Life and Death
By Chris Wilson
As previously stated life, for most living forms or animals, really is very simple, despite the remarkably diverse mechanisms involved. All life must end though, and at some point a life force or natural force will take any given life force or energy away.
It often is a brutal system where ageing population members often die or are killed with little protection, but left alone to do her job mother nature is an efficient if stern matriarch, and under her influence life has arisen and developed to an astonishing, and bewildering, degree.
If this is true, and evidential observation indicates that this may be true, then logic dictates that humanity, with its wonderful brain, should be able to utilise and understand such a sequence to the full. Once more though we complicate things, for we start thinking, and, as ever, our problems begin.
Out goes natural law, out goes natural balance and harmony, and in comes pain and confusion. The notion of life becomes difficult, and the notion of death becomes even more so, yet both surround as all the time, so we are forced to deal with them come what may. So here they stand, patiently waiting for us to make a move, so let us get going with a seemingly simple area, the need to obtain and absorb food.
In theory, and in practice, nothing should be easier than eating, for us or for any other living form. Nature has given all living species the ability to eat absorb or, assimilate nutrients albeit in a multitude of forms, and most species manage to access that ability in a non-cognitive or automatic way. We are human however, and, as normal, we seemingly cannot do the same.
Not for us the instinctive blind acquisition of food, not for us the sequence of natural law, oh no we have ethics and principles, and what a curious mess that they leave us in. We have, by any definition or measurement, an omnivorous jaw line, a digestive system that can cope with a remarkable diversity of foods, and an advanced cognitive brain by which such items can be readily sourced. Logically, under such circumstances, we should have no problems; if food is available of course, but the more advanced a society becomes, the greater the problems that seems to occur.
How many of us in the west actually eat sensibly, and how many of us really supply our bodies, or minds, with the nutrients that both actually need? How many of us have to supplement our diet with synthetic supplements that, by sensible food intake, would never be needed? Even more absurd is our idiotic yet cognitive desire to make us ill, or even kill ourselves, through wholly inadequate, excessive, or inappropriate food intake or through substance abuse.
Few other life forms would show such irrational stupidity, especially when linked to cognitive powers of reasoning, and once more we find ourselves at odds with nature. If we could get away with it there would be no problem, but by choosing such paths do we not cause ourselves, and all of nature, a great deal of pain? Any such pain we cause ourselves though is nothing compared to the pain that we often cause to life around us, and this is no more clearly demonstrated than in the area we turn to next. This is the world of blood sports and related environment control, a truly savage world indeed.
If life were simply about survival, then our attitudes to taking the lives of others would seem perfectly fair, for as already stated we have to eat in order to survive, and in doing so we must directly, or indirectly, deny life to the relevant food source that we choose. We may agonise over animal welfare, and we may well study how our sourcing techniques affect individuals, species, or whole environments. We can ponder how just our actions affect them all, but though our methodology is generally more powerful than most of life around us, this basic fact cannot be ignored. What is more contentious is the practise of blood sports, as this raises rather more painful issues.
From a personal perspective I cannot condemn such hunting if the animal concerned is then killed for food, but to hunt for just fun concerns me, as does the varied hunt practises concerning the elimination or control of alleged vermin or pests. If humans were hunted for fun just think of the outcry that would ensure, and as regards the hunt for vermin, might such a term be incorrectly applied? It seems that, in general, the definition of vermin is of an animal that is destructive, annoying, or injurious to health. Using such a definition, it is interesting to apply such values in the case of activities such as fox hunting, badger baiting or animal culling.
The only animals capable of advanced cognitive self regulation are ourselves, so if we interfere with or even destroy an environment, are we not the vermin, and does not wildlife around us become the victim?
We choose to farm intensively; and we choose to modify the landscape around us. Through our selective vision we create natural imbalances that the rest of nature has no choice to follow. If this is the case then are we not the real vermin, and logically should we not be the prey?
Should we be chased across fields, be clubbed for our skin, or if we secure a safe haven should other animals be sent in for the final kill?
If this were to happen the perpetrators would be tried for genocide. Look back at he holocaust, at the multitude of religious wars, or the ethnic cleansing within Serbia and Croatia, examples are not hard to find.
We do have a softer side though and, when we so desire, our compassion and care for life around us can be very real indeed. We do try and protect endangered environments, and nobody can deny the efforts that we as conservationists make. It is a pity that we have often created the problem in the first place by our blindness, greed, or shortsighted stupidity, but no one can deny that some of us try to reverse or limit any damage that has been done. Nothing lasts for ever though, despite our best endeavours, and as any animal keeper or pet owner will tell you there often comes a time when a much loved animal has to be put down.
Mercy killing, putting a loved one to rest, euthanasia, call it what you will, but here is a time when we play God, and we decide, without any possible comment from the animal in question, that the animal should die.
