Death and the Single Cause

Steve Talbott

I don't know how to say what I'm going to say without it being grotesquely misinterpreted. But let me begin by offering two truths I think we need to hold together:

- Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

- Today we must expect that some of the greatest abuses of man and nature will be justified in the name of saving lives.

The following meditation, very much a work in progress, was prompted by a couple of things: first, continuing news about the West Nile virus in New York City and surroundings, where public fear (and consequent wholesale spraying of insecticides aimed at mosquitoes) has not always been proportional to the danger; and, second, the widespread justification of even the most questionable biotech procedures whenever a life is at risk. For example, one recent commentator opposes human germline experimentation as hazardous, ill-advised, and unethical, yet suggests that the risks and wrongs "may be counterbalanced when a life is at stake".

In the West Nile case, you've got fearful citizens on the one side, worried that they or a loved one will be bitten by a mosquito and die. On the other side, environmentalists fret about the accumulative results of the thousands of novel poisons we are releasing into the environment at an accelerating rate. In any debate framed by these two fears, the environmentalists are almost certain to lose, because a single death attributable to a single, identifiable agent carries vastly more weight with the public than debatable statistics about theoretically increased mortality due to unspecifiable combinations of unseen chemicals at barely detectable concentrations in the air, water, and soil. As Peter Montague put the problem in a recent issue of Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly:

The truth is, scientists can never figure out whether pesticides on a child's cornflakes (for example) are "safe" or "insignificant" because

(a) there are dozens or hundreds of adverse effects to consider, and -- if history is any guide -- new ones will be discovered tomorrow;

(b) the pesticide effects will be added on top of whatever other stresses the child may be experiencing (medical drugs, auto exhaust, paint fumes, second-hand cigarette smoke, divorced parents, chronic ailments, excessive ultraviolet radiation from the sun because of a depleted ozone layer, and so on);

(c) children (like all organisms) have differing abilities to cope, and a unique history of exposure to hazards; and

(d) all organisms, like all ecosystems, are simply too complex for science to understand sufficiently to allow reliable prediction of effects.

All this notwithstanding, we love precise causes for our problems -- they seem the scientific thing to have. That's why the environmental movement tries, wherever possible, to tie down a death to a particular pollutant. And, for PR purposes, the tying down is almost as good as having a malevolent mosquito for an enemy; you can trigger fear and mobilize the public. But my suspicion is that an overly zealous crying of "death!" and an overly confident fingering of its supposedly definitive causes will bring us more trouble than gain.

Quite apart from the near-certainty that, with further investigation, our alleged causes will tend to deflate under the weight of multiplying caveats, there's also this: When we make the avoidance of death and the eradication of its "cause" an absolute imperative, we provide a handy rationale for whatever remedy may present itself, however extreme and destructive. In the end, those who would commit atrocities will benefit from absolute, unbending imperatives far more than those who seek true healing. Healing is always primarily a matter of restoring balances, not destroying enemy causes.

Is Death a Consequence or a Cause?

When an octagenarian gets the flu and dies in his sleep, did the flu "cause" his death? Perhaps you could say so in a shallow and partial sense. But it's worth remembering that death comes to all of us in the normal course of events. The man may have been ready to die simply because that's the natural conclusion his entire organism had reached, and his susceptibility to the flu may have merely testified to this fact. It may be truer to say that his death "caused" the flu than that the flu "caused" his death.

I am currently sharing in the care for an 83-year-old woman who lives in my home and is suffering Alzheimer's-like dementia. Despite my own acute failings as a caregiver, and despite my wife's and my uncertainty about whether we can manage this responsibility, I do feel that, so long as it is entrusted to us, her care is a sacred charge. True, this woman is mostly "not here". But the same is true of a small child, and in both cases it is by ministering to what is here that we reach what has not yet arrived or has already departed.

You may or may not find meaning in this particular conviction; I mention it only in order to make clear that I do not think a life is meaningless or wasted simply because its earthly manifestation is severely constrained. This, I hope, will prevent misinterpretation of the following question:

When, about two years ago -- and after showing the first signs of mental deterioration -- this same woman suffered a near-fatal case of spinal meningitis, only to be brought back from the edge by antibiotics, was this a worthy or unworthy defeat of death? Was she ready for death when the meningitis came, so that this current phase of her life in our home was not really "intended"?

