Monday, January 09, 2006

The Human Condition

The other day, the missus and I went for a walk and wound up having a coffee and pastry at a funky grocery store/deli/restaurant in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner (not far, incidentally, from JFK’s birthplace). Seated at a table near us was a very old woman with a middle-aged female companion whom I guessed was the old woman’s daughter. For some reason or another they drew my attention. The elderly woman had to be in her nineties. Her sallow skin was entirely covered by a tracery of wrinkles and her face was fined down to an austere bony sharpness. Her nose was beaked and her eyes deep set; she looked like a grizzled old bird, perhaps a kind of vulture, severely hunched over from osteoporosis.

There was nothing sudden or alarming about their movements, but you could tell the old woman was in some distress. She kept touching her face and hair with tremulous fingers and her daughter inclined her head constantly toward her in a solicitous way. They spoke in whispers; you could see the younger woman was asking questions and the elderly woman was answering them, although perhaps not always very clearly. Finally, the daughter stood up and walked to another part of the store to get something for her mother, leaving the old woman alone at the table. Now my attention was completely arrested. The woman’s back was more or less toward me, so I had no fear of being caught openly observing her. Her shaking fingers continued to work her face and touch her hair and I wondered if she might cry. Her head was hung low. I saw her hair was quite thick and luxuriant, and, just as I asked myself if it could be a wig, she abruptly answered the question by snatching it off her head, as if that had been the thing weighing her down. The effect was startling. You don’t see very many people doffing their wigs in public. Her actual hair was pure white, thin and tousled; delicate pink skin showed through the white strands. After she placed the wig into her large handbag, she massaged her scalp and rubbed her face for a minute or two until the daughter returned with a cup of water.

As thoughts frequently do, sparked by trivial occurrences and then flitting this way and that, I found myself provoked into asking the question: how often do we confront the idea of our own mortality? The notion that eventually we’ll cede our vitality to old age and finally die? That is a profoundly sobering thought, one that we all, of course, recognize as a certainty, just as we’ve been taught to know that one plus one equals two, but how often does it truly hit home?

My first full realization of this universal condition occurred to me when I was 17. I was working a summer job in between my junior and senior years of high school at a steel punch factory, one that threw me in with a whole bunch of different people — all sorts of backgrounds and ages. Perhaps you could say I lead a sheltered life, but I had never mingled with true blue collar types before, men and women who may have never graduated high school, many of them immigrants. I saw people in their 40s and 50s doing work that any kid my age could pick up and do as well with only a half a day’s practice. They were all loud and good-naturedly gruff and friendly. One man, I remember, looked as if he could have been an aristocrat if you dressed him up in the right clothes. I enjoyed their conversation during breaks and it was quite a thing for a boy to be accepted as a peer among grown-ups. This was in 1973, so many of the older men I hung out with probably came of age during World War II. You half expected to see Betty Grable pin-ups on the break room walls and tattooed anchors on their arms.

One man I befriended was well into his 60s. His name was George. He had a kind of Latino-Native American look, which was reinforced by a characteristically slow, deliberate manner of speaking you tended to associate with the Indians you saw on TV shows. Although he had a vigorous shock of thick, white hair and retained an erect carriage for someone his age, there was no mistaking he was close to the age of retirement. The jobs they gave him were less physically demanding than the others and his movements were measured and slow. George didn’t speak much, but this paucity of speech had the effect making him seem wise rather than dumb. I was a set-up man, the guy who went around with a hand truck, hauling away the full bins of steel toe caps turned out by the machines and supplying empty ones in their place, so I saw George at least several times a day at his workstation.

One slow day I seated myself in the same room as George. For some reason, circumstances were such that the kid could enjoy some leisure time while the older man toiled. Idly, I watched George perform his task. I looked at how slowly and minutely he moved. I observed the set of his face, the lines age had drawn into his forehead, and the veins that stood out on his hands. Suddenly, without warning, the realization struck me that someday I’d be as old as George. I would someday be as close to the end of my life as I was, at that time, near its beginning. I wouldn’t always be young. I would follow the same route as George, the slow-moving, quiet, unimportant old man in front of me. Someday I’d be George!

