised by we who still remain and remember.
Chapter 3: Flashback
It has been well-documented by hundreds of people who have had near-death experiences, or who have actually been pronounced medically dead, and then miraculously revived, that in an instant, their entire lives flashed in front of them, but not in a blur; rather, complete with precise detail. In the depth of successful meditation, where time is suspended, I have been able to visualise the same phenomenon. My entire 68 years can be experienced in but a moment. What this means for me is that this precise moment I now live is of equal value or more to all of the 68 years, or 35,744,800 moments of my life. Such is the enigma of time as we know it.
I have also come to believe, through meditation, that this process of dying is merely an opportunity to provide for who or what I will be in the hereafter. I am firmly convinced that no part of me will go unrecycled. All that I am will be; all but the ego that is me.
Now I might not be aware of how I am utilised in the next life. But that is not important. What is important is for me to work towards the best me possible in this life: grow, learn, improve, and, most of all, do good. As to what part of me will survive—the good, the bad or both—there is an old saying: ‘The good that men do lives on; and the evil is interred with their bones.’ If I want all of me to survive, the answer is therefore in the question.
But what, you might ask, happens to the false and evil parts of us if all is recycled? It will, I believe, be used as rot and mold, rust and decay, damned to a half life till another day.
So what I am saying, is that our mind, spirit and soul will survive as an energy force, subject to the slings and arrows of our past deeds, while our physical matter will be reabsorbed into the organic soup of the earth, to be shared by all living matter: plant and animal, fish and fowl.
In this present process of living, all I can do to perfect these genes that I now have will bode well for the future. To make a better world tomorrow, I must better myself today. For I am tomorrow.
The thought that I do not have to cling on to this life is therefor releasing. There is a calmness and joy in believing that whatever beauty I experience, and whatever love I attain in this life, will follow me into the next. Whatever perfection I strive for will help mend the world in the future. For the ego of who I am is transcended by the vastness of who I will be. And though I may never know, it matters not, for I will always be.
Thus dying is no longer a threat or an ending; it is always a beginning. In the hothouse of our now existence, we are propagating the future of the world. I’m sure even Darwin would agree with this theory.
Chapter 4: Why Die?
The question may be asked, as I’m sure it has: Why do we die? What for? And the answer, as I see it, is somewhat simplistic…to make room for somebody else.
But let’s explore that a bit. Suppose for example, we didn’t die? If, as it has been theorised, mankind has existed for some 500,000 years, and there are 6,000,000,000 people alive today, how many people would be roaming this finite planet if we didn’t die?
Well I posed this question to a scientist friend of mine:
Working on a new treatise and need to know, how many people would be on the planet today if nobody had ever died from day 1 till today, and not the biblical day one of Adam, but rather the anthropological day 1 of home-sapiens.
I know you weren’t around then…I think…but would you have an educated guesstimate?
And this is how he responded:
You have to think through the logical implications such as: (a) if everyone of the homo sapiens species was still alive today then everyone would have to be very, very healthy indeed. Homo sapiens began about 500,000 years ago, and the direct father of our species was homo erectus which began about 1.7 million years ago. There’s not that much difference between homo sapiens and homo erectus. (By the way, our ancestors diverged from the bonobo chimpanzee (or rather its ancestor) about 6 to 10 million years ago–in other words, about 6 to 10 million years ago, some chimps mutated sufficiently to form a new species, the upright hominid, which could no longer have children through mating with a bonobo). Mutations in every human’s body occur every few minutes by the way but few mutate the genes to the extent that a new species is created. But taking the strict start of our species, it was 500,000 years ago. The males could probably have gone on having children throughout their life. So each male of the first generation alone would have about 50, 000 children assuming they only had one child per 10 years. You can continue the calculation and work it out for yourself. (b) Needless to say, we couldn’t have stayed on earth–indeed there wouldn’t have been room for the total population on the entire solar system. If you work it out, and check the size of the universe (by, eg doing a search on the Internet) you would soon find that there would be no problem housing everyone if we utilised the entire universe. Science would have to be far in advance of what it is now in order for us to navigate to the far reaches of the milky way, our galaxy, let alone the rest of the universe. If our science was sufficiently advanced we could probably create our own galaxies, so population would never be a problem, but current science is far from this–this is one of the reasons why I would like to live at least a billion years and preferably, for ever!! This is also one of the reasons why we currently die at the age we do. Living longer would have been an evolutionary disadvantage as there would not have been enough food etc resources to go around. When science can get us moving out of our present limited environment, we will evolve to live considerably longer and indeed science will be able to speed up the process. Eventually, we may be able to live forever by replacing our parts continuously. To do so, we will also HAVE to create new universes–we’re on the way!! Experience to-date suggests that immortality won’t be possible–however, the world of the future will be very different from that of the past. By the way the complete size of the universe is unknown–only a lower limit is known. Whether it is infinite is itself in dispute. One Japanese physicist, Professor Michio Kaku of Theoretical Physics at the City College of the City University of New York, had proposed that there are actually 10 spatial dimensions not three for the entire universe, and that we live in a three-dimensional sub-universe of the whole space (which he calls hyperspace). The equations of physics all simplify without singularities if you make this assumption, and Kaku was able to show that 10 dimensions is the smallest number for which this is true.
