I’m pretty left-brain dominant. And if you find this exhausting, imagine what it’s like for me. So for some respite, for the both of us, here’s one of my rare right-brain moments.
I found out the other day that a long-since retired but much-loved colleague had just passed away. He was well into his 80’s, and that got me thinking.
It would make sense to call this a ‘tragedy’ if but only if it’s a tragedy that we don’t live forever. That we’re mortal is regrettable, perhaps, but hardly a tragedy.
Former basketball star Kobe Bryant and his daughter died in a helicopter accident last month. He was 41, she 13. Does the tragic-ness vary inversely with the age at which one dies? If so, and if it’s a monotonic function, then the death of an infant must be the most tragic of all. And yet this seems not to be the case. In fact it looks like, from cradle to grave the tragic-ness of one’s death gradually climbs and then diminishes, the apex being indexed to life expectancy in the community in question.
It would seem to follow, then, that the diminishing value of whatever time remains for any one of us is not monotonic. That is, the, say, 80 years remaining for an infant is worth less than the 40 years remaining for the 40 year-old. And what this seems to suggest, in turn, is that what matters most to us is one’s prime of life, and what matters less, if at all, is one’s infancy or dotage.
So what bothers us is not life as such cut short, but rather something about mental content cut short.
That explains our acceptance of infant mortality. After all, a newborn has no mental content. But what explains our acceptance of octogenarian mortality? How ‘bout this? The newborn doesn’t have enough mental content to expect anything about its future, whereas the octogenarian has accumulated enough mental content to know it can’t expect a whole lot of future. The tragedy, then, lies in an expectation not fulfilled.
If this is right, it dovetails with my (admittedly) limited understanding of Buddhism. To suffer less expect less. So for the Buddhist a life well lived is measured by moments free of suffering, whereas for us it’s measured by moments of joy. Hence such pithy aphorisms as “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all!”
I’ve just turned 70. As an ex of mine would say, I’ve had a good innings. That doesn’t diminish my ‘disappointment’ over my approaching death, but as just noted, it does ameliorate my sense of impending tragedy. And that’s, well, a good thing.
Another good thing, it seems, is that though we all die alone, we’re not alone in dying. This is why a novel or film about the death of one person is infinitely more tear-inducing than one about the nameless victims of a genocide. Notice how there can be unrelenting carnage on the edges of the mise en scene, but the director will linger for several minutes on the dying of a single comrade. So please God, let me be one of those faceless casualties on the edge of the mise en scene rather than the one calling for his mommy. This is why there’s something less upsetting, indeed more consoling, about apocalyptic scenarios, like nuclear holocaust or wholesale economic collapse, than finding out I have cancer or getting an unexpected income tax bill.
One way to say this is that misery loves company. But another is that company reduces that misery. In fact according to some feminist theologians, that’s what the Christ event is all about. The salvific power of the Cross needn’t require anything metaphysically extravagant. It’s God suffering with us. It’s precisely as the etymology suggests. It’s God commiserating with us. As a Jewish atheist I have to pretend to dismiss this interpretation of the Christ event. But as just a human being I can’t say it doesn’t move me.