Friday, October 30, 2015

Surprised by death

 The funeral procession of John J. Pershing.  Who died at age 87 after surviving several wars, tropical diseases, horse wrecks, and Army cured meats.

I should note that I started this post a really long time ago.  It was just after the death of Joan Rivers, the reaction to which inspired the post. But like a lot of posts on this blog, it has lingered a really long time.  I thought about discarding the draft entirely, but a new event caused me to revive it here as I think it's related.  Only the first three paragraphs and sentence of the fourth were written in the original draft, and even they aren't quite the same as they original were.

One of the very first posts on this blog dealt with human longevity.  There's a common erroneous assumption that human beings "live longer" now than they used to, which is completely incorrect. Rather, they don't suffer untimely deaths as frequently as they used to.  People tend to believe these are the same thing, as we earlier discussed, but they are not.  Rather, women are much less likely to die in child birth in their 20s (or even teens).  Children are much more likely to live past age seven than was once the case.  Hardly anyone has a team of horses get away with them and falls into their hay rake, etc.  And we don't fight nearly as many wars as we used to, even though we erroneously believe we do.  Indeed, we fight so few that the death of a single serviceman now makes the news, where as it wasn't all that long ago that the death of a hundred or more, or even a thousand or more, was barely news.  But we aren't living any longer, if we aren't untimely killed, than we ever did.

Still, we are very insulated from death.  Much more so than ever before in our history.

 Funeral procession of Secretary of War James William Good, age 63. Good died due to a peritonitis following a ruptured appendix.

And this insulation, not common for most of our history, and uncommon outside the western world, means that death somehow really surprises us. The reaction to the death of Joan River provides ample evidence of this, as well as our obsession with things that only marginally impact the topic of our won ultimate deaths.

 Funeral procession for Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.  The former President died at age 60, the age that he had actually predicted as the one at which he'd meet death.  That's young, but Roosevelt had survived nearly lethal childhood asthma, severe horse accidents, malaria and a gunshot wound. The last two items he never really recovered from and were sustained in his 50s, after which the death of his son Quentin in World War One seemed to combine to end his life.

Joan Rivers was 81 years old.  At age 81, death is around the corner every day.

For that matter, unless you are simply oblivious to it, once you are up past your mid 40s, quite frankly, death is hanging around.  You have to be a truly exceptional person to have reached your mid 40s, and not know somebody else who was your approximate age, who has not passed away. And by that I don't just mean tragic accidental death.  I mean death due to disease or the like.  Some of that, at that age is due to really  hard living in some circumstances, but starting around that time, your fellows start to pass on.  It's hard to believe at first, but by the time you are in your early 50s, you'll start seeing names you recognize as your old high school colleagues who have passed.

Still, early death, as opposed to longer lifespans, isn't nearly as common as it once was, and on a related note, chronic injury isn't as well.  In the Western World in which we live, more people live out their full lifespans than every before because they don't die in accidents or by violence, and they also, for what it is worth, are far less likely to be afflicted by chronic illness.  At one time, according to some analysis I once read, the average American male had a fairly severe chronic illness by the time he was in his 40s, this being in the mid 18th Century. Given that most American males did manual, probably agricultural, labor at that time, and that a lot of them had fought in the Civil War, that's no doubt true.  Indeed, Jefferson's comments about hoping his children would be able to avoid war and manual labor have to be set in this context.

 Shoshone Chief Washakie, who survived decades of warfare, harsh living conditions, horse accidents, and a limited meat centered diet and died at least age 100, if not a little older.  Not everyone fell to injury or disease by any means.  Indeed, the vigor of this "pale diet" adherent says something, perhaps, about how we ought to approach things.

A byproduct of that is that those of us who live on past these various decadal marks are a lot less likely to have witnessed the death of a fellow our age or younger, which is definately not the case for people in earlier decades.  If you were, for example, living two centuries ago, chances are pretty high that you'd see somebody die of an accidental death at some point.  I have seen that a couple of times myself, and those occasions live on as fresh memories in my mind, but I think that's fairly rare for most Americans today.  Rather, we tend to read about  somebody dieing, rather than experiencing it, unless we live in one of hte reatlively small demographics in our soceity where witnessing such things remains relatively common.

