On Neo-Morbidism

Some (unrefined) thoughts:

What a strange culture and a strange time in which we find ourselves. It appears sometimes that I live in a world full of thinkers. There are post-moderns, contemplative theologians, poignant poets, articulate atheists…and so on.

I think that one thing we have not thought very well about, though, is death. In fact, I am becoming quite sure that, on the topic of death, most of us are silly, shallow, thoughtless, backwards fools.

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"The Fountain" - a film by Darren Aronofsky

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[The following is simply me thinking onto the keyboard. Some of these enquiries make me squirm, too. But I would much rather squirm, than be guilty of avoiding difficult questions simply because they are difficult.]

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Our approach to (or retreat from) death is upside-down – or backward. A list might help elucidate the problem…

HISTORICALLY “NORMAL” DEATHS

(by this, I mean, individuals or groups that civilizations generally expected would frequently die – and whose death was surely mourned, but – in a way – embraced as a part of life’s tragic beauty)

  • Soldiers
  • Criminals
  • The very young, the very old, and the very ill
  • Animals

DEATHS THAT MUCH OF OUR MODERN CULTURE FINDS NORMAL

  • Deaths in cinema (generally, men love violent films and video games; generally, women can’t get enough of a tragic death in an emotional drama)
  • Abortion
  • Deaths of civilians in our overseas wars (oh, we feign concern, but we’re just glad the RPGs aren’t landing in our back yards)
  • Osama Bin Laden (where we danced in the streets after his death)

DEATHS THAT MUCH OF OUR MODERN CULTURE FINDS UNACCEPTABLE

  • Soldiers (Where is the modern-day Achilles…or even Hector? But every man is a Paris…)
  • Criminals (The death penalty is rarely used and mostly disparaged)
  • The very young, the very old, and the very ill (I would be interested to see the percentage of our GDP that is spent on extending the years of these three groups)
  • Animals (I would wager that much less than 50% of the American population has ever killed an animal for the purpose of eating it, but almost all of us eat meat – a 2008 poll showed that less than 4% of Americans are vegetarians. Our personification/humanization of animals is unprecedented [to my knowledge]; it lends itself to a general squeamishness about blood and death in animals.)

It’s all backwards. I call it neo-morbidism.

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I often imagine what it must have been like to be a Jewish boy thousands of years ago, watching my father raise a lamb with the knowledge that it would be slaughtered at Passover. What would my view of death have been?

I imagine the colonial days, and those of the westward expansion – how many families lost at least one child to neo-natal frailty, or early illness?

I sometimes imagine what it must be like to observe death’s approach in the last few seconds of life. What are the final sentiments of the man who bows his head to death at the guillotine? Does he sigh, and smile? Does he capitulate in despair? Surely he can not but wonder (even if his avowed atheism condemns him for it), “What will I be/see/do a few moments from now? Will all go to blackness, or will everything be illuminated?”

I regularly wonder why we fear death. I never wonder why we cling to life – I have my own reasons, and both of those reasons are sublimely beautiful. I wonder why we fear death.

In instances of death, for whom do we mourn? Those who have departed? Or those who remain? Our faith speaks to the folly of the former (provided the deceased were in Christ). And what of the latter? Self-pity? Perhaps…yet is that so wrong?

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Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet

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My pragmatic questions:

We know naturally that death is something we want to resist, and life is something we want to preserve. Okay. But at what cost?

There is a direct correlation between money and longevity. Impoverished nations are filled with people who can’t afford the most basic medical interventions; these people often die from their maladies. Wealthy nations are filled with people who are insured enough to afford medical interventions, or who are willing to go into debt enough to obtain expensive treatments. (Then, presumably because we’re bored, we create illness in ourselves – obesity, for example – and then we create medical procedures to “cure” those illnesses – “lap band” procedures, for example.)

But for everyone, life must have a price tag. For example: If there were a body armor that could essentially guarantee that the one wearing it would not be killed, how much would we be willing to pay to outfit each of our soldiers with that equipment? One hundred dollars per soldier? One thousand? One million? One billion dollars per soldier? At some point, we say, “No. Being a soldier carries inherent risk, and we simply can’t afford to defray the risk that much.”

Concerning Obamacare (which I loathe, by the way), many of its opponents protest that the lives of citizens will now be preserved or ended based upon economics (via “Death Panels”). But such is the case even without government-run healthcare – it must be!

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The beautiful, sad irony is that while we would avoid death at (almost) any cost, or at least wish to distance ourselves from it, death still barges in, rudely, daily.

Some of my favorite musings on death:

Shakespeare, Hamlet — “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause.”

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time — “As soon as man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die.”….Death is the individual’s “ownmost potentiality-for-being, non-relational, and not to be out-stripped.”]

The Fountain [2006 film]  — “Death is the road to awe.”

C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle — the swallowing up of the old Narnia, and the eternal venturing into the new Narnia

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That’s more of a beginning than an end. But I’ll leave it there for now.

