Category Archives: Philosophy

Very few things are black or white; there are many shades of purple.

Guiding my hand

It seems almost apropos that I decided to start writing this post on Easter—a month after my father’s death. But unlike the lore which surrounds this holiday, I do not believe that my father is coming back—in any way, shape, or form. I also did not need to see his body in a casket to drive that reality home.

I knew most of my dad’s life was behind him after his first bout with congestive heart failure two years ago. With numerous trips and extended stays at hospital, as well as two stints in a nursing home for rehabilitation, I rightly predicted that 2011 would be his final year on earth. I prepared myself thusly so that I could avoid the rigmarole of the five stages of grief. However, when the recommendation to transfer him to hospice finally came, I was in a state of disbelief, then sorrow, as if this was a stinging slap that blindsided me. Visiting him in a near-somnolent state set a cauldron of emotions to boil. My once bad-ass dad was a mere shell; the sharp and pragmatic mind was reduced to a brain-damaged mass as his body slowly, but surely, shut down. The anger that always simmered beneath the surface erupted. Those fucking cigarettes.

Really, though, that is only a small part of that. He gave up smoking years ago, just not soon enough to mitigate the damage done. No. What really pissed me off, and still does, is that he ended his days without a shred of dignity or happiness. His illness took everything away that he enjoyed doing, and he spent the last month of his life in a nursing home as opposed to the house he worked hard all his life to earn. Then, he was transferred to a room with a beautiful view he could not see, much less appreciate, to slowly perish. We do not know what is going on inside the deteriorating minds of the dying. Is there suffering? I can say that the anguish of the living who must witness this slow death is extremely real. It is a sight that is permanently seared in my mind. Anger tends to be unproductive in these situations. That said, it did allow me to lose my ambivalence about euthanasia, an issue that left me on the fence since the media demonized Dr. Jack Kevorkian years ago. Of course, I didn’t act on it, even though intellectually, it seemed to be the right thing to do. But, I don’t have the courage, only the philosophical ethics to have wished that swift end to his ordeal. Anyone in their right mind can recognize it when it is laying there so helpless in front of them. Death is the only outcome, and those extra days the loved ones get to see the soon-to-be decedent technically alive are agonizing. What is so wrong in hastening the inevitable for the greater good? I feel safe to put this in writing. When I put voice to this question, it has been met with silence. It is such an uncomfortable subject. Who in this same situation can honestly say they did not consider that option, even if just briefly?

A week after he was transferred, we got the call that he exhibited six stages of imminent death. The science helps me where religion always fails. Because of that outlook, I can whistle past the bargaining stage of grief. There is no god to ease the constant restlessness from the feeling the ailing has of wanting to leap out of his own skin, called terminal agitation. We created drugs to take care of that. The labored breathing, called Cheyne-Stokes respiration, is a response to the body losing its ability to take in and process oxygen. The hyper-extension in the neck is due to muscle atrophy; the mottling of the skin happens when blood circulation decreases. I do not believe a deity created this body and its responses to it shutting down, nor can said deity take them away no matter how much I beg and plead.

A different flavor of anger emerged when I found out he would be prepared for viewing instead of being sent straight to the crematorium. He looked horrible up to the week before he died, and I felt it was a further indignity upon his body. Plus, the embalming process always struck me as needless and grotesque, besides being bad for the environment. I told myself this as I responded to seeing him in a casket. I already knew he was dead, but there he was. A blanket of sadness threatened to suffocate me as I tried to make sense of what I was feeling. Am I the only one who has tried to imagine what the people I love would look like as dressed-up corpses? Is that my idiosyncratic, macabre way of coping with death—to be crude, albeit scientific about it? Still, it is nothing like actually seeing it in the flesh, as it were.

At the end of the very long day, we were given opportunity to say our goodbyes. I didn’t mentally work out a script for that. Besides, I said goodbye to him the week before. Did I need this? Not necessarily, but in a way, it gave me an oddly poetic experience that I will always remember.

