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Recently I experienced one of the shockingly few occasions, in my thirty years and change on this world, in which death wasn’t just an abstract concept for me to vaguely understand from an intellectual distance.

Our guinea pigs died a little over a week ago, and as such, this blog is now sadly mascotless.

A couple of years ago I wrote about the loss of Kirsty’s cat Bruno, in a post critically acclaimed and highly lauded by a wide audience of in-laws who’d known Bruno for years longer than I had and were also sad that he’d gone.

This isn’t a eulogy post for Higgs and Boson in the same way that that was for Bruno. But I wanted to write about a few things that I noticed, in the immediate aftermath of that time I wandered outside to give our furry friends some fresh water and grass, only to discover two motionless corpses.

1. I was surprised how bothered I was that they were dead.

I say “surprised” because this was undoubtedly a less significant and tragic moment than when my cat housemate died in 2011. This is true even though I’d only lived with him for his last couple of shaky months, while the pigs had been around for a few years.

I mean, guinea pigs? C’mon. Not to diminish anyone else’s attachment to their own furry rodents, but they’re a bit rubbish.

Higgs and Boson were squeaky idiots without a great deal of personality, lacking the brainpower to even conceptualise who I was in any meaningful way which might have let me delude myself that they cared about me. Not like cats. Cats are very good at forcing that delusion upon you, especially when they’re hungry.

Our pig-interest had drifted notably in recent months, anyway, especially since Pi came along and was way more interesting. We kept them fed and watered and safe from wild animal attacks, but we hadn’t had much socialising time with them lately. Aside from bringing them in to splash around in the bath while I was cleaning out their hutch a little while ago, we hadn’t really ventured very far above the base level of Maslow’s hierarchy of piggy needs. They were fluffy and cute, and a regular part of my life – just not a hugely important or stimulating one.

But for nearly a week, my mind kept wandering back to the fact that they were gone, and feeling horrible about it. Several times a day my face and throat would start doing that thing like when my wife sees a John Lewis advert or a lonely owl.

I’ve never actually lost anything that’s been as big a part of my life as they were. Which sounds ridiculous, but I think it’s true. Nothing else has been there so constantly and consistently – checking their water and food just about every day, letting them run about in the grass while their hutch gets cleaned out most weekends, making sure they’re tucked in safe every time the wind and the rain picked up – and then suddenly not been anywhere any more.

This was the first death of a pet that was really mine. Not like Bruno; I was just his fellow lodger for a couple of months. But I went with Kirsty to pick Higgs and Boson out from the pet shop. And I dug a hole to bury them in at the bottom of the garden.

2. I think the pigs have kinda acted as a proxy for something I’ve had very little experience of having to face directly.

There’s something ideologically offensive about the idea of something, which once was, just suddenly ending like that. The guinea pigs turning up dead has been a reminder that this is something which can just happen, out of nowhere, to me and to things in my life. Even if pigs rank pretty low on the heartbreak scale, I’m going to lose things I love.

I didn’t so much miss them and want them back – they’re guinea pigs, there’s not a lot to miss – but I wanted this whole thing not to have happened. And let’s be honest: I wanted it not to have happened to me. It was a selfish feeling, more than something based on real sympathy for the pigs’ own plight.

It makes everything feels less certain and stable, in a way that I’m pretty sure you’re meant to figure out when you’re about six, but which I seem to have missed.

3. Often, your physical response determines your emotions more than the other way around.

The phrase to Google if you want to find out the fascinating story here seems to be “misattribution of arousal“. Basically, various physiological states such as fear and excitement have a lot in common, as far as what’s going on in terms of your body chemistry – and whether you’re frightened or excited in any given moment is, to a surprising extent, something your brain can just decide for itself, rather than being entirely determined by the situation you’re in.

This is why horror movies and roller coasters are good first date ideas. The actual reason someone’s pulse is racing might be because they’re being flung through the air, or screaming at an actress not to go outside alone because she’s going to get eviscerated – but on some level, all they know is that they’re sat next to you, and they’re manifesting all the same physical symptoms of romantic interest and excitement, so they unconsciously make up a story to explain why you appear to get them all hot and bothered.