I was in shock for about a full minute. I had never, until that time, truly grasped the ephemeral nature of my existence. And, to tell you the truth, I don’t think I have been so profoundly struck by the idea since.

How often do you think of this? I’ll admit it’s not very cheerful to do. Is this line of thought something you’d be better off avoiding? Or does it lead to intriguing spiritual or philosophical questions, ones that you feel are enriching and worth examining? I sometimes wonder about the afterlife. Like many people, I can’t conceive of myself simply stopping altogether. I have this crazy theory that our soul or consciousness or essence is like matter, in that it can neither be created nor destroyed. I think reincarnation makes more sense than the concept of heaven and hell. I feel that our time on earth is merely a stage of our existence, just a phase, and that eventually we’ll evolve or graduate on to something else.

What do you think?

38 Comments:

Blogger Henry said...

Geez I come here for some more hilarity in the vein of Gilderstern and Rosencranz and I get heaven, hell and mortality?
Hilarity for me--not you, sorry.

I agree that your 'soul' as it were-is infinite. I really still don't quite know 'where we go' or what our purpose is. But i'm OK with that.
I do realize i'm only here for a short time, but I can't quite grasp that I won't be here in 10, 20, 30 years as the case may be. Odd.
Its too early for this!

5:13 AM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

I'm weird in that I believe in heaven and hell, but also believe in reincarnation.

And there is always something around that reminds me of my own mortality - even if it's just watching Highlander or reading about a 12-year-old boy who died 3 days before Christmas while snowboarding. He had been a together enough 12-year-old to have told his parents that he wanted to donate organs if something were to happen to him.

You struck a chord today, Mr. Schprock. I'm not going to have any mascara left shortly. ;-)

5:21 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"I do realize i'm only here for a short time, but I can't quite grasp that I won't be here in 10, 20, 30 years as the case may be. Odd.
Its too early for this!"

Believe me, I completely understand this!

I forgot to mention that I plan to be the first man to stop aging once he hits 50.


"And there is always something around that reminds me of my own mortality - even if it's just watching Highlander or reading about a 12-year-old boy who died 3 days before Christmas while snowboarding."

Not quite your point, but that reminds me of another thing: the capricious nature of life. You have the ones who never live past youth and then the bitter, curmudgeonly types who hang on forever.

I had a friend who died of Hodgkins Disease at 15 who I'll never forget.

5:59 AM  
Anonymous LL said...

Hmmmmmm... just hmmmmmmmmm.

Such a sobering post amidst the jovial, but alas, it is a fact of life.

I've been introduced to death from a very early age, see it on a near daily basis, and as such it's never something I've feared. I consider it all the time, but not in a "life is too short" kinda way. Perhaps that's because I'm still on the way up to the midpoint in my life. No doubt once I crest the proverbial hill my thoughts will change on the subject, or if I have a family of my own it will give me pause.

Interesting post.

7:27 AM  
Anonymous Dreadmouse said...

I had a medically eventful childhood which led to a few too many days spent in bed reading and thinking about life's ephemeral nature. I don't like the fact that I'm going to die, but I've toyed with the notion enough to be fairly comfortable with it.

As for what happens to us when we die, I have absolutely no idea. I do believe in God, personally, but I don't particularly believe in a happy/fuzzy God who loves me like a cherished teddy bear.

God is, you know, GOD. If she wanted things to be clear about what she wants or needs from us, or wanted us to know what happens in the afterlife, she could paint baby blue letters of flame across the night sky to clue us in. The fact that she leaves us wondering means to me that we're either meant to muddle through as best we can (my personal belief on a good day) or she doesn't give the slightest damn about our mayfly existence (my personal fear/hell on a bad day.)

One aspect of mortality that I'm definitely finding difficult is that of my child. Standing less than a month away from parenthood I'm all too horribly aware that my little girl may be my only chance at some form of immortality. She is also going to be a terribly vulnerable hostage to fortune. I can view then end of my existence with some dispassion, but the thought of watching my baby girl die fills me with cold terror.

