At this moment in time, in history, it’s worth pausing for a moment to check in with this post from Ryan Holiday (picture below), author of the Daily Stoic.
Thursday, was the anniversary of the death of one of humanity’s greatest specimens. On March 17th, 180 AD, Marcus Aurelius breathed his last breath. Known as the philosopher king, he was the Emperor of Rome at the time.
We don’t know exactly what his last words were. But the simple paragraph which concludes his famous Meditations reads as if the man wrote it as he faced the very real and immediate end of his existence, and therefore stands as inspiration and solace to all of us still living today.
“You’ve lived as a citizen in a great city. Five years or a hundred—what’s the difference? The laws make no distinction. And to be sent away from it, not by a tyrant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in—why is that so terrible? Like the impresario ringing down the curtain on an actor: “But I’ve only gotten through three acts . . . !” Yes. This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine. So make your exit with grace—the same grace shown to you.”
Coming to terms with our own selves, is one of the challenges of our time, when there are so many things to distract us or suggestions about what fashionable image we should project.
Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, Cato–all the Stoics knew the wonderful but fleeting pleasures we have been talking about. They saw the world. They achieved much professionally. But most impressively, they possessed themselves. They were able to retreat, as Marcus said, into their own souls. They knew themselves. They commanded the greatest empire, as Seneca said, by controlling themselves.
If we are looking for answers to the questions, we are asking ourselves, one conventional means, might be – to use a travel analogy, to consult a map, how to get from A to B. A directory would be one way, the old fashioned physical print form; or search for directions on a digital device such as a smart phone or tablet, with the advantage of these providing a recommended route to get there.
PICTURE: Recompose human composting facility in Washington state. Photo Credit: Ken Lambert, Seattle Times 2021.
But, there are no such clear-cut answers for many of life’s questions. They are many and varied. they can be influenced by traditions and culture. They are influenced by economics. The most significant influence is always ecology, although until recent times this has been deliberately ignored – sidestepped, externalised and often considered too difficult to factor in.
This is no longer true. Enter Circular Economy (CE) thinking and we have a game changer in our midst. CE is an inclusive set of principles that in practice help integrate human activity into what nature does best – create balance, enrich ecosystems, reincorporate all left over matter from one process for reuse in the next. The purpose is to build resilience into the structures underpinning each subsequent action. In other words, CE offers stability and continuity, whereas linear economics (LE) systems end up exhausting raw material supplies with diminishing returns and finally collapse with the system imploding on itself. LE practice equates to eating the host with self-extinguishing actions depleting all the organs of the mother – read ecosystems and species on which life depends.
As we play catch up and transition from linear to circular, if ever there was a time when we need to interrogate ourselves its now. A good reason to do so, is knowing that all the best answers start with wildly inquisitive questions. What if? What if? And what if? And with each answer, to each what if, another what if?
In the case of CE Ellen MacFarlane who sailed through the plastic garbage ‘dump’ in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, she asked how we could let this happen and how we can prevent more. The answer in part is to transition from linear to mimicking nature = result the Circular Economy.
In the case of reducing the waste associated with funerals and disposing of deceased corpses / bodies / carcasses / cadaver. To transition from the linear method of coffin to grave, coffin to gas fired incinerator and resulting greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.
Reinventing age-old processes involve composting and aquamation aka alkaline hydrolysis. Both are much more earth friendly than cremation, producing minimal emissions and providing associated benefits such as enabling the reclamation of artificial body parts such as hip and knee joint stainless steel, etc. Most beneficial of all is the recovery of mercury of which there is no safe levels from a human health angle – but which is a by-product of incineration making cremation and leaching into the soil from burial grave sites so harmful.
So the existing road map for funerals can now be expanded to include these more benign processes that are more in keeping with earth-ways of living and less dependent on energy intensive methods.
Dealing with dying and death and the grief that comes after has been the subject of books and poetry for centuries. Rainer Maria Rilke was a significant contributor to this field of thought.