I’ve been able to watch something similar happening to my own emotions. When I was back at work a couple of days after burying the pigs (it was a long bank holiday weekend, I didn’t take compassionate leave), there were a couple of moments when I walked briskly across the office, sat down, felt a bit out of breath (because I walk fast and my body is a frail bundle of out-of-shape twigs) – and suddenly felt sad about them again.

The natural assumption, if I were still labouring under the common misconception that I have any innate understanding of my own thoughts and feelings, would be that my grief sometimes causes me to feel physically lethargic and run-down. What’s actually happening far more often is that, after some minor physical exhaustion, my brain notices that slight feeling of sagging due to being a bit puffed, and decides after the fact that I must be feeling sad about the pigs, so it conjures up some appropriate emotions to suit my physical state.

Sometimes, I’m not crying because I feel sad; I feel sad because I’m crying. This is a ridiculous way for a conscious mind to arrange things. But it’s also seriously empowering to know that, if your mood’s kinda low, maybe you just haven’t stood up straight, adopted a Superman pose, and forced a smile in too long – and that such easy fixes can really make a big difference.

4. I gave blood again last week.

It was my fifth time, and it’s still an important, easy, wonderful thing that you can probably do too. It hurts less than banging your toe on a door, which I’ve also done this week, only this way you save lives and you get a free biscuit.

And although that’s still all true, and I believe and stand by my usual spiel as much as ever… I believe it as an idea, on an intellectual level, at a remove from what it means.

When I exhort you to find a blood donation centre near you, and go along sometime to chat about your suitability to donate with some wonderfully professional and friendly nurses, and let them look after you every step of the way while you stop people from dying, just by having a bit of a lie down and then a snack… I’m not really feeling the emotional impact of what I’m talking about.

I absolutely mean every word. Giving blood is good, saving lives is wonderful, and people are important. I’ve been sad, and I’ve missed people, and there are people in my life who I really don’t want to die.

But these two guinea pigs are about the greatest loss I’ve ever actually had to personally deal with.

What it’s actually like – the actual sensations, the qualia, the damnable phenomena and experiences we’re trying to prevent, the aching hollowness, the bewildering sense of loss and being lost, the disorientation of stumbling on a missing stair… that’s all still new to me. It shouldn’t be, for someone my age, given the inevitability of having to face it, and the lack of notice with which it may come. But there it is.

And if it scales up proportionately – from unremarkable whiffly balls of hair who it’s been quite nice to have around, up to, like, people, with brains full of personalities and agency and hopes and clich├ęs and all the rest – then holy crap. Death sucks.

Yep. That’s why you come here. For the frequent updates, and for the profound and original insights into the human condition.

That’ll do, pigs. That’ll do.

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Fred Phelps, former patriarch of the organisation perhaps most globally renowned for sincerely and consistently committing to its core principle of hating literally everybody else on the planet, has died.

His church made a name for themselves by parading as close as they were legally permitted to the highest-profile funerals they were able to attend, waving placards of hate and bigotry at anyone who’d glance their way, revelling in the ire they elicited from anyone with an ounce of sense or compassion.

On the surface, homosexuality seems to be their main bugbear, but the entire human race is an object of such apparent fear and revulsion to these people that just about every sin, real or imagined, committed by anyone not a member of their immediate family, gets swept into the blanket condemnation of “fag” or “fag enabler”. You needn’t have committed any crime more grievous than failing to belong to their insular clan of a few dozen extremist zealots, and you’re rendered an unperson in their eyes, dismissed with the most disgusting monosyllable their stunted minds can conceive. They incite people to shout and yell right back at them, and count every verbal tussle as a victory. They continue to be the gold standard of meatspace trolls.

They are all terrible people, and by all visible measures, Grampa Fred was the most cruel and hateful of the lot. He played a key role in keeping the church’s venomous momentum going, and in exacerbating the suffering of numerous grieving families at their most vulnerable moments. I suspect many will struggle to see much sadness in his passing.

Apparently there won’t be a funeral for anyone to vengeance-picket, but there was a counter-demonstration at the WBC’s latest protest. Here’s the sign they held up:

Yes.

That is unquestionably how you’re meant to do it. That is what we do when someone loses a family member. That is the sentiment we extend to the recently bereaved. We don’t withhold basic compassion, or lace it with sarcasm or passive-aggression or revenge-gloating, simply because it’s happening to the wrong sort of people.