Re your question, (c) what assumption are you going to make about women? As they are alive from day 1 to the present, their health and maturation would be very different from current females. Presumably, then, their change of life would occur a lot later–or do you want to assume the same period of fertility for women that exists today–a most unlikely assumption?
Let me say that if you make the most conservative assumption namely that no-one has more children living into the present than he/she had in their actual rather limited life then the number alive today would just be the total number of homo sapiens since the beginning of the species. At the site http://www.spiritone.com/~orsierra/rogue/popco/data/everlivd.htm the estimate of 105 billion is given, but this is only for the last 50, 000 years when modern man lived (i.e. homo sapiens sapiens). However homo sapiens–without the second sapiens–has lived for 500,000 years, but the numbers prior to 50,000 years would not be huge. I’d guess about 150 billion in total over the 500,000 years.
—–Original MessageRichard S. Buckdale] Sent: Friday, 23 March 2001 9:[Richard S. Buckdale]Subject: Help
Well, assuming you could wade through all that and we accept the figure of 150 billion, which I personally think is conservative, we damn well know that this old planet of ours cannot in good health and supply support the 6 billion people we have today. Can you imagine what it would be like with 150 billion? And considering how we abuse our elders in this youth oriented society, how would we be treating those of us who were 500,000 years old?
I don’t know what the population per square foot is of the world today, but I do know that if there were 150 billion people existing in it, they would have to be living vertically. New York City would be deemed to be a bungalow town. And unless the flora and fauna had the same immortality, there would be nothing to eat unless we learned how to exist on air. And even that would be in short supply. Not a pretty picture by any stretch of the imagination.
The truth is that this cosmic grain of sand we call earth would probably cave inwards from the sheer weight alone. No, our limited stay on this habitat has been predetermined by the laws of commonsense, if nothing else. Now we can deem that to be a fatal mistake, or an act of brilliance. I prefer the later, and so no matter how you perceive it, the fact is we will die. That in itself is liberating. It’s not, you see, as if we didn’t know that. If it came as a total surprise, then we would have a right to be disappointed. But knowing from early on that all things die, including us, how very stupid to live life as if it would go on forever.
It took me a long time to realise that nothing goes on forever, not my marriage, my enterprises, my health, my whatever. And now that I finally accept that I, too, will not go on forever, I am free to enjoy today, this minute, this second, this thought…
Chapter 5: Hypothesis
Suppose, just suppose, that this state we call life is just an intermediate pit stop in our celestial journey. That this bag of bones and wisp of hair is nothing more than an earth suit, protecting us from the natural elements that exist on this planet, much as the cosmonauts don space suits.
Then, when the predestined time comes for us to move on to our next mission, we discard this mortal coil and proceed to an environment that only our futuristic science fiction writers have been able to fantasize. There, in a non-gravitational field, as is experienced by space explorers, we will have no need of our physical bodies, as they will then be just an encumbrance. Only our mind, soul and spirit will survive—but isn’t that the essence of who we are?
In this new state, free of the decay of physical matter, we could probably flourish forever. But as we have concluded that nothing is forever, then perhaps after some zillion or so years we would proceed to our next calling. Unless, still following the law that the only constant is change, perhaps we would stay in that spatial heaven forever, as that, in itself would be a change.
It boggles the mind, but the object of this exercise is to contemplate the impermanence of our earthly life and see it as a preparation of soul, spirit and mind for the hereafter. This allows us to let go of our desperate attachment to our bodies and things material, and to accept that dying is not the end but merely a beginning.