7:29 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

I think about dying more and more nowadays. My grandmother just lost her husband, and she only talks about her eventual demise, and how meaningless and boring is her existence now. It's sad. She talks openly about it though, and tells me that she's scared of it, and I can only say I don't blame her.

What happens next? The realist in me says we just go away, and that it is not really such a bad thing because we only care about it now, while were living. After that we won't care.

The philosopher seems to think we are units of energy that exist regardless, that our bodies are like computer terminals equipped with webcams, that our life is part of a much larger network that has consumed our token and will pass it on in time. Perhaps we are just a microrganism that has bubbled from the larger lifeform that is the earth, and that in turn is part of a larger beast.

I don't know, but I think heaven and hell are rationalizations for what we cannot hope to understand. The fact is, the whole freaking concept of being is impossible to grasp.

How can something have never began? Like the universe, or God. Yet here we are Mr. Schprock, living impossibly.

8:20 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

I don't believe in organized religion's conventional doctrines of heaven and hell or an immortal. I don't believe any part of me lives on. I'm not afraid to die in the least, though I could handle putting it off for awhile. I have my final wishes written up already. I'm an organ donor, have a health care power of attorney, want no life support, cremation. And if my family starts acting like Terry Schiavo's, I give the state the right to execute them all. Hey, I work for an attorney, and I'm not about to have my family battle over me & mine!

I've always kind of had a fascination with death, perhaps because I've lost an awful lot of family and friends at a young age (six friends at once). I try to remember that time is fleeting, and there may not be time to "do it later." Except when it comes to dishes and laundry.

8:43 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"I've been introduced to death from a very early age, see it on a near daily basis, and as such it's never something I've feared."

LL, thanks for your comment, and, if it's not imposing, could you expand a bit on the above? There will be no offense taken if you choose not to, so don't feel obligated.


Dreadmouse, you said a lot in your very well considered comment and the part I'd like to respond to concerns your child. Becoming a parent changes your whole approach to life, I think. I noticed it in subtle ways, like when I started wearing a bike helmet and using car safety belts to help ensure I'd be around to raise them. I sometimes involuntarily torture myself by imagining a scenario where I contribute to the death of one of my kids, or at least am present to watch one of them die. Horrible thoughts! But thankfully the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of our children outliving us and having children of their own. And you're right, that is how we achieve a kind of immortality.



"I don't know, but I think heaven and hell are rationalizations for what we cannot hope to understand. The fact is, the whole freaking concept of being is impossible to grasp.

"How can something have never began? Like the universe, or God. Yet here we are Mr. Schprock, living impossibly."

Extremely well stated, Scott. You put it perfectly.


"I've always kind of had a fascination with death, perhaps because I've lost an awful lot of family and friends at a young age (six friends at once). I try to remember that time is fleeting, and there may not be time to "do it later." Except when it comes to dishes and laundry."

I knew I could count on you to have a very healthy and unequivical point of view on this subject, Trina.

I don't know if you've ever heard of john Silber (former Boston University president and one time Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate), but he made pretty much the same point in a book of his, only you expressed it better.

9:20 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

Never heard of him, but he sounds like a brilliant man. ;P

9:34 AM  
Blogger Spirit Of Owl said...

Ok, here's a bit of geek input. According to current quantum theory, matter particles are constantly being created. Relativity theory has been used to demonstrat the exchange of matter for energy with devastating effect in the atomic bomb. Matter is not indestructable, or constant.

I try not to dabble in belief. Though I've dwelt in misery thinking about death, my own and others', there are other times when I can handle it. I know the feeling you're describing - surely by its very nature it's universal - but if I'm with anyone with this, I guess it's with the mystics. And Trina, of course. And Frank Zappa...