So that’s one reaction that I found worth noticing. The other, also pointed out by the Friendly Atheist, is from Nate Phelps.

While some of Fred’s thirteen children have continued to be involved in the church, Nate was one of those who got the hell out of Dodge as soon as was feasible. He’s committed himself for years to campaigning against everything his family’s church stands for. Hemant highlights this line from Nate’s comments on the death of his father:

I will mourn his passing, not for the man he was, but for the man he could have been.

Nate’s pretty cool. As much as it might bring a sense of relief or even joy to many, it’s worth trying to remember that even the death of someone like Fred Phelps is a sad thing. It’s sad that his life was so dominated by bitterness and hatred, continuing along an inevitably miserable path to its equally bitter and hateful conclusion. It’s sad that his twisted infatuation with spite and malice never gave him a chance for him to claw back anything worthwhile from life, and now he never will.

The key thing, as well, is not to begrudge anyone who doesn’t feel inclined to be quite so magnanimous. I mean, the WBC are awful, and if I was ever going to be able to sympathise with the idea of seeking catharsis by performing the Macarena on someone’s burial plot, Fred Phelps is your prime candidate. For many people still taking the kind of abuse he was notorious for every day of their lives, it may all be too sore. You can understand why some folk feel entitled to their morbid jig.

But I’m a comfortably middle-class straight white guy, a position which sometimes comes with certain expectations. I have nothing invested in this, nothing that needs venting. The Westboro Baptist Church has never caused me any level of distress which I couldn’t nullify by changing the channel away from the Louis Theroux documentary I was watching. So I don’t need to find relief in celebrating Fred Phelps’s death. I have no excuse not to be the most betterest person I can be.

So. Compassion for the Phelps clan, and how they must be suffering to seek such solace in lashing out so violently. Compassion, too, for those bearing way worse emotional scars than me, at the church’s hand, and for whom it’s too much to expect them to dig deep into their hearts and find anything but resentment and frustration.

Love all the humans. Turns out the answer never really changes.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Shit, has it really been over a month since anything happened here?

2. Where the hell have I been?

3. How do I ever expect to get anything done if this is my general rate of productivity?

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Something some time ago made me think about funerals, and whether I might want one, and what I’d want it to be like. Notwithstanding my aim to follow Woody Allen’s path to immortality (which might explain why I don’t seem so bothered about creating any works that are likely to be remembered for all time), I suppose I have some thoughts.

While the traditionally dour affairs with their religiously stifling atmosphere aren’t at all something I’d want to take part in, I don’t quite go along with the popular idea of simply “celebrating my life” either. I’d certainly want my send-off to be mostly upbeat, something that does celebrate life and uses the high points from my own as an example, but the way some people seem determined to do it doesn’t leave much room for sadness and actual mourning as well, which I think is an important omission. The good cheer can start to feel forced, if it’s supposedly vital that that be the order of the day.

Out of all the zero funerals I’ve ever actually attended, here’s one of my favourite moments:

That is beautiful and perfect. There’s genuine and deep affection, there’s sadness at the absence of a dear friend, but there’s also utterly inappropriate black humour, made completely appropriate by the attitude everyone’s brought with them.

I think the part I feel most strongly about is that I’d want my funeral to be somewhere people can make jokes. As dark or as whimsical as you like. Crack a gag. Labour a pun. Start a terrible hashtag game themed around the possible fates of the recipients of my organs. Resist any lingering sense of obligatory moping that feels like it should accompany such occasions. Be aware of the company, and the members of it who might not be in quite the same place at any given moment – any parents who’ve outlived me might not be expected to look on the bright side, for instance – but contextually appropriate humour (and some which deliberately stretches that boundary) is heartily endorsed.

Just leave some proper space to be sad as well. You’re supposed to miss me, you fuckers.

Classroom discussion questions

1. What’s the colour scheme going to be at your wake?

2. Have you signed up to be an organ donor yet?

3. More importantly, how soon are we going to find a cure for physical aging, and start backing our minds up on some successor to the Cloud, thus rendering all such questions of death and funerals moot?

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Sylvia Browne has died.