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2 Responses to On Neo-Morbidism

  1. thelyniezian says:

    Well, a lot of this article does make sense- we have our ideas of death entirely the wrong way round. I wonder if it’s perhaps most of the developed world in some way doesn’t see death anywhere as often as it once did- advances in medicine, hygene &c. have prevented a lot of the nastier disieases that killed so man people off so young, with rare exceptions, there hasn’t been much in the way of wars on home turf, and in the sense of animal death… well, most of us aren’t farmers like you guys, nor get directly involved in the slughtering process. I guess that’s one thing your contribution to the internet helps with! This is also one reason I insisted on seeing my grandma’s body after she had just died- in a way, I thought it necessary to ‘see death’ close up.

    Yet it does seem there is a morbid (in all possible senses of the word) fascination with simulated violence in ‘the media’- I know from having played (or watched other people play) violent videogames. Perhaps the fact it isn’t real helps distance us from it a bit- even movie violence to me is more cringeworthy, because at last movies involve real actors

    I’m not sure about putting a ‘price tag’ on life- yes, there may be economic considerations which limit just how far you can go protecting life, but that should be no excuse for not trying to get a decent standard. (I hear plenty about how the military in my own home country of Britiain, say, is having to make do with sub-standard equipment because the government seems incompetent to provide it, say). And I can’t get this business with “Obamacare”- it doesn’t even seem to go as far as our NHS. I really don’t get the American health system, but from news reports, it seems that too many people fall through the gaps because they can’t quite afford health insurance and can’t get Medicaid or whatever. The NHS might be not up to par, but at least it’s there. (Mind you it does perhaps mean the state is funding abortions, somewhat creepy.)

    • Hi! Thanks for reading!
      You’re right – there is a morbid fascination with violent video games. I’ve spent a good chunk of time playing some of them. I’m not opposed to them necessarily – just when cinema and video games become our sole experience of death. Because that death is cheap. And it doesn’t smell; you can’t feel the dead body or the blood; death is not “in the air” when you push a button on a video game controller, like it is when someone dies, or we slaughter a pig. So then you have gamers recruited by our military to operate drone bombers, because they’re deft and intuitive in all the right ways – but these boys are executing civilians and never even seeing them, touching them. It’s not right.
      The problems with the American health care system are legion, and you’re right that Obamacare doesn’t “go as far” as NHS. The problem with things like Obamacare, NHS, and generally state-run healthcare is that one can’t see the ill effects immediately, and even when one finally does see them, they appear in places that veil their origins.
      What I mean is, when such a huge sector of the economy is run by government, it’s bound to be ineffective and unbelievably expensive. Now, the NHS is, of course, “free.” But we all know that’s far from true – the government takes exorbitant amounts of money from you every year in order to run the NHS. Then, since the healthcare is “free,” the citizens feel free to go to the doctor for every sniffle, itch, or fever. Which is ridiculous, and causes the system to become even more expensive. And while a nationalized health care system might have regulatory structures in place to try to prevent this kind of inflation, there is simply no regulator as good as the free market (because if a person can’t afford something, then [in theory] they can’t and won’t buy it). So costs continue to rise for myriad reasons, and the government hides them by taking the people’s money. Ours does it by devaluing the currency – printing dollars. Eventually, the government, and the country, come across a grand economic crisis and few guess that it was exacerbated by nationalized health care (because I won’t pretend that economic frailty is the result solely of something like that – it’s a paradigm problem, and nationalized health care fits into that paradigm).
      And you’re partially right in that “the state is funding abortions.” Because, of course, really youare funding abortions. Which again brings around the whole problem. Because if you’re funding abortions, then you’re really (a part of) funding every single medical procedure that happens on your island. Whether you think they’re needed or not. Talk about a loss of liberty!
      Sadly, we already suffer from many of these problems in the U.S. of A., and we don’t even have the NHS (unless that stands for National Honors Society, which we do have). But what we don’t have is a free market. There are government interventions at every step and every level of medicine, such that healthcare costs become ridiculous. The government’s reach extends from ridiculous things like the inability of insurance companies to freely sell insurance across state lines (allowing for essential monopolies, or at least oligopolies, in certain states), to all the cumbersome regulations from places like the FDA, which generally just gum up the works and add cost to the system; and then there are the activist (or just crazy) judges who rule for ridiculous amounts of money in malpractice or medical-related settlements. Add to that things like the government subsidization of corn (which turns into HFCS, which means taxpayers pay to keep soda pop cheap, which means the subsidization of the obesitization of America), and you can see where the government is even helping to make Americans unhealthier, which puts more strain on the system, which drives prices up up up.
      I guess my point is that healthcare DOES have a price tag. It must. It’s a “good” or “service” – so it costs. And some people buy insurance to help defray the risk of something that might cost a LOT. Other people don’t. But if you can’t afford something, well, then you can’t afford it. And some day, if nothing changes, I expect the British government won’t be able to afford health care – at least in the way people might like to receive it. But it will be so incrementally downgraded that I wonder how many people will notice. The same will happen to us, if we don’t restore health care to a genuinely free market, and create a country where personal responsibility – more than a nanny state – is treasured, encouraged, and necessary.

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