It is never a pleasant choice for all concerned, but generally a decision is made based on the animal’s current and potential future health and, based on such an assessment, a life or death call is made. Whether is it a cruel or compassionate choice, is a matter of personal judgement or opinion, but it certainly raises the question of how far should such a system go.
We humans are both contrary and stubborn, even to the point where our actions either disturb us, or give us unimaginable pain. Examples of this are legion, but there is no finer example of this than in our attitude regarding death. We know it is going to happen, yet whether it is our own death or the death of others around us, we generally refuse to recognise or deal with its imminent arrival until it is either too late, or too painful, to deal with it in a sensible, compassionate, or practical way.
There are many aspects of death that trouble us, both on a personal and communal level, and although dealt with somewhat awkwardly, some might argue that, physically, we have generally solved most of the difficulties that sometimes arise. In that aspect we have succeeded, as we have devised various methods of body disposal over the years, but then when is death purely about the disposal of the deceased?
What of our emotional cost when the death of a loved one occurs, and, even worse, what do we do when we are faced with the potential treatment, or lack of treatment, of a terminally and seriously ill patient whose quality of life has been is being dramatically, or irreversibly, compromised?
Emotionally most of us find death very difficult to deal with, and as regards mercy killing or euthanasia, why that debate will rumble around the medical and ethical authorities, let alone the law courts for years. In both cases do we not try to deal with them as if we were a children, and in both cases do we not generally fail? If this is so, is it not time for us to grow up and mature? This might sound harsh, but look at both individually and you might see what I mean.
As regards the death of those we really care about, how many of us really know how to cope either physically or mentally when the event actually occurs? Physically this should be easy, as the corpse is lying before us, but do most of us know whom to contact first, and how many of us really know the full cost of a funeral or cremation? Emotionally it is even worse, as in life there is virtually no preparation for such an event. We go through school and life cramming our minds with facts that we will probably never use, or dreams that have no base in reality, yet we ignore the one certain fact that must one day face us all.
Children will believe, for many years, in father Christmas, or other imaginary friends or benefactors. They will cheerfully ignore physical facts or inconveniences because they want to, and because we allow them to do so, but in time we ask them to grow up and face the real world.
Why then do we not prepare ourselves more thoroughly? Why do those who are left behind still stagger around, lost and confused, when death occurs? Whether or not we believe in life after death almost does not matter, for such a life, if it is there, is for those who have gone rather that for those who remain behind. Wouldn’t it be better to prepare sensibly for death that must eventually come? Should we not brace ourselves physically, emotionally, and financially; would it not ease so much of our pain?
From here though we turn to euthanasia and this is a very difficult area indeed. I talked earlier of how we ask a child to grow up and face the world, but how do you tell that child, or an adult, that maybe there are times when life support should be removed? How can you explain that someone might die with dignity; or that action should be taken to hasten that person’s demise? Such is our approach to death that we want to dispel such eventualities, as a child might do, but we are adults, and as adults we increasingly have to face that responsibility.
So what do we do, well we do a bodge job and, hopefully, find a potential solution in the end. Our problem though is that there is no real solution, as even if we were to dispel our childlike approach where would that leave us?
The medical, ethical, and philosophical quandary would still lie before us, as well as the patient before, and even worse we still have the problem of human irresponsibility selfishness and greed. Quite simply can we really trust ourselves to operate such a system with any integrity, and even if legal constraints were enacted and applied how could any law really govern such a monumental or serious situation? So where does that leave us, well we play God and discreetly, very discreetly, we practise euthanasia, but, as ever, it is an occurrence which most of us quietly choose to ignore.
Sometimes such potential dilemmas lead to the law courts, where loving couples desperately try to respect each others desires of life or death, whilst trying to ensure the surviving relationship member is not prosecuted when the death of their loved one occurs. Finally think of the poor medical practitioners, they really pick the short straw, because we increasingly ask them to do a job and adhere to a medical and ethical promise that, in today’s advanced medical world, is virtually impossible.
All doctors swear to the Hippocratic oath, which enshrines the continuance of life and well being of a patient wherever possible, but was such an oath ever designed to deal with the vastly extended life spans that we deal with today? When the oath was formulated were life support machines envisaged, or the bewildering if superb modern range of analytical tools, treatments, and medications? This is where we have to truly grow up and support the doctors so that they may, with true honesty treat ourselves in turn. We cannot carry on like children, one day, one hour; we simply must learn to die.
There is a future though, for though we may die life goes on, and others will carry the torch of humanity into the unknown realms before us. What lies in the future, we do, as does the rest of life to come, and in the following chapter this is where we go to now. We cannot know what is there for certain, but maybe, just maybe, there is hope for a better life to come.