Oblivio Oblivias Obliviat
I am no Latin scholar, despite having studied it for four years in high school. I took Latin because I planned to be a psychologist or psychiatrist and as such it was recommended that one of our two required languages be either Latin or German. One of my quirks is that I have to love the culture of the language I am studying, so I picked French and Latin. To this day, I think French is the most beautiful language on the globe and I love Paris and France and almost everything French. Especially their pastries and other baked products. All of our baking originates from France, where it was raised to a high art centuries ago.
As for Latin and the cultures that derive from it, well, we know what they are and most of us, even in the US, are familiar with the languages all Roman descendants speak. So, in my opinion, while it is a difficult language to learn and perhaps to speak, Latina hodie vivit, Latin does live today in the many roots, prefices and suffices in modern English language. Learning Latin (and I would add, Greek, ideally) is an excellent way to understand English. It would help us with spelling and it would enable us to be more precise when expressing ourselves. There is no other foreign language that would help us more. It lent me a handy word here, which will make more sense later.
Right now, I would guess every one of us is dealing with end of life decisions in one form or another, mostly having to do with the care and management of elderly relatives. In my case, I just finished overseeing the transfer of a grand uncle to a living facility that seems to be well equipped to make the last years of his life safe and happy. In a more difficult circumstance, I am grappling with how to care for my Aunt Kate, who is not only being manipulated to some degree by relatives who live in her immediate vicinity, whose motives are unclear to me, but whose surprising mental deterioration has prompted her to obsess about my coming to live with her in her NYC apartment. She has planned me to spend a month with her in February and I am trying to figure out how to avoid it, as much as I would welcome time in the City.
Dean Keith Simonton, at the University of California at Davis, a luminary among researchers on age and creativity, synthesized numerous studies to demonstrate a typical age-creativity curve: creativity rises rapidly as a career commences, peaks about 20 years into the career, at about age 40 or 45, and then enters a slow, age-related decline.
Taking a sharp right turn, what has all this to do with oblivion. The root of this word is the Latin “ob”, which means about or toward. And, ‘livion’ refers to forgetting. Extrapolating (and believe me, I am no linguistics expert), the word “oblivion” refers to being forgetful, unaware, and I would say, unconscious.
None of us think we are oblivious. But, we all are, no matter how sensitized and “awake” we are at birth, we quickly shut out most of the world’s input and narrowly focus on what helps us survive in our immediate environment. We rapidly build an ego around our emotional core. As highly intelligent animals, this is a vital defense mechanism. The smarter the animal, the higher the nervous system is tuned. This is why birds are so skittish, certain species of birds (parrots) are among the five smartest creatures on the planet [along with marine mammals (dolphins/porpoises,whales), great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans), and us].
That we will become oblivious in short order is a given and a good thing to get you through childhood. This process of building a shield against the world continues on a normal and healthy schedule up to the age of about 7 and stops enabling new input. Thereafter it becomes solidified, rigid and atrophying. The ego is fully formed by seven and then becomes more or less vestigial. It stops us from being open to new ideas, to growth, flexibility and awareness, and I would also argue, highly developed sensitivity. As such, post age seven, it is an albatross. We become largely oblivious and spend the rest of our lives in various forms of that state.
Unless we interfere with that process.
What prompted me to put up this post was an article I just read that I think should stimulate a fair amount of discussion and controversy, in a rather public way, given who wrote it. Zeke Emanuel, “scholar”, according to the Washington Post and Lawrence O’Donnell on whose show I saw him last night, wants to die when he is 75. He theorizes that those of us who work hard to keep our minds and bodies sharp and to calm our nerves so we can live as stress-free as possible in this frenetic, demanding, mysterious, and sometimes frightening world are misguided in doing so.
I would ask him if he is sure that he has spent the past 50 years working on molting off his crusty old ego? I doubt it. If anything, from his lofty perch as a physician (a body mechanic, essentially) his ego is flourishing and I would argue, he will have a hard time seeing anything clearly, encased in the hard shell of unawareness, unconsciousness, obliviousness. I doubt that he would agree with me, because he is sound asleep.