The fact that we have no concrete evidence to support this hypothesis does not lessen its possibilities. There was a time, remember, when we all thought the earth was flat and that if one dared to explore it, they would fall over the edge and perish. This, like our perception of death today, was the accepted theory.
Well, now we know differently.
Chapter 6: Fear of Dying
Fear of dying is like any other fear. It’s the fear of the unknown. And that’s why it behooves us to examine all aspects of dying, so that when it comes, we can be as ready as we can to welcome it.
In most cases it’s the fear of the fear that panics us. But fear in and of itself is a healthy emotion. It’s what has gotten you this far in life. If you didn’t have fear, you would blithely step off a cliff or into an oncoming car. Fear has protected you till now.
It’s also important to examine the physical manifestations of fear, for only through understanding can there be acceptance. When we experience a perceived threat to our survival, we experience fear. Fear triggers off a secretion of the hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline. Adrenaline for fight and noradrenaline for flight. We as intelligent human beings then make a decision to choose one or the other.
A tiger is coming at you, now without fear you can stand there and grin, but the tiger will have the last laugh, licking his lips. With fear you probably will decide to get the hell out of there.
Now imagine death as a tiger. You can either fight it or accept it, but you can’t run away from it. If you are healthy enough to fight it, then by all means do so. You may come out scarred and maimed, but perhaps you will survive till the next time.
If you choose to accept it, having exhausted all other possibilities, then why not relax and welcome it? After all, sooner or later, it will welcome you. Most of our fear of dying is not actually about the act itself, but the trauma and debilitation that we imagine precedes it.
Loneliness, isolation, pain, poverty, loss of control, loss of mobility, loss of choice: these are the things we fear the most. But they are not death. They are a part of living. Death is the release from all of that.
The best way to prepare yourself for any major challenge is to rehearse. Much like a great actor preparing a Shakespearean role, so can we do the same. That is, until the curtain comes down.
Try this. Visualize, if you can, the final moment of life. See yourself breathing your last gasp of air. What will you want to be the final words on your lips? For me it would be, ‘Dear God, I love you.’ And then in my visualization, I feel myself warmed by a total golden light, like the sun enveloping me in its warmth and goodness.
In that moment, I see clearly the faces of those who are really important to me as I leave, and that too is a revelation. I then cease my hearing, my sight and my pain, and I shed these prison garments we call our body. I am now free, and my soul, my essence goes out into the sunlight, into a new and infinite space.
But I am not alone. I am welcomed by those whom I loved who departed before me. I see my father; my mother; my Ankali friends Clem and Patrizzio; my buddy Louis; Chula, my heavenly soul mate; and even my 2 budgies. And there too are Jesus, Moses, Allah, Buddha, and all the great and honored folk of yore. They are there to greet me, and I am finally home.
Chapter 7: I Am Not My Body
Once we grant that our essence is what matters, then our bodies become nothing more than a conveyance, a physical container to temporarily house our mind, soul and spirit.
This concept I find to be extremely liberating. When I can say to myself: I am not my body, then the ills and malfunctions that my body might suffer over its lifespan (note that I said its life span, not my life span) do not reflect on who and what and how I am.
I might be suffering from an onslaught of disease, but I can still reply, when asked how I am, ‘I am fine; my body, however, is sick.’ Now that might sound like semantics, but isn’t that the case with so many heroic people who are housed in broken bodies?
A prime example would be Christopher Reeve, the screen Superman who is more the epitome of that title than ever before. His mind and soul and spirit continue to soar far above his physical limitations. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lionel Barrymore, Stephen Hawking are just some of the people who have risen far and above the state of their bodies. But there are thousands, maybe millions, of ordinary people trapped in paralyzed bodies, sick bodies, deformed bodies, and just old bodies, who continue to exhibit purpose, life and love, proving that we are not necessarily equated to the condition of our skin and bones.
Now all we need is to take that one step further, to extrapolate from that example that our minds, souls and spirit will continue to exist when freed of this mortal coil—and perhaps even better.
What a liberating and magnificent thought that is, and why not believe in it, as there is just as much evidence in its favor as there is not? Meaning that there isn’t any one way or other. So we have a choice, and if we believe, then it can be so. As Dr Wayne Dwyer so aptly put it as a title for one of his books—I’ll See It When I Believe It.