Additionally, we also live in an era when we've gone to a system of marginzlaing the old so that we don't wintess them in tehir dotage.  If a perseon makes it up into advanced years with a sharp mind, we do tend to see those people, and therefore they define our mental image of old age, and where we think we ourselves are going.  But the sad truth is that many more people do not experience this.  Indeed, what has ironically occured now that we've combined a highly mobile society that has expectations of high employment output, with success in combating illness and injury, is that we now find that many more of us live in a sort of warehoused fashion with declined mental ability as we get old.  This is also a huge change.  In an earlier era, a very old person, including one who had gone "senile", was necessarily housed and taken care of by a family member.  Now this is increasingly rare.  And I don't wish to seem santimounious about this, so I'll note that my own mother lives in our town in an assisted living facility, her once sharp mind now very much dulled.  But she doesn't live here at our house, as would have once been the case, as we simply have no ability to do that.

The combined effect of this is, therefore, that we don't tend to see younger people die very often, rather we occasionally, but only occasionally, read about that happening.  And we don't really even see old people die very often either.

That has given us an odd view of death. And of life.

Given that we experience death so infrequently now, we now have in mind that its rare.  It isn't.  It's inevitable, and inevitable for everyone.  Together with birth, it's the single experience that unites us all as its the same everywhere for everyone, in the greater sense of things.  

But, because its now so rarely experienced, we act shocked by anyone's death. 

Take again the example this starts off with, Joan Rivers. She was old.  At that age, people die.  That's not unexpected. That's the absolute.

Oh, sure, not everyone who dies at 81 died a purely natural death, but the fact of death at 81 should not be a surprise to anyone.

Moreover, things like this give us the fairly silly World Health Organization warning that cured meats cause cancer.

 Oh my!  An Italian American butcher risking the public health, according to the WHO.  It's nice to know that this branch of the United Nations is protecting us from cured meats while the UN at general stands around and lets the Middle East burn.  Or maybe the plan is to bomb ISIL with brots in the hope that a tiny percentage of them will keel over decades from now.

First of all, this isn't news.  That curing, which is largely a chemical process, can cause cancer has been known for a very long time, as it was associated with cultures  that ate massive quantities of cured meats by necessity.  So, for example, if you were a 19th Century German you'd have a heightend risk as you'd probably be eating sausage all winter long.

But even at that, most Germans and Poles didn't die of cancer due to sausage and, today, nobody can yell at a German, as an insult "you sausage eating Kraut!"

 German born American Technical Sergeant buying sausages from a Germain born butcher, in New York City, during World War Two.  I suspect that after enduring immigration and fighting for his adopted country against his native one, sausages didn't kill this guy.

Which gets us to the point on this.  While there are real things that pose huge health risks, such as smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco, we're now so spooked of death that we actually will undertake to make our lives absolutely miserable in order to convince ourselves that we can actually avoid it.

That's what a warning like the WHO's achieves.  Unless you are seriously eating large quantities of cured meats, and very few people do, you have very little risk from them.  And frankly even if you are eating a lot of them, you risk isn't all that great really.  But we're at a point where every week we get a "don't eat that!", "don't eat this", followed, quite often, by advice the following week that we should, in fact, eat those various things.

All of this is that we've now made the Western World so safe that we're at the point that we're dealing with the statistical margins.

Now, the advance of safety is a fine thing.  Cars, for example, are so much safer in a collission than they were even thirty years ago it isn't even funny.  But at some point, and we crossed over it some time ago, worrying about the margins of things is actually dilibating.  If you have to worry that a hot dog is going to kill you, you are truly at the point where you must have nothing else to worry about, and are getting a little out of sorts thinking wise.

You aren't going to live forever.  No point in trying to pretend you are.  You are going to die one day. But every other day, you aren't. So, go have a nice plate of sausage and, after dinner, have yourself a brandy and cigar.  What the heck.

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