Self-awareness -the gift of knowing you are you and not him- is one of those presents that you should think about before you open it. The wrapping paper is a nice colour, and the ribbon that decorates it is beautiful and no doubt well-intentioned, but it unties a little too easily -too quickly, and before you have time to think about what you’re doing.
There’s no choice, I suppose, and anyway the gift is probably what allows us to wonder about it in the first place. But the intended largesse is really a Pandora’s Box: knowing yourself is akin to knowing mortality. And, as the evolutionary theorist Theodosius Dobzhansky observed: ‘A being who knows that he will die arose from ancestors who did not know.’ So was there a choice we made those many aeons ago? And given the evanescence of our hour on the stage, is it all just strut and fret? Are we candles, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth would have us believe? Walking shadows?
Too late to change anything now, I guess -and at any rate, most of us have learned how to rationalize the problem away. Me, I had to learn about it in an article by Lonnie Aarssen in The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/dealing-with-the-absurdity-of-human-existence-in-the-face-of-converging-catastrophes-110261
Aarssen is a Professor of Biology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and as he says, ‘at some point we became what we are today: Homo absurdus, a human that spends its whole life trying to convince itself that its existence is not absurd.’
It would seem everybody tries to do this just like I do: by distraction, or whatever. Okay, maybe I don’t think about it very much, but if I do, I suppose I divert myself with sundry trifles that seem to work. Actually, I had no idea they were even trifles until Aarssen pointed them out and put them in categories so he could name them. Thus, ‘natural selection also gave our ancestors primal impulses that served to buffer the worry of self-impermanence. These involve two novel and uniquely human fundamental drives: escape from self and extension of self.’
The ‘extension’ thing is really just kindergarten stuff, though -I could have thought those up even without reading the essay: having kids who look up to you and smile at you a lot when they’re naughty; doing something everybody reads about and pushes the little ‘like’ button; or joining a club that makes you feel you’re part of what’s happening.
The ‘escape’ item is more problematic for me, however. I prefer to think of it as ‘distraction’ -that doesn’t carry all the existential baggage of fleeing from captivity. And I rather worry about Aarssen’s Tolstoy quote: “For man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.” It makes me wonder what I’ve been doing with the finite all these years -apart from consuming or polluting it, that is. And guilt is not a particularly comfortable distraction in my dotage -although in my foggier moments, I suppose it makes me think I’ve not really grown up yet, and that maybe there’s still more to come…
But anyway, I’m not so sure about tying those things down into names, either. My father always told me never to name the animal you were going to eat. Or was it ‘play with’ -we weren’t farmers, so I may have got it wrong. But there has to be something more to this existence thing -something Aarssen’s names don’t consider.
It seems to me that when my kids were growing up, there was indeed something more, although I’m not sure I can put a label on it.
I remember one particular episode so clearly, it still makes me gasp for breath. Boots, the old family dog had been getting increasingly feeble and unable to navigate the stairs to the porch where his dog house was. We decided it would help him if we confined him to the porch where we could watch him from the kitchen and make sure he was not having any additional problems. I explained to my young daughter Catherine, that he was really getting quite old for a dog, and that it might not be too long before he died.
I remember she nodded her head with the wisdom of a five year old, sighed, and said he’d probably be more comfortable then -but that she’d miss him if he died. It was hard to know what she thought death actually entailed, and yet she didn’t seem overwhelmed at the thought.
One morning I awoke to the sounds of her crying downstairs in the kitchen. Thinking she’d cut herself with a knife or something as she tried to make her own breakfast, I ran downstairs to see if she was alright.
I found her kneeling over the dog and petting him over and over again, as if that might make him wag his tail. But the dog had died sometime in the night and although I think Catherine realized it, she still felt she needed to make an effort to revive him.
After we both had a little cry out on the porch, I remember her looking up at me through her tears, with a puzzled expression. “What do we do with him now, Daddy?” she asked, innocently. “My friend David said that when his dog died, his Daddy put him in the garbage, or something.” An expression of horror suddenly captured her face. “You’re not going to do that are you…?”
I shook my head. “I don’t think we should do that to someone we’ve known and loved all this time, do you?” She reciprocated the head shake. “No,” I continued, “I think you and I should bury Boots in the garden after we have breakfast.”
A little smile broke through the drying tears and she nodded slowly and carefully in agreement -obviously unsure of what a burial entailed.
All through the breakfast we both kept casting wistful glances at poor Boots lying motionless on the porch. But when we’d finished, I carried the dog out to an empty patch of garden between a trellis which some roses were attempting to climb, and an unruly blackberry bush that I’d recently managed to trim and thin out. I gave Catherine a little shovel to help me dig the grave and we both started in earnest.
When the hole was deep enough so we could cover him with two or three feet of dirt, we both placed the dog gently into the grave, trying to make him look as if he were just sleeping for a while.
I could feel the tears starting to roll down my cheeks as Catherine knelt on the edge of the hole we’d dug, wondering what came next. She was reaching down, trying to pat the dog one last time. “What happens now, Daddy?” she said, eyeing the dirt on the edge of the grave suspiciously.
I walked over to the rose bush, cut off several flowers, and handed one of them to Catherine. “We put these on Boots to show him he is loved,” I answered, trying not to cry.
We then began to put the dirt back into the hole -gently at first, so we wouldn’t disturb the dog, and then quickly, so we’d be finished.
When it was all done, Catherine looked up at me with an almost-smile on her face. She was still sniffling and tears were not that far away I could tell, but she took my hand. “I think he’s happy down there, don’t you?” she said, taking a deep, stertorous breath.
I nodded, and squeezed her hand.
“And he’ll just turn back into earth, right, Daddy?” I nodded again. “Just like us when we die?” she continued, glancing at the fresh dirt on the grave.
“Just like us, sweetheart,” I reassured her.
“Then that’ll be okay, Daddy,” she said, confidently. “But will you promise me something?” she asked after thinking about it for a moment.
“What’s that, Sweetie?”
She turned to look at the grave for a minute, then stared at me with a tiny, wrinkly smile on her face. “Will you promise to put some flowers on me before you put the dirt on?”
Somehow, with people like Catherine in my world, I don’t think I could ever believe that things are absurd, or that we need to disguise our thoughts of mortality. It’s not, as Aarssen would have me believe, that I’ve shaped ‘the minds of offspring to mirror the defining characteristics of [my] own selfhood’ -if anything, she’s shaped mine. Nor is Life a perpetual game of camouflaging the eventual end. Of denial. Of pretend…
That someone may want to put flowers on my grave is quite enough for me.