Chapter 8: What, The Hell
It amazes me how some of the great religions of the world postulate on a life hereafter where we are either condemned to a fire and brimstone existence, or that of mystical angels strumming pearly little harps. The thought that we might come back as a tree or a caterpillar doesn’t seem to be an option. Of course Wagner did show us the way in his music drama Tristan Und Isolde, where the two lovers die and come back as trees entwined around each other for eternity. But then Wagner had his own ideas about purgatory and hell as depicted in his Lohengrin and Tannhauser.
Notwithstanding the realm of make believe, it has now been scientifically proven that the DNA of a common fruit fly is 98% similar to that of a human being. So really how much trouble would it be for either the fly, or us, to come back as one or the other?
And as to the biblical conceptions of heaven and hell, surely if there was a celestial oasis suspended over this planet earth, we would have seen some evidence of it by now in our solar explorations. Conversely, if there really did exist a fiery hell in the bowels of the earth, that too would have been discovered by our geological experts.
And then of course, there is the possibility that what we call life is really death, and conversely. After all, death is merely a word, which literally means ‘a cessation of life’, and life, ‘the state of living’. Now that doesn’t tell us very much does it?
Again playing the hypothetical game, let’s suppose it was the other way around and we in this present state were really dead, preparing to be born again into what is called life. With that sort of philosophy, can’t you see that anything material such as possessions, acquisitions, money, artifacts, etc would be useless to us?
The old adage would surely apply, as you can’t take it with you. But, the capacity to love, learn, and comprehend would be of enormous value to us. If we knew this was death, we would be perfecting our intrinsic values to the highest state, ignoring all things external.
We would be learning how to prepare for life. What are the real values, and what precepts and instructions can we leave behind for others to follow. There would be no point to war and conflict, for how would it benefit anyone? Whereas now we think that we will leave all our deeds and associates behind, there would instead be the self motivated desire to be on loveable terms with everyone, as everyone would be following with us and constitute our new existence, as would our deeds.
Sure this is fantasy, and you might sniggle at such rantings. But what if it was not? Can you prove otherwise? And even if it is fantasy, what a wonderful way to live this life or death, whatever you calls it.
Chapter 9: To Be Or Not To Be
Following on with the supposition that what we are experiencing now is really death, in preparation for life, lets consider the ramifications. Just as a new born child requires 9 months incubation in its mother’s womb, so may we require a prescribed term in this ‘death’ state before we are ready to assume our real life. Anything less for whatever the reasons could lead to a stillborn life or worse yet, a life lived with a deformity or diminished capacity.
I can hear you saying…well what about accidents, illnesses, and natural catastrophes and the like that can cut off one’s life expectancy? These are for sure tragic, but being beyond our control, they can be seen as preordained for whatever reason the Creator— whoever or whatever you deem that to be—sees fit, as that which can give life can logically be assumed to have the power to take it away.
But now let’s address the issue of self termination, be it suicide or euthanasia, a rose by any other name smells just as sweet, or in this case fetid. It is the supreme act of the ego, challenging the forces of nature and setting oneself up as a god.
For whatever the reasons and they may seem very valid at the time, suicide is an aborting of natural laws. No other creature on this earth has this as an option, but then no other creature on this earth has been given self-determination. But following through with our hypothesis, that the purpose and promise of this state of being…which I choose to call death…is really a preparation for the big time to come, then the cutting off of this maturation process before its natural conclusion, can preclude the perpetrator from entering the promised land. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly not to be wished.
Chapter 10: Alternatives
We’ve been indulging ourselves, or maybe I should say that I have been indulging myself, in a philosophical quest for some alternatives to current western thinking about death and dying. I have done so in order to bring some meaning and clarity to the process itself.
Let’s face it, we are all going to die, no one disputes that. Yet in our modern society, death is only viewed as a negative, cast in the same mold as taxes. Now what could be worse than that? What I would like to do now is to examine some realistic resources that can help to make the journey from this state to the next as pleasant and meaningful a transition as possible.
The greatest fear for someone who is dying, is that of facing it alone. Not everyone has a support network of family and friends to access. Fortunately there are alternatives, and I would like to talk about some of them now.
It has been estimated that over 70% of people experiencing prolonged pain, anxiety and depression, do so without the aid of a health care professional. But today there is what is called palliative care which can allay your fears, while at the same time making you more comfortable with the disease or illness that is afflicting you.
