Monday, November 22, 2010

Valuing Life

Hal Pepinsky,,
November 22, 2010
I remember walking across the Diag on my college campus in Ann Arbor late in the morning of November 22, 1963. I was right beside Angell Hall, the social science classroom building. The journalism department was on the second floor. When I heard people saying that the president had been shot, I joined others at the teletype machines in the second-floor corridor to receive ap news that the president had died.
I had volunteered to campaign for JFK; at his death at the age of 46 or 47, I lost all faith that any political hero could save me. The assassinations of MLK and RFK as I graduated law school only confirmed the communist anarchism that I continue to embrace, now under the heading of peacemaking. Still, President Kennedy, I grieve the loss of your leadership. Simultaneously, I celebrate that moment at which I moved from one of my lives in my lifetime to another.
Jill and I had Thanksgiving dinner yesterday at my mom’s nursing home. It is a small enough home not to need to be bureaucratic, and the staff there who freely exchange roles in something like yesterday’s dinner are a pleasure to watch with each other and to befriend myself, as in the singalongs I do with the home’s administrator, Kristine. The way nurses and aides give care is amazingly loving, patient and good-humored. I have been in many nursing homes, and this is the homiest nursing home I have known. My mom is extraordinarily lucky to be there now that she has run out of money to be cared for at home, and I feel privileged literally to be so close to her as our chronological time together draws to a close. Still…
I wonder what many of the residents I get to know are living for. Granted, I hope that if I end up there myself, I’ll try to pass my declining years appreciative of all of the love I have received and still grateful for the many, many lives—like Walter Mitty—that I have already enjoyed in my relations in a single lifetime.
I concur that life is precious, and that the prospect of individual bodily death is the ultimate fear we fear itself. We also live in a place and time in fear for our lives, individually and collectively, in fear for the very survival of humanity.
Humanity will survive in various forms far beyond our power to predict (thanks to Honest Abe for his Gettysburg Address). Meanwhile, global human population will stop exploding, and decline, and wherever we are, regardless of our passion for fairness, openness and justice, those who turn out to have less power will by definition die first and with most public suffering.
This leads me to my personal social control strategy. It is axiomatic to me that any strategy by which I get value and valued in my relations is a matter of HOW I relate especially in my daily relations rather than of what laws to enact and enforce. I figure that ultimately, the only thing I know about what works to enhance human life is what leads the people in my daily life to value our lives together. So if at the age of 91 my mom happens to land in a nursing home, I most value the quality of our relationships there. As in the kind of local food security programs Jill’s and my child Katy works, I believe that sharing knowledge of how we share power in local lives offers the best hope for the force of humanity to overcome human mutual destruction.
Today the BBC carries an interview with NATO’s senior civilian representative to Afghanistan, where he claims that children in Kabul are, on the whole, safer than children in London and New York, and certainly never homeless. A human rights rebuttal notes lack of formal education and 25% child mortality before the age of 5 (a figure I heard in Tanzania when I lived there in 1990). It led me to wonder about those I have met who have suffered torture, and periods of not knowing where they would sleep or eat, throughout long chronological lives.
I for one have numerous conversations with my nearest and dearest over the issue of how each of us conquers our fears of death, and ultimately, of personal loss. For my part, I believe that my life was as rich, and in its own way valued and applied as in my relationships, by the time I reached the age when JFK was killed. For decades I have tried to reassure my wife and child that if I die tomorrow, there is no need to mourn for my loss. I do get scared that some disease might get detected that would bring pressure for me to live on—as for grandchildren—for loved ones’ sake. Not so long ago, I horrified a doctor by saying that I didn’t want a colonoscopy because if I turned out to have cancer, I wanted it to be stage four so that my family would go along with palliative care, assuming I don’t just happily drop dead. It has been a good life. The adventure continues. To me the challenge is to resist my fear of dying by celebrating the moments I continue to celebrate and enjoy on this Thanksgiving. To me, at any moment, it’s the quality of my relations that counts rather than the quantity of time I spend in this body. To all my friends who may read this, know how much you enrich my lives in a single lifetime. Love and peace--hal

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