Rather than include a series of quotes or list of titles, we simply include an example and link for you to find out more if that is your wish.
Pushing Through ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone; I am such a long way in I see no way through, and no space: everything is close to my face, and everything close to my face is stone.
I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in: then your great transforming will happen to me, and my great grief cry will happen to you.
BBC Hardtalk delves into how another jurisdiction handles the assisted dying issue, somewhat differently from others. Described as liberal, as a testing ground, maybe they are nothing more than sensible, and more sensitive to the needs of those requesting help at a crucial juncture in their lives. There is no need to make these judgements about what is clearly working and widely adopted by many Canadians.
In: The ethics of assisted dying (BBC HARDtalk), Stephen Sackur speaks to Dr Stefanie Green, a leading advocate for Canada’s liberal assisted dying laws, who has herself overseen more than 300 deaths by euthanasia. Is Canada at ease with its role as a testing ground for complex ethical and medical arguments about assisted dying?
Having the perspective of an on-the-ground practitioner who has worked in the health care profession for so many years can be instructive for us as we navigate the dying days of our lives – dying in both senses of the words, as the lights of life dim and finally are extinguished.
In: 33 Meditations on Death … notes from the wrong end of medicine, David Jarrett, reveals how to go gently into that good night. We fight tooth and nail to put off the inevitable, dreaming that medicine can work miracles, when we all know this cannot be the case, placing expectations on medicos like Jarrett that cannot be delivered in reality. These three extracts provide a glimpse into his world. They are sober reminders that people like Jarrett who work on the front line, have much to offer society, if we would only listen and pay closer attention to the facts, rather than attempting to make fantasies come true. In short we need to look death in the face and accept it for what it is, part of the rotation from one generation to another. David Jarret deserves a wider audience and the powers that be need to heed his message.
Ch 4 – Good Ageing
As a geriatrician I see mostly the wrong end of the elderly spectrum – the weakest and the most ill. Geriatric medicine has always had difficulty defining what it is. Everyone knows what a cardiologist or gynaecologist does. With geriatric medicine it’s a bit like explaining jazz. As Louis Armstrong used to say, if you have to explain it, you will never get it.
A recent proposal is that it must encompass the ‘Five Ms’, which fit neatly on the fingers of one hand.
Mind: dementia, depression and all the psychological problems of the very aged;
Medicines: all the polypharmacy, complications and side-effects of the various poisons we inflict on the frailest of the frail;
Mobility: helping to improve mobility by diagnosing the problems and managing them medically, surgically and with various therapies such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy;
Multiple complexities: the myriad age and disease-related problems that accumulate in humans with time like the barnacles on the keel of a boat; Lastly and perhaps most importantly, what …
Matters Most: that is, what matters most to the patient, which may not necessarily be going in with all guns blazing offering all the investigations and treatments at our disposal. Page 31 and 32.
Ch 22 – The changing landscape of care
How will our health service change for the elderly? The future is already here. I am not one life’s optimists, I admit. In my view, optimism is humankind’s great self-delusion. And when I look at the future state of the health service in the UK it is easy to see it being completely swamped by demand. Although much of the demand is due to demographic change and increased life expectancy, not all of it is.
….. modern medicine seems to be focused on trying to wring the last drop of life from the already desssicated existences of the weakest and oldest in our society – of how people within a few months of death, with little chance of any meaningful extension of their lives, and no semblance of quality, are being subjected to complex and draining interventions. Just because a treatment can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done. There is a burden of disease and there is a burden of treatment, and these two need to be balanced. Interventions that can be borne by a forty-year-old may be little short of torture for an eighty-year-old. A shift in attitude towards a more traditional view of death would free the health service from its current role of overseeing the time-consuming and costly overtreatment of those with little if anything to gain from it. Medicine, and especially medicine dealing with the very old, should be about what matters most in people’s lives. This should be our priority. Page 190-191
Ch 24 – Dying a la mode
Something remarkable will happen after your death. Not just the slow decay and conversion of your buried body unto the flesh of worms and then into the flesh of robins or blackbirds. If you are cremated, the minerals will still enter some food chain or geological cycle grinding on over millennia. What will happen is that all those grim memories others have of you, of that disoriented, crumbling, incontinent old person, will be replaced by memories of what you truly were. People will recall the good father, telling bad jokes and helping out in a crisis, the mother and friend who always showed kindness when it was needed. Just as we cannot remember pain with any clarity, those distressing memories of you in your decline will in all probability fade. This reality-denial malarkey (nonsense) must have some benefits after all. .