Palliative care is a term that is used for a specialized form of health care that is geared to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of both an individual facing a life-threatening illness and his or her loved ones, regardless of whether the disease is curable or not. In this way the journey towards death can become an enriching experience that gives meaning and completeness to life.
Rather than just treating the illness, palliative care focuses on the total person and enlists the services of a team of healthcare professionals. Physicians, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, Chaplains, rehabilitation therapists, and volunteers all work together to provide an holistic comfort zone for the patient.
The term ‘Hospice’ refers to a program or organisation that provides palliative care at a dying person’s home, or a site other than a hospital. Hospice care has seen a resurgence recently. Steadily increasing health-care costs and peoples desire to die with dignity, are encouraging more and more people to consider hospice care at the appropriate time.
Rather than being a morbid field of medicine, hospice care celebrates life. Patients and family are relieved of the burden of denial, together with its incumbent huge medical bills. Once having accepted the reality of a natural death as being part of life, they are free to spend their last days together in a loving and open manner.
As we have discussed, death is a part of life that our social structure holds in denial, and this includes a great majority of practitioners in the medical arts. As death is something none of us will avoid, it is just as important for physicians and health care personnel to be trained in terminal care as it is for them to be expert in life sustaining techniques.
Often health care workers are unwilling to prescribe adequate amounts of pain medication for their terminal patients, afraid that they might become addicted. This again is a product of their health care training, where death is usually considered to be a failure.
However when death is inevitable, it cannot be seen as a failure, but rather as an end to life as we know it. This is a concept that many practitioners of the healing arts, find difficult to come to terms with. It needs to be stressed that they are just as ethically bound to make the death of terminally ill patients as comfortable as possible, as they are to prolong life…at any cost.
Hospice care can be accessed either in an institution dedicated solely to its practice, or as an adjunct to what otherwise would be a bed in an overcrowded and somber ICU unit. The hospice paradigm ensures that families are able to stay with their loved ones and help them ‘cross over’. Hospice care removes as much of the mystery of the process of death as is possible for us humans, so that it becomes an enlightening and affirming experience for all involved…patient, family, and health care workers.
The simple fact is that everyone you now know will die in your lifetime…or you in theirs. So why not celebrate the miracle that it is?
Chapter 11: Causes
There has been an awful lot (no pun intended) written about dying, but very little about how we actually accomplish this transcendence. What I propose to do now is to actually articulate some of the many causes of death. This is rated MA—for mature audiences only.
OK, let’s start with the most benign of all…Old Age. One of the basic laws of thermodynamics states that systems tend towards greater entropy, or disorder. And so our bodies start to lose the battle against disorder as the general metabolism alters with ageing. This causes the body to degenerate (catabolize), at a faster rate than it regenerates (anabolizes). The result is a decrease in brain and muscle cells, and those new ones that are created can be faulty and less viable, due to transcription errors that start to occur in the DNA code.
Even the proteins that constitute the makeup of the cells deteriorate with age thereby causing wrinkles. Excess oxygen in the cells is transformed into harmful substances which then attack the cells structure leading to programmed cell death and the subsequent shut down of the body.
Experimental work is being done on the use of hormones and enzymes to prevent this ‘cellular rusting’, but until the fountain of youth has been found, don’t expect to evade the inevitable, if you are lucky enough indeed to die of old age.
Next on the hit parade of things that can knock us off, are Thrombi and Emboli. Thrombi (singular thrombus) are clots that form in the blood vessels of and leading to the heart; emboli (singular embolus) are air bubbles, blood clots or foreign bodies travelling through the body. Both have the potential of leading to a condition called ischemia, when the blood flow to an organ is cut off or diminished. This prevents the critical removal of waste material and also can stop the supply of oxygen and glucose which is integral to the healthy functioning of the cells.
Moving right along, we have that lovely sounding ailment called Ischemic Heart Disease. This is pretty much the same condition as above except the clots can now cause a heart attack. If the tissue is not actually dying from depravation the condition is called angina and will cause pain in the shoulders and elsewhere. However if the condition is prolonged and the tissue dies, there may be a prolonged heart attack that can cause death. The American Heritage Dictionary explains a heart attack as an ‘Acute myocardial infraction typically resulting from an occlusion or obstruction of a coronary artery and characterized by sudden and severe pain in the chest that often radiates to the shoulder, arm or jaw’. Call it what you will, it doesn’t sound like fun.