Spend more than a few minutes looking into the kind of thing she devoted her life to, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that she was pretty much one of the worst people it’s possible to be, driven by only the ugliest of human faculties and emotions.

We don’t need to forget or ignore this fact now that she’s gone, but neither is there any need to take joy in the news. Wishing suffering or vengeance on any part of the world only makes it darker and less lovely to be in. And death is still a far greater enemy than Sylvia Browne ever was, no matter how much she twisted it to her advantage over the course of a long and horrid career.

Some people will be personally saddened by Sylvia’s passing; they have my sympathies, even if I can’t honestly join them in their mourning.

For many, the news is a prompt to remind the world at large about this woman’s utter lack of psychic abilities, and the importance of learning how to avoid being taken in by obvious scams, swindles, and other misrepresentations of reality. I’m all for this, but I hope one thing that doesn’t get lost is the point that not everyone with the “wrong” belief in psychic powers is like this.

Some folk believe (incorrectly, sure) that they have some kind of power or gift, and are moved to try to help people, feeling a deep and sincere concern for the well-being of their fellow humans, rather than simply emulating the flimsiest charade of humanity. There is absolutely a non-null intersection between compassion and supernaturalism.

Sylvia Browne was not one of the good ones, by any measure. We can do better than to let any further cruelty and unfair judgment become part of her legacy.

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Kirsty and I stopped in on the Wellcome Collection’s exhibit on death a while ago, on our way to a comedy gig about sex. And I wish my whole life was as awesome as that one sentence kinda makes it sound.

Anyway, it was interesting. The ubiquity and variety of art which focuses on our mortality wasn’t really a surprise, but made me think consciously about just how much of everything we do is motivated by the fact that we’re all going to die.

There were a lot of skeletons. A skeleton makes sense as a symbol of death, I guess, because the bones are the most resilient part of the body to decay, so once rot sets in, that’s all that’s going to be left before too long. And pictures like this are used to say all sorts of things about death’s inherent connection with life, and how it’s entangled with our everyday existence despite our efforts to deny or forget about it.

I can see the value in reminding ourselves that life is fleeting and we’re all going to die – not least the simple fact that it’s true, and believing true things is preferable to any alternative. But I can’t shake the feeling that our efforts to “confront” or “face up” to the idea of death, particularly our own, often just obfuscate or ignore the reality.

Our skeletons, and the bones of which they’re constructed, are just as functional and essentially lifeless a part of us as our hair, teeth, skin, or lungs, after all. But in art, they rise up, they walk about, they dance. They’re lively. They do most of the things that the living do, without death seeming to act as any impediment. One of the pictures I saw at the exhibition was called frolicking skeletons. These emblems of death are still sufficiently full of vim to frolic.

It all seems to obscure and evade the point that death is the end. It’s nothingness, it’s an absence, the ceasing of something that was. I know evading this idea happens all the time with stories of an afterlife, but skeletons aren’t in the same genre as loved ones waiting for us in the next world. If death isn’t the end, but just a moving on to another place, that’s one thing – but all this art about death was ostensibly intended to force us to recognise that it is the end. And yet, how can we do that if decay and decomposition gets to seem so bouncy and fun?

(I’ve just reminded myself, incidentally, of the LucasArts game Grim Fandango, where you play a dead guy ushering other unfortunates into the Land of the Dead. It’s a sort of limbo most people pass through before being sent on their way to some sort of eternal reward, but all the dead people still have personalities and walk around and such, much like they did in life (though they’re all skeletons now, of course) – and, relevantly here, you can still die. Or at least, you can be “sprouted” – shot with some kind of dart gun, as I recall, which makes you lie down and stop moving while plants grow out of you. It ups the stakes and adds some tension to the storyline, sure, but it also re-emphasises that the “dead” characters are really still alive, in every sense aside from the label describing their mortal condition.)

It could be that I’m missing the point. Maybe it’s just a way to align the deathly nature represented by the skeleton with the living world, and I’m just looking at art wrong. As someone who’s never studied the humanities in any detail (and barely ever notices things like metaphor in films or art unless I’m well and truly bashed around the head with it), I’d hazard a guess that the physical energy of these lifeless beings represents the machinations of life itself which seek to drag us ever closer to the grave. It’s this which is imbued with energy, not truly the dead themselves.