With the passage of time, fewer and fewer people will have any personal recollection of you. When your last grandchild dies there will probably be no one on the planet who has had any direct contact with you. If you are a great thinker, writer, actor or musician your work may last a few hundred years or a million or two. But eventually as it was for Ozymadias*, ‘Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal Wreck … the lone and level sands stretch far away.’ I, for one, take some comfort from this. Page 208
Ryan Holiday regularly posts a philosophical note at The Daily Stoic. On this day he writes:
In 2021, the author Michael Lewis experienced just about the worst thing that can happen to a parent when his daughter was killed in a car accident. Asked about the grief of losing a child, Lewis first just said that it’s exhausting. “Every night I go to bed,” he said, “I’m thinking about Dixie Lewis. And every morning I wake up, I’m thinking about Dixie Lewis.” Then he added, “I can’t control that she died. I can’t do anything about that. All I can control is what her death causes, and I’m determined that it cause good things, not bad things. That’s what I’m focused on, is what does this cause? Like make sure it doesn’t cause more pain, see if it causes something else.”
The Stoics were not unfamiliar with this kind of horrendous grief. As Seneca received news of his exile, he was mourning the loss of his only child. Yet quite beautifully he channeled this pain into one of his most enduring essays, Of Consolation to Helvia, which he addressed to his mother–who herself was mourning what it would mean to perhaps never see her son again. Marcus Aurelius (see picture above) buried multiple children. He could have so easily been consumed by anger and devastation. Instead, he carried on, trying to be of service to the empire and to others.
When horrible things happen to us, our instinct is always to ask why me? Why this? Why now? It’s understandable, but it’s also irrelevant and unhelpful, because those questions have no answer. At least no answer that you can do anything about or take any comfort from. Besides, life has a better question. One it is constantly asking us, one that Michael Lewis to his credit has fully embraced: what will this cause? Will it put us out of commission or give us a new mission? Will it cause good things or bad things?
Ultimately, we don’t know why awful things happen…and there is so little we can do to prevent them. All we can choose is what we do after they befall us. All we can influence is what they cause…whether we can find a way to carry on and do good in response to what we have experienced.
This is a story that shouldn’t have to be told. What should be a straight forward affair once the seemingly essential paperwork is done, then people like Muriel Porter should be able to rest easy that she has done all that is required. But we can’t rely on the should word. Other people and agencies have other ideas and are not prone to giving much credence to the likes of Muriel. This is her story as posted on the ABC News website Tuesday 24 January 2023.
In: Before my husband’s death, I thought we had our affairs in order. Now I’m dealing with a nightmare of administration, Muriel writes …
For the past eight years — since my husband’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis — I have been managing all our finances.
When he was diagnosed, we had immediately set in place enduring powers of attorney and guardianship arrangements, as well as ensuring that all utilities and bank accounts were in joint names.
He already had a straightforward will, leaving everything to me, and he had always dutifully signed superannuation documents to say I was to inherit his super after his death.
Seems as if we had everything in place, doesn’t it? That’s what I thought — until he died two months ago.
I am overwhelmed now not just with grief — that is bad enough — but with a nightmare of administration.
And the worst of it is with his superannuation pensions.
Payments simply stopped.
Once the two super funds were notified of my husband’s death, the pensions simply stopped.
Yes, stopped, without any warning, without any notification. The monthly pension payments are no longer turning up.