If a clot or emboli lodges in the vessels leading to the brain, we have what is called a stroke, and this is definitely not one of good luck. Strokes can also be caused by rupturing of blood vessels in the brain caused by hypertension. The brain is a very sensitive organ that requires a constant blood flow without which irreversible damage will result. All of the above are termed erebro-vascular disease.
And now for that most dreaded of all culprits, the big C, Cancer. Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells resulting in tumors that then spread and harm other parts of the body. There are a variety of treatments and many are still being sought, but as yet there is no definitive cure.
If we want to get more technical, we can cite the American Heritage Dictionary which describes cancer as, ‘Any of various malignant neoplasms characterised by the proliferation of anaplastic cells that tend to invade surrounding tissue and metastasize to new body sites. No matter how you define it, it ain’t pretty.
Lung cancer, which includes the trachea and the bronchus, is now the leading cause of death from cancer, having more than tripled in death rate from 1950. It is almost always the direct result of carcinogens (chemicals that cause cancer), from cigarette smoking. The cancerous tissue multiplies rapidly destroying the ability of the lungs to absorb air. You literally suffocate to death.
Cancer of the stomach, is still a serious issue although deaths from it have decreased. Symptoms are very vague, including indigestion, bleeding, nausea and loss of appetite. Risk factors include being over 55, male, black, and having stomach bacteria, pernicious anemia, acholrdia gastric atrophy and exposure to certain dust and fumes.
Breast cancer, is the second leading cause of cancer death (behind lung cancer) in women. One in nine of American women will develop breast cancer. It is detected by mammography (x-rays) or physical examination. It occurs predominantly in older woman, although the cause is not known.
Okay, we have highlighted some of the biggies that can, and do, do us in. Needless to say, there are a myriad of others, but it is not the purpose of this book to be a medical journal. Rather, I would prefer to outline the journey so that there are as few surprises as possible.
We have discussed both the physiognomy and the philosophy of dying, but on a practical basis, I must say that, as unprepared as our current society and theology readies us for the act of dying, we are also totally misled about longevity. The fiction is propagated that we will age gracefully and healthily, frolicking like young seals on exotic beaches as we enjoy the golden years of retirement. Well, let me not burst your balloon, but very few of the world’s population can or will be able to afford such luxuries. Indeed, in some countries today, the average age to which we can expect good health is limited to 25 or so. Whereas in Australia we can expect to enjoy good health to the age of 74, if one lives that long, that is the exception, not the rule.
The fallacy that we will avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune is just that…a fallacy. Most of us will experience the likes of diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimers, arthritis, osteoporosis and a host of other debilitating ailments long before we shuffle off this mortal coil. After all, something has to kill us. Otherwise we would all be trampling along on this firmament to the end of time, which postulate, we have already seen, is highly impractical. It is this romanticism of ageing—again the ‘Golden Years’ claptrap—that totally disillusions us when the shit starts to happen. Why am I creaking? limping? drying up? leaking? etc as the years progress? We scream this to the heavens as if it were some horrible joke being played on us. Weren’t we supposed to be happy, healthy and beautiful all through our days, and then, one-day, just drop dead?
Well, I can tell you it sure doesn’t work that way. As we saw in Chapter 1, nature has programmed us in such a way as to ensure that we will either go when she beckons, or we will plead for mercy if we don’t. The idea is to come to terms with this reality and, just as a flower accepts that it will wither and die, so should we. Because, you see, whether we accept it or not, the end result is the same inasmuch as the end is the result, or vice-versa.
Ok, we have examined why we die, how we die and even had some fun fantasizing on the hereafter. So how do we prepare for this celestial (or otherwise) trip?
If you go along with my theory, we would do so by living every moment as if it was our last. Not waiting for that ‘judgement day’, but rather enjoying the beauty of the bounty that we have.
There are many philosophic and theological books on dying and how to come to terms with this transition. Most religions come rushing in at the last moment to bless and save our souls. But what I am postulating is, that to seek such absolution just as we are faced with death is hypocrisy. Why should we be absolved in our final hour, of the atrocities we have committed in a lifetime of living?
It’s all too convenient. I believe that peace of mind and tranquility will be ours in the moment of death, when we have lived our lives lovingly and as I have said in chapter 1, creating our own heaven in the here-after by our deeds in the now.
And even if I am wrong about such a hereafter, what a wonderful now that would be.
Give it a try, see you in the anon…unless you figure out how to live forever.