This unconsciousness, oblivion, in my opinion, is the reason so many people get so much wrong, follow a retrograde philosophy or world view that cannot be used successfully as we evolve as a species. This is why people are still polluting, or voting for corporate raiders who will plunder our resources, or slaughtering each other, abusing living things, especially and above all, human beings. When we look at depravity, whether it is ISIS or mass murderers gunning down kindergartners, it is based largely on being oblivious to others and the world around them. Inured to suffering that cannot occur when people are truly awake and aware.
Can someone walking around and talking and studying and living be asleep? I will refer you to two easy places to decide for yourself, depending on which you prefer: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave or The Matrix. If you like, you can consult the work of Georges I. Gurdjieff (not an easy read) or to simplify things, his student, P. D. Ouspensky. If those works don’t impress you or seem a bit abstruse, then there is an abundance of literature originating in the teachings of Buddha. If you prefer more right brained material, you can read the poetry of Rumi every day and I am sure eventually (or immediately), you will grasp the fact that we are all, for most if not all of our adult lives, slumbering nicely while going through all the rites of passage from our long, 3 million year old human social culture.
Although brain plasticity persists throughout life, we do not get totally rewired. As we age, we forge a very extensive network of connections established through a lifetime of experiences, thoughts, feelings, actions, and memories. We are subject to who we have been. It is difficult, if not impossible, to generate new, creative thoughts, because we don’t develop a new set of neural connections that can supersede the existing network.
Are there people who take physical health to its logical absurdity? Yes! I may be one of them. I have, since I was 15 years old, been dedicated to personal health. That is when I became a vegetarian in a very non-vegetarian household, time, and social environment. For the past 30+ years I have been studying the human animal and among all its social, cultural, emotional, and mental attributes, its physical makeup and needs. Nutrition is one of my hobbies. I do not base being a vegetarian/vegan on purely moral and social grounds (although these aspects of this practice are important too), but on studying the physiology of our hominid bodies.
Beyond that, I want to be fit. If I am going to live XX more seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years I am determined to feel and look and be as good as I can for every single one of them. That includes physical health, i.e., endurance, flexibility, strength, and hygiene. You cannot do that if your attitude is that it doesn’t matter, that we are “omnivores” (false), or that you can sit in a chair, be 30 pounds overweight (BMI>25), smoke, take medicinal pharmaceuticals, consume processed junk, imbibe alcohol, breathe anything but clean air, and thrive.
But more important than physical health, is being awake, aware and working on our psychological, mental, emotional and behavioral well being. We need to wake up. It won’t be easy and it will take a lifetime of deliberate, repeated, hard work. But I would contend that there is almost nothing more important that we as individual human beings can do than to work on that project. We can choose any profession to which we are suited and enjoy, but that work will always be secondary. Tertiary, if we believe that knowing God is first.
And that takes us back to this word: oblivion. Forgetting, being forgetful, forgetting ourselves. Knowing ourselves should be our first or second priority, then. Jesus spoke of this when he admonished “know thyself”. If I don’t know myself, I will never be centered, never be in control of my actions, let alone the path my life takes. Anyone can pull my strings and manipulate me. Those levers and buttons that other people push are obvious to them and we are largely oblivious to those mechanisms in ourselves at the same time.
At age 75 we reach that unique, albeit somewhat arbitrarily chosen, moment when we have lived a rich and complete life, and have hopefully imparted the right memories to our children. Living the American immortal’s dream dramatically increases the chances that we will not get our wish—that memories of vitality will be crowded out by the agonies of decline.
Gurdjieff said you can test it and see how poor you are at “remembering” yourself. Just try to do it, look at your watch, and try to remember yourself (be self-aware) for even one minute. Your mind will wander, the monkey in your head will start chattering, stray thoughts will seize your attention, usually within 15 seconds. It is a sobering experiment.