And yet a lot of this kind of art seems insistent on imbuing the dead with vitality. I suspect creating a truly provocative display, which actually confronts the real blank, empty, ultimate, irreversible deletion of personhood that death really implies, isn’t easily done. But we really are all going to die, however oblivious or unable to conceive of such a thing we might be. All the more reason to be good to each other now, while we still can.

I should really play through Grim Fandango again. That game was awesome.

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Richard Dawkins has a new series going on at the moment, about Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life. The sex and death episodes have been interesting so far. You can watch them online at that link if you’re in the UK.

It has a godless leaning to it, but it’s not all about arguing with religious claims. Instead, it’s covered some useful thinking on how to live well once you’ve done the relatively easy bit, and progressed far enough intellectually to give up on the failed God hypothesis.

One idea in particular was crystallised for me when he met with a couple whose child had died in infancy. During pregnancy, the scans had shown that the developing fetus had no kidneys. It was an uncommon, horrible medical condition. There was nothing that could be done for it, and it had absolutely no chance of survival. The standard medical advice in these situations, I gather, when it’s detected early enough, is to terminate the pregnancy.

This couple didn’t do that. They allowed the child to come to term, prayed for a miracle, and decided to make the most of what time they had with it. They got to spend about half an hour with their baby before it died, as had always been inevitable. They felt sure that this was the right thing to do, and those few minutes they had as a family were incredibly precious to them.

What this crystallised for me is that there are two things in this world which are absolutely vital.

The first thing is reality. If this couple’s decision was based on a hope that things might somehow turn out okay for this child, then it was misguided. Miracles do not happen. Infants developing with such severe problems cannot, with our current level of medical science, survive in the world. A developing embryo is different in a number of crucial ways from a fully developed human. The world is a certain way, and the extent to which our beliefs match up with the way the world is matters.

There’s no god to help make things better when babies die unfairly. None of us will ever meet our departed loved ones again in some other world.

The second thing is each other. These two people were facing a terrible situation, and they deserve powerful, continuous compassion from anyone analysing and discussing that situation and their decisions. I don’t know what it’s like to love a child the way they loved theirs. The closest I can come to that feeling is for the cat, who’s only been around a month or so. If the love people have for actual human children scales up from cats as much as some people say it does, then, well, I don’t think I understand how other people aren’t all crying all the time.

Everyone deserves all the compassion you can possibly spare for them.

The important thing – or perhaps I mean, the thing it took me longer to realise, and which I need to keep reminding myself of – is that it’s an and, not a but. Kindness and skepticism.

Not: “Yes, it’s important to feel for these people and their difficult situation, and not judge them for the decisions they’ve made, but…”

Not: “Yes, it’s important to believe things based on evidence, and not be swayed into irrationality by emotions or other cognitive biases, but…”

Humanism isn’t about but. At least, mine isn’t. Care about reality, and care about people. Both these things are vital, and there’s no reason they can’t complement each other.

Picture related:

(via Indexed)

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Don’t kill me, bro

Do you know how many people have died after being shocked with tasers? It’s up to five hundred, at least.

Most of them weren’t armed. Most of them weren’t a serious threat. Victims include a deaf cyclist who didn’t hear an instruction to pull over, and died after being shot with a stun gun.

The attitude some police officers take to tasers looks like this. That guy was lying on the ground with his hands behind his back when he was attacked. It was nothing to do with self-defence. Tasers are meant to provide a non-lethal alternative to shooting somebody, but I sincerely hope they wouldn’t have shot him as he lay there if they’d only had guns. He just wasn’t doing what he was told fast enough.

Remind me why those people wearing those uniforms get to use an electric shock weapon to assault somebody who was posing no direct threat to them at all? Oh, right. Government. Fine, then.

Okay, ignore the anti-state rhetoric of my increasingly anarchistic leanings. Let’s just go over the facts again, and give them some room to breathe.

Since the year 2001, five hundred people have died subsequent to having tasers used on them by police.

 

 

Is it possible that we could, as a society, if we really tried, do slightly better than that in the future?

Is there some way we could possibly stop failing and killing so many people?

I’m just asking.

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