Thursday, March 31, 2005

Something to Nothing
I used to be scared of dying. (I almost typed "scared to death of dying," but how stupid is that?) Seriously. I thought about it every day, multiple times a day. And I used to think, although I don't believe I ever said it to anybody, that if it took being hooked up to a car battery to keep me alive, that's what I would want. What made me fear it, ironically enough, was believing in God. Because as long as I believed in God, I knew the score, and there was no way I was getting to Heaven. (I almost typed "no way in Hell," but how stupid is that?) So it was the fiery furnace for me, cracklin' and snappin' like a piece of bacon for all eternity. But even if through some terrible clerical error I got into Heaven, eternal life didn't exactly seem like a prize--because after you've had lunch with Abraham Lincoln, Ray Nitschke, and Robert Johnson a few hundred times, and learned everything there is to know about every subject there is to study, how are you going to spend the gazillion years you have remaining?

But after really studying the evidence for God's existence, I decided that he doesn't. Of course, you don't need a God to have an afterlife. There's the Tibetan concept of the bardo, an island between, where souls go while waiting for, well, whatever. While it would be wonderful if there were a place where my grandparents and my best friend Dave and my mother-in-law were all hanging out waiting for me to arrive, the concept is problematical. For example: my father-in-law has remarried. Which of his wives gets to sit in the passenger seat of his celestial Crown Victoria? And which version of my Grandpa Oscar is going to be there--the elderly one I remember, or the vigorous young Norwegian farmer I never knew?

Terri Schiavo's supporters are probably rejoicing amidst their tears today, believing that she's in the proverbial "better place." (That death would release her from her earthly prison makes her parents' fight to keep her alive seem rather odd. If someone you love is suffering, wouldn't you want to end it?) But I'm skeptical of that, too. A couple of years ago I attended the funeral of a young person who'd used a wheelchair most of his life. The pastor performing the service spoke emotionally of how the kid no longer needed the wheelchair, and how he was, at the very moment all of us were mourning, was walking and running and dancing and such. I am sure he intended it as a comfort, but I wonder how comforting it was to those grieving the hardest. It seemed to me a little like saying, "You've all won $64 million dollars in the lottery. You can't have it, but isn't it wonderful that you won it?" How, precisely, does that lend comfort?

My best guess is that dying is like going to sleep and never waking up to anything afterward. You don't know you're dead, because the senses that give you the ability to differentiate something from nothing don't work anymore. (Kind of like what happens when your cerebral cortex is gone.) And that doesn't sound particularly frightening to me. What is far more frightening to me than the loss of my physical life is the loss of my dignity--and one thing you can say about the Schiavo case is that everyone it touches has lost that. Her poor parents, who fought so hard to hold onto her--and whose simple parental love, I suspect, was in the end taken advantage of by people who were smarter and more politically ruthless than they could ever have been on their own. Republicans in Congress, for finally doing something so nakedly opportunistic that people who have tolerated all the rest of their shit can't stand the smell of this. Democrats in Congress, for failing to stand on principle even when the American public well and truly would have had their backs. The protesters outside the hospice, who became part of that weirdly American breed who weep selectively for some of the people they have never known. The cable news channels, which made more people dumber faster than at any other time in history.

It's not over, either. There's more dignity for people and politicians to lose. The religious right will continue its cultural war; Congressional Republicans will have their judicial war. CNN and MSNBC and Fox News will stay stupid. And Terri Schiavo crosses into American history.

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