Death of Casamegas by Picasso

Death of Casamegas by Picasso

Dawn sits behind our building’s front desk surrounded by cobwebs, bats, and a dismembered hand. Halloween is her favorite holiday and she makes the most of her limited space (even the visitor’s log is covered with ghoulish images). She, like most of North America, is participating in a pagan ritual from Northern Europe marking the onset of winter. We now have more hours of dark than light. Foliage is dead and dried. Who can say how harsh the snow storms will be this winter? So the ancients decided to mock their fears instead of being overwhelmed by them.

Smart pagans.

As I do my rounds at the Palliative Care Unit I am startled by the sound of group laughter emanating from a room with an open door. Normally the Palliative Care Unit is a sombre place. Patients are often doubled-up in pain, relatives keep vigil at the bedside, not knowing what to say or do. The sense of fear, though unspoken, is palpable: is death the end of me? Will I suffer? If there is something beyond, will I forget my loved ones and will they forget me?

And then there is Evelyn, who is the centre of a mini celebration in her room. As I enter with my magazine trolley I dutifully sanitized my hands. “No need,” she laughs. “There is no germ big enough to hurt me now.” Her young visitors laugh at her joke, they are in that mood. Evelyn is in her fifties and she is terminal, but she has not allowed that fact to rob her of her joy. She is so overflowing with it that staff continually stream in and out on the flimsiest excuses.

I have to wonder, what is so unique about Evelyn that she is so underwhelmed by her imminent death? Is she perhaps extremely courageous? I decide no. Courage is a kind of resistance to fear. It involves a strength of will to suppress the fear. As such courage is stoic, serious and focussed. Whereas Evelyn is light and spontaneous. She is without effort of any kind. So what is her secret?

From the decorations in her room I gather she is deeply devout. There is a crucifix on the wall opposite to her, a rosary sits relaxed on her bedside stand. But I don’t think it is faith which is the source of her fearlessness. Faith can give you relief from the symptoms of fear. Much the same way that Evelyn’s medications give her relief from her pain but they cannot cure her cancer. In the same way, faith does not cure fear.

How could it? Faith is required when you do not know for certain. And fear is always about the unknown, the uncertain. Faith and fear are two different reactions to the same unknown.  The only possible antidote to fear is utter and complete  knowledge. No biggie if you are dealing with run-of-the-mill fear, say fear of that zombie family who just moved in down the hall. They speak a strange language, they smell weird, and they sure have disgusting tastes in food.  Here the solution is easy: walk up to them and start a conversation, get to know them and their foreign culture and presto! the fear of the unknown vanishes. But what about fear of the unknowable? Death for example?

In my experience the same technique works splendidly. Fear exists in the mind because it does not bother to ask the right questions. The mind by design is self-centered and so it is very casual about the deaths of strangers far away: that bomb blast in Pakistan, that typhoon  in Bali, occupy no more than a second of attention. The mind refuses to dwell on the deaths of the animals the body consumes. It does not hesitate to kill a fly who happens to stray into ‘my space’.

If however the mind is allowed to experience death and dying by proxy, by being around those in the process, the mind gets accustomed to the idea. It begins to see death as normal and natural. It then feels comfortable enough to consider death without condemnation or condonation. In doing so the mind sheds much of its fears. Even though it is still unable to conceive death, it figures out that not all people suffer in death. Some even thrive (such as Evelyn). The mind figures out it does indeed have some control over the whole process, and so it accepts the inevitability of death. Neither does it seek to shun, to deny, to escape the dying of others. It becomes a little less selfish.

Can it be that this self-centeredness of the mind is the true root of all fear? If so, might giving attention to selflessness dissipate much of the fear in daily living?

Happy Halloween!


ineptMy printer has a mind of its own, I swear. Literally. I swear and swear at it. I even threaten it. Still it refuses to behave. So I slap it a few times. Then I burst out laughing. If cursing out a misbehaving child would never work, just what made me think that it might work for a machine? If violence has never solved problems in human relationships, why would it on inanimate objects? Yet I am not alone in having a dysfunctional relationship with mechanical objects that are designed to make my life more relaxed. DVD players, cable boxes, dishwashers, even faucets and sockets can completely reduce otherwise intelligent and sane adults into hysterics.

One member of my family (who shall remain nameless), while attempting to hang a picture on a wall, famously banged a nail through the gas line. We were without the use of our gas stove for a week. He could negotiate with anyone when it came to business, but anything the least bit mechanical was a no deal.

It is not his fault. Nor mine. Sure, I could easily blame genetics for my disability and shell out hard cash to the professionals to fix things for me, but I am too cheap for that (which really is genetic). Nor do I subscribe to this idea that it is because some people are right-brained (artsy) and others are left-brained ( mathematical). This couldn’t be it because we can find brain surgeons who turn into Inspector Clouseau when assembling a simple Ikea bookshelf.

Besides, something emotional is preventing me from giving up on that printer. It feels as though I am putting down an aging pet who can no longer control its bladder. I feel sorry for the thing. It occurred to me, why not treat it as yet another dysfunctional relationship I need to renegotiate? Surely, can’t the printer be fixed with a little attention and a whole lot of care?