I don't know. But my fear of misinterpretation is all the greater because I realize how eagerly the question -- and one particular answer to it -- will be embraced by the supporters of euthanasia. Be assured: I will be much happier than I ever ought to be if Jack Kevorkian spends the rest of his life stewing in jail. But I also believe that if good and evil are opposites, they are deeply entangled opposites, so that a virtuous stance can easily look like a diabolical one, and vice versa. The difference between a Nazi experimenter on human flesh and the most saintly surgeon may, at certain moments and in outward, logical terms, seem to require splitting the finest of hairs.

Endings Are As Important As Beginnings

Those "outward, logical terms" are a good part of the problem. By inclining us toward the search for sharp-edged, univocal causes and effects, they blind us to the subtle qualities of the larger picture. After all, when we look at life as a whole -- when we look qualitatively, rather than with the binary gaze that says a person is either dead or not, and the former state should be avoided at all costs -- we discover that life and death belong together. Our living and our dying require each other.

Our dying begins at an early age, and at a certain mid-point of life one begins to realize that the whole positive meaning of his existence lies in the effort to do that dying well. Personally, fear-ridden as I am, I expect to deal with the ultimate event very badly indeed. But I can testify to the liberating effect -- the enrichment of life -- that comes from even the barest hint of a reconciliation with death. To make an absolute of life and to view death as something to be avoided at all costs is to deprive life of its savor and meaning, and to guarantee that it is lived badly. We have to die a bit every day in order to live well.

Look at it this way. If the statement about laying down one's life for a friend suggests that an earthly life is worth saving at an extreme cost, it also suggests that letting go of a life can be a supreme achievement. Without treasuring both sides of this truth, we will lose even the sense that life is valuable, since there is value only in what can be given away.

What is required of us, I think, is to begin learning to read our lives organically, integrally, with a sense for their direction, form, and meaning. Then we will recognize that endings are as natural and important as beginnings. And then, when we read about several deaths "caused" by the normally mild West Nile virus, we will be deeply concerned and moved to action, but our action will be tempered by a certain perspective, so that we will not easily be stampeded in panic.

If I have read the news reports correctly, the West Nile virus is not much more likely to bring death than the flu, and, like the flu, it primarily threatens the elderly. When we do hear of a death, it seems to me that we should require the truth of the epidemiologist and coroner to confront the truth of the eulogist, until we have one harmonious story. Perhaps our first question ought to be a respectful one about the life that has passed. Who was this? What was the shape and gesture of his life? And how did his passing round off that shape -- or leave it incomplete? Without such understanding, how can we possibly know whether the passing occasioned the illness or the illness the passing?

No, I don't think there are many people on earth today with the wisdom to make such judgments -- the wisdom to judge, for example, whether a deceased child's destiny was fulfilled or an octagenarian's cut tragically short. I myself most certainly lack the necessary insight, and all prospects for it seem distressingly remote.

Nor could we conceivably enshrine this line of thought in public policy. But then, while much of what is highest in the human being must be excluded from public policy in any direct sense, it remains true that wise public policy depends upon our pursuing the highest things. And it is hardly quixotic to suggest we must strive *toward* the kind of insight I have characterized here, given that we are already forced to make these fateful judgments all the time, as when we must decide whether to inject an 81-year-old meningitis sufferer with antibiotics. We might as well work at learning to make them well.

No Call to Tolerate Pollutants

It is the same with our efforts creatively to sustain the biosphere. How can we heal a natural setting when the ecological complexities are so far beyond our understanding? Yet we have no choice but to act and learn as best we can, since our current presence is damaging the biosphere irremediably.

Here, as in the consideration of our own lives, we need a growing capacity to grasp the expressive qualities of organic wholes. Only when we recognize the higher-level unity manifesting itself through all the parts and determining those parts can we make sense of the overwhelming complexity.

Such an approach will lead us, I am convinced, to be rather less inclined toward the search for dead bodies and smoking guns when it comes to environmental pollutants. Certainly illnesses and deaths will always be a major cause for concern and a clue for further research, but they should not be absolutized as unqualified evils or as simplistic pointers to culprit causes. In assessing an organic setting, we always have to do with the interpenetrating qualities of a picture, not a one-dimensional sequence of causes and effects.