"Do what you wanna
Do what you will
Just don't mess up
Your neighbor's thrill
'N when you pay the bill
Kindly leave a little tip
And help the next poor sucker
On his one way trip"
F. Zappa, 1981

10:06 AM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

Lucky you, I have more to say. ;-)

Like ll, I don't think I fear death, but nor am I rushing headlong toward it. I think the YS is scared to death of death. She and my mother didn't handle my uncle's death two years ago at all well, while I, though sad and missing him, realised that it had been his choice. He gave up as he was tired of fighting all the time.

As with her cat yesterday, I honestly believe she's ready to deny herself the pleasure of another cat because of a short period of sadness. And I think that's more sad. It's like she's scared of life, itself.

10:08 AM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

By the time I get old, they'll have a cure for it.
At least, I hope. ;)
I've always known two things: I've been here before and that someday I would die. I remember being really annoyed by that when I was 6 or 7, thinking that adults should try harder to keep the fact of death from kids.
I also know that someday, I won't become George. :P

11:12 AM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

Oh, and being dead doesn't freak me out so much as how it'll happen. THAT keeps me up sometimes.

11:13 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"Matter is not indestructable, or constant."

You mean what I've been taught about matter amounts to little more than an old wives' tale? It makes me want to hunt down my 7th grade science teacher and give him a stern talking to!

Thanks for the Zappa wisdom, Spirit!


"She and my mother didn't handle my uncle's death two years ago at all well, while I, though sad and missing him, realised that it had been his choice. He gave up as he was tired of fighting all the time."

You know, I think I fear becoming old, sick, frail, and in the way more than dead and forgotten.


"By the time I get old, they'll have a cure for it. At least, I hope. ;)"

You mean you'd want to live forever? That's a whole 'nother can of worms, isn't it? Hasn't The Twilight Zone taught us there's a downside to that?

11:42 AM  
Blogger Spirit Of Owl said...

"You mean what I've been taught about matter amounts to little more than an old wives' tale?"
Only if you believe in Quantum! :D

1:30 PM  
Blogger Irb said...

I'd like to believe that there is something beyond this life, because that would indicate that there is some sort of plan/scheme/purpose to our existance and we're not all here by accident.

However, I won't presume to know what happens when we die. Any theories on the matter (heaven/hell/reincarnation/oblivion) are just wishful thinking at this point. And just because something sounds right doesn't mean it's true, no matter how much Bill O'Reilly insists otherwise...

3:48 PM  
Blogger Michele said...

I too share a belief like Kathleen that there is a "heaven and hell" and also reincarnation. I don't fear death as much as I fear the loss of the people and memories and experiences that I hold dear in THIS life. That when I die...it will be like I never existed, that nothing I did ever mattered and that no one will remember me. But then....maybe that's what it means to fear death.

5:34 PM  
Anonymous LL said...

"LL... if it's not imposing, could you expand a bit on the above?"

No, it's not imposing and yes I can.

Oh! You mean right now? Well... Ok. :P But just remember you asked!

I was raised on a ranch, so I've seen animals in various stages of their demise. Now, when you're a small child, and you see your first dead calf/horse/cat/dog/animal, you're told that it's dead, but there is a difference between knowing what something is, and understanding what happened to it. When you finally understand the difference, it's like a punch in the gut. Your emotions kick in and you feel very sad for the critter.

As with most things, the law of diminishing returns kicks in, and the second time it's not as bad, and so on. By the time you see 2 or 300, strangely enough, you pretty much return to the point where you were as a small child. "Yeah, it's dead." is pretty much the only thought that remains. I suppose it's a defense mechanism that develops to save your sanity. How well that's worked in my case, I'll leave up to you all to determine. :P

Something that's a bit tougher to deal with is being the hatchet man. The death dealer if you will. My dad really doesn't like to kill things, so he's always deferred that job to me since I've been old enough. The only thing that makes it bearable is that you are ending their suffering.

