Saturday, July 26, 2008

Lethal Language

Gravity wants to bring me down.
- John Mayer

My father has been in intensive care for nearly three weeks. He's very sick, perhaps at death's door. I hope he recovers, of course, but he may die. So this has me thinking about death and dying and all the games we play with words to banish such discomfiting thoughts. Relief, for me, comes in the form of a reality check. I know from experience that pushing away the truth only delays the inevitable and accomplishes essentially nothing.

We are obsessed with death, just as we are obsessed with sex. We euphemize our conception of the end of life and simultaneously use a vocabulary that alludes to it. This two-pronged denial strategy is analogous to our sexual double standard - we both glorify sex in the abstract (through advertising, pornography and other forms of pop culture) and repress our actual sexuality (via ancient taboos inculcated primarily through religious indoctrination). Hmm, sex and death. Sounds like a good subject for a Woody Allen movie.

When someone dies we say that they have passed away, expired, gone over to the other side, dropped their body, made their transition, gone to their maker, returned from whence they came. We imagine that they're in a better place, they're in heaven, with the angels, with god. We hardly ever plainly say that they're dead. We wriggle and squirm at the mere thought of anything related to death - cadavers, funerals, cremation... We've created a death-centered literary and cinematic genre - horror - devoted entirely to scaring the bejeezus out of us, as if we could steel ourselves vicariously for the real thing by reading or watching.

It must be our abject fear of our own mortality, combined with the magical hope that we are somehow immortal, that makes us so squeamish about death. All religions offer the vainglorious carrot of eternal life in one form or another: heaven, salvation, nirvana, the "light" on one hand and hell, Hades, samsara, the inferno on the other. From the fear of death and the promises/warnings about the hereafter streams our obsessive need for rules of behavior. We blithely allow our gods, prophets, governments, bosses and parents to create and enforce those rules. Comply and you go to heaven. Misbehave and spend eternity in hell. It seems like a helluva bad deal to me.

Though we have so many we ways to avoid mentioning death and dying directly, we also use expressions that include aspects of it in everyday speech. Musicians love to speak of a "killer" groove. A great performance or recording is "killin'". When a comedian does well he has "killed" or "knocked 'em dead".

Another quizzical word for me is "execution". It is at once the violent ending of a life and the goal of those of us who have specialized skills. To execute well (for a musician, a visual artist, a ballplayer, a dancer, a doctor) is to have a good technique, to be able to perform deftly. If you can execute, you'll kill. Hopefully this is not true for surgeons. It does suit corporate executives, however. Those people are killin'.

While not specifically a euphemism for death, the word "grave" has interesting multiple meanings. There is a sense of downward pull inherent in it. The dead person is, of course, lowered into a grave (or, more delicately, their "final resting place"). Someone on the brink of death is said to be gravely ill. The musical marking "grave" (pronounced Italian style) means very slow. One can speak gravely, that is, in a low or descending pitched voice. A grave subject is serious or weighty. And we experience "gravity" as the earthward (or downward) force exerted on us.

Maybe it would be better to be more direct with our language. The euphemisms create a false barrier between us and the truth. We may feel the need for that protection sometimes, but denial only works temporarily. Lenny Bruce had a famous routine about ethnic slurs in which he posited that by repeatedly saying those nasty words outloud and not hiding from them, we could eliminate both the illicit pleasure some get from using them and the pain caused to the people being denigrated by them. The same may be true for death. Think it, say it, know it is final. All the candy coating in the world is not going to make it any easier to recognize that dead is dead.

When it is my turn to die, I strongly suspect that I will not be going to a "better place". I don't believe I have an eternal soul that will float up to heaven (or, more likely, down to hell in my case). I'm not riding on the wheel of samsara and I don't expect to be reincarnated as a snail or a bodhisattva. When my neurons stop firing, the entity known as "me" will cease to exist.

This recognition does not make life meaningless for me; on the contrary, knowing that my existence is finite inspires me to do the best I can, right now. If I only get one crack at it I'm going to try to make the most of it, in every way possible.