Unfortunately, all of this will sound to many like a call for greater tolerance of environmentally destructive pollutants, as long as they are kept in some sort of balance. As you will see in a moment, this is not quite the case. But first we need to acknowledge that it does appear distressingly inconsistent to be tolerant of death when it comes to mosquitoes, and absolutist about avoiding death when it comes to environmental pollutants. The solution, I think, is to be ecologically minded in both cases.

It is wholly consistent with what I said above about personal acceptance of death to say also: As long as we are at risk of a single death from mosquito-borne West Nile virus, we are bound to work against the disease. But we must work with the ecological balances of nature rather than against them, simply because that is the only way to work without defeating ourselves in unforeseen ways.

It is within this ecological context that a certain acceptance of death is forced upon us even as a matter of public policy (where we must accept limits to what we can reasonably do while always working to push those limits outward). But the same concern for essential ecological balances that leads to a (provisional) acceptance of a certain mortality rate associated with mosquitoes will also prevent us from countenancing the unhealthy disruption of the biosphere by pollutants. To refuse to absolutize death -- to recognize its essential place in life -- is not to condone any activity we can recognize as unhealthy or destructive. A sensitivity to the essential presence of death in our lives should make us more alert to what kills gratuitously, not less. Ecological realities may place limits upon the control of mosquitoes, but no ecological reality requires dumping many of the damaging chemicals we unload into our environment.

In other words, the flipside of everything I said above is that we should not feel obligated to find dead bodies and smoking guns before we take action against abuses of the environment. In many cases we will learn to recognize that this or that substance just doesn't belong in our fields or forests or oceans; it is a jarring and contradictory element in the picture, regardless of whether we can link particular disasters to it. The besmirching of the beauty and integrity of nature will itself be an outrage to us, because it will show Death escaping its proper bounds.

I am not suggesting it will be easy for us to become worthy sculptors of our own lives, from beginning to end, or of nature's wholeness, from growth to decay. It seems nearly impossible. But there is no escaping the demand upon us. Humility in the face of the demand is probably the first virtue, and a devotion to Nature as our teacher the second. And the third, perhaps, is a willingness to loosen our rigid, unbalancing grip upon transient life.

As to the engineers' decidedly unhumble depredations upon the genome, to which I alluded at the outset: I doubt that any proper limits can be recognized or defended until we find it within ourselves to say, "My deliverance from this disease -- my life itself -- is not that important".

Technology and Death

When I remarked above that death requires an acceptance on our part even as we are bound to work against it, some of you may have been reminded of a theme I have pursued in the past:

The computer is our hope if we can accept it as our enemy; as our friend it will destroy us.

More generally: technology is a kind of death principle in human society today. We must often embrace it and use it, but can safely do so only while working against it. We must continually become more alive and awake as human beings in order to preserve our humanity in the presence of the machine's powerful inducement toward sleepwalking and automatism, which is death.

Unfortunately, the flexibility required for this creative adaptation -- the ability to move in apparently contrary directions and to make a higher unity of them -- is exactly what our experience with machines (and especially with intelligent machines) tends to discourage. It may be trite, but it is also true, to say that machines train us in rigidly logical thinking much more than in expressive, artistic thinking. The dancer or composer or painter can take opposite movements and harmonize them in a way that the logician must not.

But if the machine drags us downward and nothing much at all pulls us upward ... well, that is the whole point. This asymmetry is exactly what we need, however grave the risk of a disastrous outcome. For we can become more alive and wakeful only from within ourselves. A noble choice "pulled" out of us would not be a noble choice, and would not be our choice.

A society driven by a kind of death-like technological necessity, but with nothing "commanding" us to counter this necessity, is what allows us to waken more fully as selves. After all, what makes a self is the ability to act out of oneself rather than out of an external and mechanical necessity.

Our relationship with the environment, with death, and with technology needs to be much more like a dance than a mechanism, much more the expressive pursuit of a guiding image than the assertion of causes and effects. This is the way every organism moves in an ecological context, its own gestures both reflecting and responding to everything else that is going on -- but in a way that expresses its own unique being. Only with such grace can we accept death (or technology) and in that very act transcend it.


Thanks to NetFuture, a freely distributed newsletter dealing with technology and human responsibility. It is published by The Nature Institute, 169 Route 21C, Ghent NY 12075 (tel: 518-672-0116). Postings occur roughly every couple of weeks. The editor is Steve Talbott, author of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst.

Copyright 2000 by The Nature Institute.

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