I recognize that the source of my frustration is that I expect non-sentient things to be predictable. To my way of thinking, because machines have no emotions, no feelings, therefore they have no right to be temperamental. But physics would disagree.

Machines are made from metal. And metal has stress, it suffers from tension, it expands and shrinks with the temperature. It behaves differently in the presence of foreigners, no matter how minute, such as dust. In other words machines have every right to be sensitive.

This is something I had failed to respect about them. While I have dedicated much of my life to being responsive to the sensitivity of animals, plants and of course people, I had discounted the sensitivity of machinery. Who knew? I have been a life-long machine bigot.

It has taken me a long while to appreciate that the answer to my frustration with machines lies in my very expectation about them. I expect them to be predictable. They are. They need to be treated in the same particular way for each and every use. They have no capacity to adapt to my moods, or my urgency. They cannot be pressured into working faster because I need it printed yesterday. The paper has to be feed precisely with the same pressure, at the exact same angle each and every time. I think those who negotiate successfully with machines have learned a kind of zen of machinery. In their presence such people maintain an equipoise. Hence machines obey their commands.

I don’t think I was far off the mark in anthropomorphizing machines. I just never took the metaphor far enough. Just as people respond best when you listen well to them, so do machines. And to listen well you need to be silent within yourself during your interaction. Ditto with machines.

Let me go and rescue my printer from the recycle bin. We deserve to give our relationship another chance.

Can Memory Be Trusted?

October 7, 2013


Rubin Carter, a victim of faulty memory

With Rubin Carter, a victim of faulty memory

“I don’t know who I am anymore,” laments Jacob. A nurse directs his attention to a letter-sized sheet of paper she always keeps in front of him. It contains his full name, the name of the hospital he resides in, the floor and his room number. But these clues do not help Jacob’s disorientation. He has Alzheimer’s. He cannot remember his family. He cannot recall where he was born, or his occupation, or the places he has lived. It seems obvious to state that who we are is about our past. Everything we know about our character, what we believe, the people we love, our skills, the things we like and don’t like, all rely upon our memory. But wait, new research is saying that what we remember may not be what we actually experienced.

Scientists say it is very easy to trick the mind into remembering events that never happened. Elizabeth Loftus carried out an experiment in 1994 in which she was able to convince 25% of her subjects that as children they had once been lost in a shopping mall. She showed them photoshopped images of themselves lost in a mall as proof. The mechanism of memory is highly flawed. Our imaginations, our dreams, even movies can trick our brain into believing we actually experienced an event in the distant past that never happened.

This is why eye witness testimony is notoriusly unreliable. The Innocence Project, thanks to DNA, has freed dozens of men, including Rubin Carter, who were wrongfully-convicted of horrific crimes solely based upon eye witness testimony. It is not that the witnesses were deliberately committing perjury, they genuinely believed they saw Mr. X do whatever he was accused of.

Not only is memory highly suggestible, it remembers differently at different times. Couples when they bicker usually disagree over widely divergent memories of the same events. It is a lot like that Steve Lawerence song from the film Gigi, Oh Yes I remember It Well. “I did the shopping last week,” says one spouse. “No I did,” argues the other. It is not that one or both parties are liars. They truly remember the past differently and the conflict arises because both of them trust the accuracy of his respective memory.

To get conclusive proof of the unreliability of memory, you don’t need experiments. Your dreams are made purely from memory. Anachronism are routine (You are at a family gathering where everyone is as they are today except for your thirty-five-year-old nephew who is three). People and items are mislocated (you dream of your childhood home but the couch is the one you have now). Such errors are routine because in sleep the memory does not have clues from our senses or the collaboration of other people. In waking life we fill the gaps of memory by deduction, we infer, we assume, we trust. Dreams are raw memory and memory is not recollection but re-imagination.

This is the reason why when we fall out with someone close to us, we re-imagine our mutual past to align with the shift in our new opinion of that person. We re-interrupt our mutual relationship so convincingly that we conveniently forget contrary events. We might even swear    ‘remembering’ them saying and doing things they never actually did. (Isn’t it amazing that every young person who dies tragically was a living saint?)

Which brings me back to Jacob. It may be stating the obvious to say that who we are is about our past, but if our data is unreliable then should we trust our conclusions? Even for those without Alzheimer’s, Jacob’s question is still relevant. Who am I? I believe I know but that belief changes depending on who I am with. Sure, the physical descriptions do not change (race, gender, height) but internally who I am is a flux. The facts of my name and location do not vary from moment to moment and so I do not experience Jacob’s disorientation. But if I am being honest, when I look back over the years to find an answer to who I am, I am as befuddled as Jacob.

At first this notion is scary. Terror is always about the unknown and the unexpected. But once you get comfortable with the uncertainty, it can bring about a flexibility in your relationships. When you acknowledge that your memory might be flawed, you allow the possibility that  others may be right in what they remember. When you lose faith in your memory the world is  a more nuanced and layered place. I love how infants, who have no past and therefore no concretized definition of who they are, move about with a perpetual sense of discovery and wonder. Might an acknowledgement of the unreliability of our memory allow us to experience some of that astonishment about life?

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