The idea that we “forget” also implies, logically, that we once “remembered”. We did! At birth, that potential, that ability to remember was there, fresh, muscular, poised for action. That is why, unless we squelch it out prematurely, children are so good at recall, memorizing, pointing out little details. They are also hyper-aware of us and our shortcomings. If we are lucky, we can encourage them to draw the world around them. See if Mom and Dad are in the picture. The house? The yard? The sibling? Pets? And, what do they look like. There is a world of information in the drawings of children, pre-seven years of age.
I don’t agree with Dr. Emanuel on this topic at all. Like many physicians, he believes in our sick-care system. The one where you report to the doctor on a regular basis to have needless tests and procedures and have him or her fix you with our Western slash and burn technology (which is highly developed and expert) so you don’t need to take care of yourself. He endorses using that medical system up to the age of 75 and then simply stopping all remedies. No wonder people fall apart around that age! They’ve handed their personal management responsibility over to a third party.
Should we accept our ultimate demise as gracefully and realistically as possible? Of course! But I don’t intend to drift toward it aimlessly. I want to remember who I am, even if it is a struggle. Even if I am beset by phobias, hang-ups, appetites, blind spots, weaknesses that could derail my being awake and aware and taking good care of myself. In this I am a true conservative — no one has more responsibility to set my life on a sound and productive, even joyous course than I do. And if I work continually, keep on getting back on whatever wagon I tumbled off, relentlessly, I should be thriving right up to the very last minute, having few conscious regrets that I coulda, shoulda, woulda, and didn’t live vigorously in every aspect of human existence.
We avoid constantly thinking about the purpose of our lives and the mark we will leave. Is making money, chasing the dream, all worth it?
I want to be, well, truly alive. There is no particular age at which I would choose to end that process, nor to extend it. Based on extensive research, longitudinal, clinical, global, and experimental, human beings as we are now structured at this point in our long evolution, could live to be 120 years of age. Without major interference. Do you know a fit centenarian? I do! There are three people in my father’s family who are in their late 90s, are slender, active, mobile and thus far, mentally alert and fairly independent. My Uncle Harry is headed to being 101. He can still walk, sing, play a little golf, argue about politics and he may do so for years more, according to his primary care givers.
So, whatever Emanuel is talking about, it fails to address self-awareness, spirituality, and responsibility for our own destinies — all of which, in my considered opinion, are mitigating factors in longevity and quality of life.
And it fails to overcome the simple fact that life is magnificent in almost any condition. Do we think Stephen Hawking would prefer to be fully functioning and mobile? Of course he would. But would he or we be better off if his impaired condition meant ending his life? Or just giving up and doing nothing to improve it? From where I sit, I don’t think so.
There is one thing with which I agree regarding Emanuel’s point of view. That this is personal, this is an individual choice. But you are unlikely to make an informed and enlightened decision or choice if you are sound asleep. To live, to be ‘ablivious’, requires being awake and that is what I plan to work on for the next however many years of my existence in my tiny spot on this planet.
Right now, I am struggling with my own dilemma, trying to step outside myself and my comfort zone especially when it comes to obligations to other people, like my in-laws and my Aunt. The objectivity I am seeking is to offset my blindness, my oblivion and myopia when it comes to making major decisions. Clearly I am not going to live with Kate. But, do I want to spend a month there with her, neglecting everything else I am responsible for and enduring a peppery relationship as Kate is an emotional Centurion. To what extent do we owe one another this kind of empathy and “sacrifice”? That is where I am stuck and obviously becoming enlightened in this area, would shed more awareness on everything else with which I am grappling. It is not all about being steeped or absorbed in ourselves, as Emanuel is doing — who is thinking selfishly in my view — that is the missing factor, along with our goal of ‘waking up’, in his calculus on end-of-life decisions.
Images: innerselfasia.com, en.wikipedia.org, bmswc.com, livehappy.com, greenprophet.com
All quotations are from Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel