Sunday, January 13, 2008

Reasoning with the Earth

I'm on a roll here, with at least four hilarious posts in a row. I'd like to continue that level of hilarity by talking about puberty, cancer, and death. Get your weight lifting belt out, because you'll need it from all the laughter.

"Naturam expella furca licet, usque recurret." -- Horace, Ars Poetica

I noticed this morning that I've developed arthritis in my right hip. My poor dog is eleven years old, and she, too, has arthritis in her right hip, so the two of us match in that regard. However, I can give her expensive pills that have her frisking about like a puppy, while all the NSAID's are contraindicated for me, of course. Why are they contraindicated? Because I have a mechanical heart valve. Why do I have one of those? Because I had heart surgery in 1998 to follow up on surgery from 1969. Why did I have surgery in 1969? Because I am my family's genetic sin eater or my mother's litter's runt.

Now, when I was seven years old and having open heart surgery, and very risky heart surgery (and once upon a time that would have been a tautology (very funny link, there), but now the modifier is necessary), I was told frequently that I was being "brave." I thought not. I thought I was merely being manly -- which meant, of course, being stoic. I was uncomplaining. I've since made up for it by a stream of whining that could make a corpse run away, but, at the time, I was a 'brave little Geogre.' I assume that the three week coma was brave, too, but, at any rate, I then wanted to prove my manhood -- despite the fact that I would not possess manhood for four more years or so.

Later on, there were more things to do, more surgeries, more indignities (presuming one has dignity to be negated, and I've always found dignity to be a bit of a burden), and I decided, after becoming a man, that the events would hurt as much if one complains or not, but that complaining might mean getting medicated, so I might as well make a pest of myself. That was my attitude for a cholecystectomy (I think I was one of the datapoints for that article), and I actually had a fairly good time flirting with the nurses and getting zapped with morphine during that operation, but I soon reversed my attitude. You see, there's nothing brave about it, but there's nothing cowardly, either.

Forget your Susan Sontag books and just think about how we use volitional language when we speak of disease. The point to disease is that it's involuntary. You cannot be brave or fearful or happy or sad in regard to the disease. The disease just happens. It's biology. You can't have it because of moral failing or foolishness, and you can't have it for virtue or strength. After all, there are virtuous people dying young and villains living to great age, smokers and drinkers like Winston Churchill and bystanders who die of mesothelioma who never went near a cigarette.

The body is morally neutral. You can kick nature out with a pitchfork, Horace says, but she'll seep back in. You can argue all you want with biology. You can tell it that it shouldn't do that. You can put up a law. You can tell it to do something else, instead. The body will obey, to a point, and then it will go back to being what it is.

Think about teenagers. Their bodies are illegal. Literally, a teenager's physical body is a violation of the law. A youngster told me that, in high school, his school had put on a production of Quills. I gasped. No, I said in shock, you simply couldn't have! That play has nudity in it, and high school students can't be naked. In fact, no one under 18 may ever be naked, even if attempting to be nude. A 17 year old who drops his pants at the beach is not only violating the usual laws against public disturbances, but any tourist who captures the scene out of the corner of the frame is guilty of pornography. A minute past midnight on his 18th birthday, and he can take a picture of his naughty bits with his telephone and send them to all his friends.

In the case of girls, it's much worse, because a girl does not desire to become a loaded weapon. She does not choose to be taboo. She does not choose to be the object of covetousness. Like the paradoxical wretchedness surrounding virginity, this is potent so long as it is undesired, and yet those are the years that a girl will most learn how to see herself. It is when the gaze of the law and society is most telling her that her body is an offense. She can't opt-out, either. It just happens.

The final act for most of us, at least on earth, is death. I have thought a great deal about how it is frightening precisely the way that disease is. The most common reaction would be, "I'm not ready."

It doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter if you prepare for death or do not, if you are at peace or turmoil, if you are 85 or 15, if you are calm or frantic. No qualifications are necessary for dying well or poorly, and no skill is involved. Just as with achieving puberty or arthritis, you will face the thing because it is neutral. It is not good, not bad, and not sentient enough to be indifferent.

There is no good I can imagine for these matters. I believe in the afterlife. It is part of my creed. However, death looms for all, believer and unbeliever, but we are all born with a death sentence. We are all born with a sentence upon us to mature, age, and die, and the only good I can see from pondering these matters is relieving ourselves of judgment.

If you are reading this and are young, remember that you are not as different as the glare of society tells you you are. If you are middle aged, just realize that the diseases and maladies you suffer with are just normal, and you couldn't have prevented them and yet been yourself. If you are thinking of death, don't rail at its injustice. Anything that happens to all of us, the good and bad alike, cannot be anything but neutral. You cannot win the argument against biology, and you cannot reason with the earth.

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