*********WARNING! GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS TO FOLLOW. ***********

Since most of you are from urban areas, I seriously doubt you have any concept of discovering a newborn calf, blinking with his eyes wide in wonder trying to understand why that coyote ripped open his navel and started to chow down leaving his entrails stewn out into the snow. I do. You've probably never seen a cow trying to deliver a calf only to have the coyotes eat the fetus and then continue on her until she can no longer deliver what remains. I have. I won't even describe the truly greusome things that I've seen to you. It's in most of these cases that I'm the one to put a bullet in their head and watch the life leave their eyes. And that, my friends, takes a lot out of you.

But it does make you come to the point where you realize that death is merely an occurance and is an inevitable part of being alive. You accept it, and move on without much ado. I reached that point a long time ago.

Well, I hope that answers your questions. At the very least, I suppose it cured you from asking me anything in the future... :P

6:51 PM  
Blogger Yoda said...

"Like many people, I can’t conceive of myself simply stopping altogether"

Well, just because we can't conceive it, it doesn't mean that its not true!

I have trouble believing in Hell, Heaven, afterlife, souls etc.

For starters, I do not know exactly how life itself is defined. Death can only be defined only after that.

In the absence of any scientific or logical explanation of life, I choose to believe in nothing. Yup, according to me, there is NOTHING after life.

9:57 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"And just because something sounds right doesn't mean it's true, no matter how much Bill O'Reilly insists otherwise..."

Irb! You're back! It's been a while since I've checked your blog. I feel like ringing a bell!

Yes, it really does amount to wishful thinking, and I'm not saying we can ever know, as death is "the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns." But it's a strong, persistent feeling I have that things don't end here, that we go on to something else. Nothing more than that, but enough for me.


"I don't fear death as much as I fear the loss of the people and memories and experiences that I hold dear in THIS life. That when I die...it will be like I never existed, that nothing I did ever mattered and that no one will remember me."

I suppose through our children and the things we do on earth our memory may persist. But let's face it, after 50 or 100 years, it will be like we never existed. Our images may exist unexplained in a decaying photo album or our names adorn an illustrated family tree with no elaboration to them. For most of us, that may be about it. I couldn't tell you a thing about any great-great-great grandfather I might have, for intsance.


"Well, I hope that answers your questions. At the very least, I suppose it cured you from asking me anything in the future... :P"

No, LL, I'm afraid the cure didn't take — you're too interesting a guy to stop me asking questions. And one thing's for sure: nothing gets drummed into us so soundly as the fact that our bodies, once life has left it, are nothing more than mere shells.

Why don't you start up a blog? You should, you know.


"In the absence of any scientific or logical explanation of life, I choose to believe in nothing. Yup, according to me, there is NOTHING after life."

Do you feel that's true? At the risk of sounding corny, what does your heart say? Is there really no more us after we die?

6:14 AM  
Blogger boo said...

that was a very vivid & dare i say accurate description of an old lady.

i thought my expiry date was stamped on my forehead last year, but it was not to be so.

my parents are @ the age where i think about what you wrote. everyday.

i believe in reincarnation.

6:29 AM  
Anonymous LL said...

"Why don't you start up a blog? You should, you know."

Hahahahahaha! PinTA and I have already had a similar... erm... discussion. :ewink:

Word Verification: scgrr -- the sound made by a Scottish viking with a lisp...

7:11 AM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

LL has a blog, but he won't share. Meanie.

7:31 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

My bet is that LL's version of a blog is covered in pink hearts and has a cute little lock on the front of it. I'd venture a guess it's hidden in a barn somewhere. :P

9:09 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"i thought my expiry date was stamped on my forehead last year, but it was not to be so."

I am extremely glad of that, Boo.


"Word Verification: scgrr -- the sound made by a Scottish viking with a lisp..."

At least it's not "oyzrr," the sound made by a Jewish viking with a deviated septum.


"My bet is that LL's version of a blog is covered in pink hearts and has a cute little lock on the front of it."

I would think forget-me-nots, but pink hearts would work very nicely.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Claire said...

I've considered mortality a lot lately, probably too much.

This time last year, I lost a co-worker in a drunk driving accident. This Christmas, a dear friend's father succumbed to cancer just after the holiday. And last night, I lost my grandfather.