It’s all well and good to read the book, but it’s also good to have the opportunity to her from the authors. This edition of Big Ideas from ABC Radio National provides us with that. Paul Barclay is our host.
To make the most of life, it’s best to get a handle on what death might mean and how best to approach the subject not only in a practical way, but also from an historical perspective. Guests on the program delve into the deep end and help shed light on this topic in a way that helps us better understand where we fit in and how we might use this knowledge to ease us along the path from our current place to what will be our ending of days.
The producers of the program write: Make the most of your life and be at peace with death. Easy to say but hard to do. Death is not a topic we’re encouraged to talk about but its shadow shapes many of the things we do.
There is a philosophy as old as the hills. Well not that old. Two thousand five hundred is not in the millions which is the age of the hills, but it’s a long time in human history.
So it is that we begin the year with a quote and some wise words from philosophers who’ve been in the business of thinking about many of the things we think about, long before we started to think about them. This post comes courtesy of a project run by Ryan Holiday, titled The Daily Stoic. Here are his thoughts for Monday 9 January under the heading “Remember that you will die”.
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” — Seneca
The powerful and the wise have been finding ways to remind themselves of their mortality for centuries. Their art is filled with it. Their writing muses over it. Their desks were staged with totems to remind them of the urgency of life. They would keep reminders close to their body too, wearing memento mori rings, cufflinks, even tattoos. They never wanted to forget: We can go at any moment.
The Stoic finds this thought invigorating and humbling. Remembering this fact is one of the most important and critical of Stoic exercises.
It is not surprising that one of Seneca’s biographies is titled Dying Every Day. After all, it is Seneca who urged us to tell ourselves “You may not wake up tomorrow,” when going to bed and “You may not sleep again,” when waking up as reminders of our mortality. Or as another Stoic, Epictetus, urged his students: “Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible— by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.” In MeditationsMarcus Aurelius wrote “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” That was a personal reminder to continue living a life of virtue NOW, and not wait.
The French painter Philippe de Champaigne expressed a similar sentiment in his painting “Still Life with a Skull,” which showed the three essentials of existence – the tulip (life), the skull (death), and the hourglass (time). The original painting is part of a genre referred to as Vanitas, a form of 17th century artwork featuring symbols of mortality which encourage reflection on the meaning and fleetingness of life.
This is only depressing if you miss the point. Used properly memento mori is a tool to create priority and meaning, one that generations have used to create real perspective and urgency. To treat our time as a gift and not waste it on the trivial and vain. Death doesn’t make life pointless but rather purposeful. And fortunately, we don’t have to nearly die to tap into this. A simple reminder can bring us closer to living the life we want.
Holiday doesn’t beat about the bush. He is rather blunt leaving his readers in little doubt about the nature of his subject for the day. It fits with our position that states we need to face up to the realities of what it is to live in the present, knowing that this present day could be our last. It will be for thousands of people whether they have planned for it or not.
Let’s make sure as Seneca says that our minds are prepared for whatever eventuality life sends our way. “The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time”.
In:What Tree Will You Be When You Die?, Georgina Reid (Wonderground 26.11.2019), she speculates on the various options available to us when we die if our wish is to be a little closer to the earth than is normally the case.
Writes Georgina …
When I die, I want to be a tree. I’m not fixed on a particular species – I’d be happy to be a she-oak like the ones on the banks of the river near my house, or a yellow box from the farm of my childhood. I’d also be fine to be a banksia or an angophora. As long as my body is offering itself to new life, I don’t mind. I mean, I won’t mind, because I won’t have one.
One thing I do mind is the way I go. No funeral parlour, no horrible MDF coffin, no embalming, no city cemetery. I want to simply return to the earth and help something else grow. I’m not alone. The movement towards natural death practices is growing rapidly (ha!) due to the economic and environmental costs of common funeral practices, and a desire to re-connect to rituals around death. Green funeral directors, death walkers, coffin-making clubs, death cafes, and even mushroom burial suits are part of a return to a more connected vision of death and dying.