I cried helplessly, lamenting to my husband that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. My brother was the first to walk up to the casket. He placed his hand in there briefly and walked away. I never asked him, but I believe he gripped our father’s shoulder, and as I walked up there, I felt I should do the same. Perhaps if I did, the last vestiges of death’s mystery would be revealed to me. If I couldn’t overcome the “creepy” stigma of a dead body in the form of my own flesh and blood, then I would never get past it. I felt that my brother was brave for acting of his own volition, and felt shame in having to ask my husband to guide my hand there. I took pride in being able to accept the reality, ostensibly before the rest of my family did. Touching his body was what should be a perfunctory action in the grand scheme of things, a simple gesture. Still, I couldn’t do it alone, and my husband, who has seen more than his share of death while fighting a war, did not hesitate as he held my hand to move it to my father’s shoulder. It was so hard and unyielding. While it didn’t feel like that when he was alive, symbolically, it was precisely like that. My stoic, no-nonsense dad. All the fond memories I feared I wouldn’t be able to hold onto came back. Despite his tough exterior, he was a softy and revealed a goofy side that only his family was allowed to see. I could always count on him for sound advice, and he even offered that same shoulder for me to cry on when I lost a friend years ago. As his maladies ravaged his body, he lost much of what made him the rock that he was in his prime. In a way, he got it back.

Zen and the Art of Blind Faith

So, it is official. The small shrine that a Belgian woman built 150 years ago outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin, has risen beyond mere landmark status. Why, do you ask? Well, the Roman Catholic Church said the apparition of the Virgin Mary that inspired the shrine is indeed, authentic. Other authorities on all things Christly are saying it is at least “worthy of belief”. Booyah!

Really? Because, I wasn’t sure if I should buy into this claim, being a batty notion and all. But, if Joey the Rat and his posse say it’s real, then well, it must be! He’s the Captain Picard of the Catholic Church. Make it so. Oh. Okay.

I have many questions. Where to start? Well, first off, why did this woman travel overseas from Belgium to that little patch of land? My guess is she was really tired and prone to irrational thought when she finally arrived. No matter, I guess that is beside the point. However, the more important question is raised: Says who? Were there witnesses (livestock does not count)? If so, does documentation exist? I can’t fathom someone would have the wherewithal to set up a camera obscura to capture the event for posterity. Just for a few giggles, I could go to any church and erupt in paroxysms of rapture and start fashioning a shrine out of twigs, stones, cigarette butts, etc., claiming I saw Mary Magdelene (might as well add some kink to this fantasy). Oh wait, then everyone would think I was crazy. Silly me.

Oh yeah, here’s another one: What was her name? Slightly to my chagrin, as I confess to relishing anything to vilify blind faith, she was actually identified. Her name was Adele Brise. Then, it must be true! What? She lost an eye in a childhood accident, you say? Perfect—a totally reliable witness to a holy sighting. Since there is a heavily visual-based theme going here, I really wanted to embed a photograph of the shrine in question. But, bloody Hell, I couldn’t find one that I was confident was indeed, THE shrine. There are just so many. What does that tell you? I found later photographs of Ms. Brise, who subsequently became Sister Brise. I’ll throw you a bone and include a pic of her:

 

Eek! She was a homely woman. Are they sure it wasn’t a man in drag? Sorry, must not get catty with the pious. Moving on.

Occam’s Razor is poking me in the back with this one. While imagining some immigrant from the 19th Century dropping acid puts a smile on my face, LSD was invented (created by a Hell-bound heathen, no doubt) about 80 years after the momentous occasion in question. My guess is that she was very hungry and picked a random ‘shroom to gnaw on in her travels, or perhaps ate some hinky rye bread and got ergot poisoning. Then, bammo! Instant hallucination. Or not. Insanity and other mental illnesses were cured with trepanation, blood-letting, and other torments disguised as legitimate medical practices. Perhaps she escaped that messed up fate, with delusions in tow, hopped a boat, and wound up in farm country to make dubious history.

This brings me to the title I chose for this post. I was tempted to pun the Hell out of it with something like “Zen and the Art of Moronic Manifestation” or something to that affect. I just wanted you to know that I considered it, but it seemed too contrived.  Oh, kind of like . . . RELIGION (said in the Church Lady voice)! I wasn’t terribly impressed overall with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as Robert M. Pirsig had a tendency towards tiresome circular discussions about the metaphysics of quality. It is probably why I am prone to keeping philosophical text at arm’s length. But, he is a fellow atheist, so the cockles of my heart warmed to him. There was one paragraph in there that really stood out and resonated as an astute observation with me. Paraphrased, he stated that people generally do not get fanatic about something they know to be true. His example was that we aren’t passionate about the sun rising every day, because we know it will happen regardless of the circumstances. Yet, we don’t know that a god exists, so there is fanaticism attached to that belief. Doubtful claims breed zealots.  

There is definite validity to that observation. Some of the most horrific acts of violence can be traced back to religion. What was the origin of the Inquisition, causing the torture and death of  hundreds of thousands of people? Religion. What inspired men to fly planes into buildings? Religion. What is the impetus for shunning homosexuals and stripping them of their humanity and reducing them to scapegoats for God’s wrath? Do you sense a theme here? The suspicion of witchcraft; the promise of 72 virgins in heaven; the Bible’s claim that homosexuality is a sin—all are outrageous claims that to be supported and defended require a fanatic devotion to the cause. Thankfully, while the majority of people vary in where they are in the different spectrums of faith, these ideas are viewed by many as specious, at best. However, enough believe them to be true to wreak wicked havoc on the world. While their mental and emotional states are considered stunted on the evolutionary scale, they are monkeys . . . with weapons of mass destruction. 

Pirsig also wrote, “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called a Religion.” I suppose if that Belgian woman was alone in her beliefs, she would have been institutionalized. Oh wait, she became a nun, so she kind of was. Religion has a way of enslaving those who are prone to its clutches. At best, it closes the mind while keeping the mouth free to spread the word; at worst, it lets the body stay unfettered to punish those who don’t abide.

This shrine isn’t necessarily about the more extreme consequences of religion. However, the delusion is still prevalent. It is with tremendous irony that I quote Father Thomas Rausch, a professor of theology in his response that the church should handle these decisions carefully, as there are many sightings reported (didn’t I just say that?). He said that “most Catholics are skeptical.” Get out. No, seriously, get out. You annoy me too much. This is the same group that believes all forms of birth control are murder, and incidentally, the ones who are claiming magical healing upon visiting this shrine. There are anecdotes of diseases cured, as well as abandoned canes, crutches, etc., from those who were freed from their disabilities, all for whatever time and cost it took to get to the place and sit there until they got what they wanted. I didn’t realize miracles were on blue light special.

Apparently, the life’s work of Sister Brise was enough to lend credibility to her vision. She helped build a church and an adjoining school. She also gathered people at her shrine when a forest fire broke out, and prayed to Our Lady of Good Help (all I did was copy and paste; I’m just as lost as you probably are). The fire stopped before it reached them. It’s a coinci . . . er, it’s a miracle! Her “moral fiber” was proven and her character left no reason for anyone to doubt her. Interesting. Well, I suppose since Mel Gibson is a great actor and director—he gave us Braveheart, dammit!—the Jewish and homosexual communities need to accept that they don’t deserve to live. Take that, Winona Ryder, you oven-dodger, you!

The (in)convenience of cultural relativism

This is a concept in anthropology that has always baffled me. Beliefs and their accompanying actions need to be put in the context of that person’s culture. Okay. Done. Now what? Apparently, what is and isn’t acceptable is based on said culture, not a universal truth. I argue that the whole globe can be painted with a broad brush dipped in the same bucket of ethics. Ethics, not morals. Moral relativism is a whole different ball of wax from my perspective, and I will devote a separate post to that.

We Westerners feel pretty sanctimonious about our culture. In many ways, I think we’ve got it right. In other ways, I think there are other countries that are more pragmatic with certain things. A prime example is our consumption. The states are gluttonous consumers. There is no other country that rivals our demand for food and energy, as well as our waste of them. The obesity epidemic is a hallmark of those proclivities. I spent a month in Florence, Italy, and marveled at their almost draconian use of resources. Air conditioning was a luxury there, whereas it is used here with complete abandon and inexplicably turning buildings, buses, and trains into iceboxes.  I’d scratch my head over the logic of that if my hands weren’t occupied trying to keep my upper body warm in the middle of summer. The cars were smaller, thus requiring less gas and dare I say, less reliance on foreign oil. I thought it was wonderful. I was not happy having to pay for potable water where it is free and bottomless in American restaurants. However, that is a small price to pay to lessen the burden on the environment. While we stretch our lips to take in an average piece of nigiri sushi while exercising control over our gag reflex, in Japan they serve morsels that have ample room to dance across the palate. Overfishing, anyone? But, that’s what makes the U.S. so damn lovable. We want more more MORE!

I’ll give the West a break for now. While respect for the environment and its limited resources is vital, there are other more damaging disparities between societies that are, sadly,  protected by the cultural relativism veil—an apt word choice for Middle Eastern civilizations. The American woman may still be chipping away at the proverbial glass ceiling, but it sure beats a public stoning for adultery (voluntary or otherwise), an “indecent” display of skin, or even seeking an education. Try as we might, we have not been able to punish them sufficiently for such an egregious disregard for basic human rights, much less change the idea that women are the inferior gender. Not to gloss over this, but that cultural corruption is governed by religion, i.e., moral relativism. As I stated before it is a different topic, thus, a different post.

The impetus for writing about my views of this subject is from watching a video that went viral this past week. In Indonesia, a two-year-old boy, Aldi Rizal, was videotaped while indulging in his two-pack-a-day addiction. My jaw dropped as I watched this child smoke like a champ while still in diapers. The average toddler is developing hand-eye coordination, but he managed that cigarette as well as a life-time smoker does. Oh yeah, he pretty much is. The father taught him how to smoke at 18 months, and the unsuspecting child took to it like a fish to water.

I’ve watched it multiple times with my rose-colored glasses on. Surely it is a hoax. Alas, it is authentic and an all-too-common reality for that culture. The statistics for children there having their first cigarette as young as five years old is alarmingly high. Of the 230 million people residing in the Indonesian islands, approximately 60% of that population smokes. I am guessing they start young. No wonder Big Tobacco relies on that country for business; they are the fourth most populous country and the third largest tobacco consumer.

In Aldi’s case, I fear the damage is irreparable. Introducing so many chemicals into a developing body may permanently alter his own chemistry—mentally and neurobiologically. I wonder if it is even possible for him to quit. If this keeps up, he will be a chain-smoker by  the age of five and dead of a heart attack before puberty. What is the point of all that? I suspect that when he is potty-trained, he will need a cigarette in order to make poopy. Ugh.

It is very easy for us on this side of the table to say this is wrong; our culture believes in protecting children, not exploiting them. The jury should be in for this one. Children are our future and all that. This may be a passive-aggressive form of child abuse, as they started it but don’t do anything to stop it. Aldi was taught how to smoke not having any concept of health and what compromises it, nor is his mind developed enough to make the connection that the cigarettes are the cause for his inability to romp around with other children, thus making him sedentary and overweight.  However, that pesky cultural relativism gets in the way from stopping the madness.  If this happened in many other countries, the consequences would be punishment for the parents such as losing custody of the child and being sent to jail.  In Indonesia, however, authorities have offered them a new car if they get their kid to quit smoking. A car. They are essentially getting away with bad behavior by being rewarded for stopping it. Still, the parents turned down that offer, as they don’t appreciate the damage they are inflicting on their son. Perhaps the cynical part of me suspects that the fact their child has become a tourist attraction gives them fame that surpasses the allure of any sticker price. Shocking, I know.

Just to drive the point home, lines can be drawn between this and pedophilia. While smoking in children is more acceptable and even encouraged in this country as we can see here, so is pedophilia in other cultures. There are even religions that sanction the latter. Both take advantage of an unwilling participant, i.e., a child who doesn’t have the capacity to understand what is happening. A victim of pedophilia is, by and large, either stunted in sexual development and/or becomes promiscuous and sexually active at a young age. With that introduction to sex, how can a child develop a healthy sex life as an adult? Considering cigarette addiction has a 90% success rate, when it is given to a toddler who has not been around long enough to be exposed to many things, it happens much quicker.  Of course this child throws temper tantrums and bangs his head against the wall: The addiction is stronger than the need for food. Did Ardi have a choice but to play along with his father’s game? Does any child have the ability to put the kibosh on twisted form of play that someone bigger and stronger initiates?

While creating a concept such as cultural relativism is not the root of the problem, it does slap a convenient label on it to explain why we are rendered powerless to change something that we know intrinsically is wrong. Oh, but that was how the people in that culture were raised. Of course! We shant play judge and jury on different perspectives of what is right and wrong. Look down your nose if you like, but don’t forget to turn the other cheek. The bible tells us so.

To be continued.