I say this not to inspire pity, but just because I feel like venting but I'm not sure how. Slowly the holidays are turning into a sad time of year, one in which I treasure the moments not for their youthful joviality, but for the fact that they are a bittersweet moment in time that is as close as possible to years gone by.

But I ramble. All this just to say, I've been rather silent lately, but I'm still reading.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Farrago said...

Schprock saidI have this crazy theory that our soul or consciousness or essence is like matter, in that it can neither be created nor destroyed. I think reincarnation makes more sense than the concept of heaven and hell.

Schprock! My BROTHER! I've never put it in exactly those words, but it's the same idea!

Once again you've inspired me to borrow from you, and a new blog post will ensue shortly.

10:37 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"This time last year, I lost a co-worker in a drunk driving accident. This Christmas, a dear friend's father succumbed to cancer just after the holiday. And last night, I lost my grandfather."

Claire, I am very sorry about the loss of your grandfather. I've lost all my grandparents and understand (actually, my father is well at a grandfatherly age at 86). I truly hope and pray he is now in a better place.


"Once again you've inspired me to borrow from you, and a new blog post will ensue shortly."

This I gotta read!

10:59 AM  
Blogger fin said...

That was an amazing post. My grammy has better hair than me...still full and fluffy and white as chalk. In photo albums, her hair stays the same, never changing...as if we're the ones who have grown older instead of her...

11:14 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"My grammy has better hair than me...still full and fluffy and white as chalk."

I know an old guy whose hair still looks so full and strong I bet it could bench 200 pounds. Just the hair, I mean.

1:39 PM  
Blogger Chloe said...

Time is one of those things I can't wrap my mind around. Like a mobius strip, as soon as I think I've conceptualized it, I realize my brain is just a big ball of confusion.

I spent most of high school in a semi-suicidal depression, so I made my peace with death long ago. Now I can say in no uncertain terms that I'm the happiest person I know, probably because I went through my own personal hell and came through it.

Buddhism has lent a meaning to my life I never had with other philosophies or religions. And the more I think about my body as a vessel for my energy - which I believe will exist after my body dies - the more peaceful I feel, as though I'm getting younger, not older.

1:40 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"Buddhism has lent a meaning to my life I never had with other philosophies or religions. And the more I think about my body as a vessel for my energy - which I believe will exist after my body dies - the more peaceful I feel, as though I'm getting younger, not older."

My computer has a program called Stickies, which looks like little Post It notes. I just copied and pasted the above into one of them for a thought to meditate on whenever it catches my eye. That was beautiful, Chloe. Thank you.

2:09 PM  
Blogger Chloe said...

Wow, Mr. Schprock, thank YOU!! You just made my day.

I call that instant karma :)

3:33 PM  
Anonymous LL said...

"LL has a blog, but he won't share. Meanie."

I can neither confirm nor deny any such allegation...

"My bet is that LL's version of a blog is covered in pink hearts and has a cute little lock on the front of it. I'd venture a guess it's hidden in a barn somewhere. :P"

Why would one hide something so lovely in a barn?

Oh BTW, I think you outscored everyone here on your comment numbers. Waytogo!

5:14 PM  
Blogger chimp1 said...

We liked your post and comments so much we've included you in our site What's That Post

9:53 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Thank you very much! I'm honored!

11:08 AM  
Blogger R. Marie said...

I loved how you told the story of the lady with the wig. I can clearly imagine exactly what happened, as if I were there.

I have been obsessed with thoughts of my demise for quite some time now. Actually, what I am obsessed about is more about preparing for after it (will, funeral arrangements, medical power of attorney, etc). I don't worry about where I'm going after, I just hope that IF there is a Heaven & Hell that I get to spend eternity in Heaven.

12:18 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"I don't worry about where I'm going after, I just hope that IF there is a Heaven & Hell that I get to spend eternity in Heaven."

I have to think that if there is a heaven and hell, you'd have to be really, really wicked to earn a one-way ticket to the place where the guys in red pajamas with the pitchforks do their thing.

12:36 PM  

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