17, 27, 40 and 60.I got into a discussion with a fleet sales manager for a car dealership the other day about gas prices. His business has been devastated over the past year and is still shrinking. Not only are car sales down, but so are parts and repairs. Memorial day is coming up, a big day for people getting their cars in shape, but his service department is quiet. The obvious culprit is gas prices, but why are repairs down? Maybe there's some form of denial at work. We don't buy new cars because we're afraid of where gas prices will go. But since the whole situation is way out of our control, we don't even want to think about it, and thus avoid the rational thing which is to keep our current cars in good repair. That's just my speculation. It's generally assumed that we have taboos about death for much the same reason: we don't want to think about it. In our bright shiny, everything under control society, death reminds us just how little control we really have. (My high school English teacher used to say "death and taxes are the only certainties," usually in response to something I'd said with the absolute assurance and ignorance that only teenagers can summon.) I had a friend die recently. Not that it was totally unexpected - he was 80 years old - but it was a shock. He was in good health, took care of himself, exercised regularly and saw the doctor frequently. He's been in my life for the past 18 years and it is hard to let go of him. Our response to death seems so selfish: we start crying. No matter what form of belief you have, the person will be in a better place, as far as I can tell, but we still grieve. I'm not trying to argue against grief, mine or anyone elses, because that's part of the human process. I do wonder about the effect on our thinking. Grieving is worse when the person is significant: a lifelong friend, a parent, a hero. How can we go on without them? The numbers in the title of this essay are my age when somebody significant in my life died. As you can tell, I've gone on. I still remember the ones who died and sometimes still have a pang when I think about them. But I don't know that I'd want to be immortal. After a while you'd start repeating yourself, knowingly or unknowingly, like some electron racing around the atoms of a crystal over and over. I repeat myself enough already, thank you, and that seems to be the definition of senseless - one more round on the experience oval. Life needs death. A species needs death of the individuals to evolve. Granted we are close to having enough control over our environment that we may not need to evolve any more. That just means that we can keep our own little niche going, not that we represent any pinnacle of evolution, evolution deals in niches, not pinnacles. You could even argue that shorter lifetimes are better, helping drive evolution faster. Even without evolution, there is societal change, some of which is necessary. Those of us who grew up in the era of hot cars, find it hard to lay down that heritage for low mileage transport, not for any rational reason, just because we're used to it. I found out a lot about my own belief system when my friend died. He will live on in me and in the people who knew him, in the ideas he shared and the ways he lived that I emulate.
8 Jul 2012; 24 May 2007
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