Day 26: On Death

I borrow the title of this post from Montaigne, one of my favorite philosophers who is up there, for me, with Rousseau, Thoreau, and the Stoics. I have been thinking about death lately since the death of my father, which is more than five years ago now. All the great writers and social psychologists are right: “we’re all stronger than we think,” and this wisdom is dated back to the 500 BCE with the Stoics who were the first to arrive at this golden wisdom about our humane capacity as human beings. From a psychological perspective, our ability to predict the future is limited therefore it often leads us to think depressingly about life; however, there’s also a good news, which is the fact that far better than our ability to prognosticate the future is our your ability to create it. Back then, I didn’t think I could survive without having him around me, as I couldn’t believe that someone could die that prematurely regardless of how illustrative his life may have been.

At my father's funeral in 2010. At the time I was starting my PhD in anthropology at Harvard. The first week of class was underway but I took two weeks off from school to return home to be with my family.

At my father’s funeral in 2010. At the time I was starting my PhD in anthropology at Harvard. The first week of class was underway but I took two weeks off from school to return home to be with my family.

My father and I were very close, and therefore loosing him at that time was loosing everything for me. I regretted that I hadn’t spent enough time with him because I had almost always been abroad during the last decade of his life, and that I was busy with my own thing and therefore did not have time for him. Because I was abroad and that I was so busy with my own things, our understanding of each other drifted apart, and therefore when we got to see each other, usually in the summer or during the winter breaks, we no longer talked about anything new but basically only talked about things in and of the past, such as stuff we did together when I was young and he was younger, our favorite hobbies, and so on. The generation gap was wide, but what was much wider was the ideological gap since at the time I had been educated abroad for a few years already which, as I wrote in the previous posts, my perspective on society had changed drastically because of the experience being away from the conservative home base on Thailand. Since he passed away I have been much more aware of the fact that death is closer than we think. It could happen anytime to me and to anyone whom I love and care about. So, to live a  life, in a way, is to prepared to die, although not in a literal sense. To prepare to die, I think, is to understand the nature of things, and to live our lives in such a way that leaves no room for regret once we can no longer exist in this particular registry (as we don’t know what will happen to us in the after life registry). What has happened to me since has been that I have become much more prepared to talk about death, to see it as another thing that life provides us with, just like birth, growing old, getting sick, and so on, and to understand it as the end goal of life rather than an unexpected event that happens just to take away our faith, our hope and our sensibility. Death is the debt that we all pay. How do we make it a productive debt, rather than an NPL?

The other day I watched a short video clip about how a woman got killed by a bus, as she was pushed underneath its wheels by a car whose driver carelessly opened the driver’s door without looking first whether it was clear for him to do so. What happened was that, in less than one second that followed, the woman felt out of the motorbike on which she was riding, her head then went down between the front and the back wheels of the running public bus and therefore got crushed immediately stopping her pulse right on the spot.

A gruesome accident in Qidong city, Jiangsu province.

I was frightened by the news.

This was one of those events that certainly makes many think about life differently. Upon hearing this news I paused, stopped whatever I was doing (I may have been reading at the time) just to think about how would I respond to this if this person was someone that I knew. I have heard of how people could die so suddenly before, but what was different from this particular incident was how choreographic it was. The whole thing happened as if someone choreographed it. At the beginning, There was a careless driver, whatever he was thinking then that made him want to open the door so suddenly knowing that he was on the driver’s seat and therefore his door would swing outwards to the road. Then, there was a victim who suffered from such carelessness. She “happened” to be on the motorbike that “happened” to be right there, at the moment when that door was just about to be open, and therefore she didn’t have enough time to stop her motorbike or to make a sudden turn to prevent herself from being pushed underneath the bus by the door. Had she been one-tenth of a second faster than that she might be able to get through without any accident. Had she been one-tenth of a second slower than that she might hit the driver, or the door, or both, but she would probably not being knocked over to the side, and therefore unfortunately got underneath the bus. Had she been one second slower, nothing might happen at all, as she would perhaps be able to stop her motorbike right before it would hit the driver or the car’s door, and by the time her motorbike had completely stopped the bus would have passed them. Want might she be thinking about when she was on that motorbike? Maybe she wasn’t thinking about anything. Maybe she was listening to her favorite tune on the radio, and thinking about another good day ahead of her. Maybe she was thinking about her family, and what she would like to cook for them. Or, maybe she felt completely about her life because she had been working so hard to support the family, and had a quick thought that “if everything could end right now, I may be happier.” Whatever she was thinking, she didn’t get to think it through. Suddenly, before her thought crystallized, she got pushed aside, and by the time she felt between the bus’ wheel she could no longer anticipate her fate one-tenth of a second afterwards.

The whole thing might be too abrupt and too fast for her brain to process; so, before she could gather enough information to know what was happening, the life had gone off. This made me think of how Zoe Barnes was killed by Frank Underwood in the second season of House of Cards. This event just showed how fragile life is and can be, and how we should think about it as such, because no matter how we strong we think we are, which might be true, at the end of the day there’s a physiological limit to how much we could maintain our biological being. In a situation like this, you probably wouldn’t even get to think about anything, let alone the meaning of life. I had always been under the impression that we, all of us, would at least have the chance to think about the meaning of life — suppose when we’re on our dead beds. But even that, after having watched this clip, would be something rather luxury to expect from life. I used to think that at least we would get to say good bye. Not only did this woman not only have a chance to say goodbye to her loved ones, but she also did not have the opportunity, even, to to think about what she was facing. It’s too quick, and that was it. It’s all over.

Prof. Nick TappP.S. I’d like to dedicate this post to Prof. Nicholas Tapp, a renowned anthropologist and a specialist in the study of the Hmong, who had been Distinguished Professor and Director of the Research Institute of Anthropology at East China Normal University since 2010. Prof. Tapp passed away due to illness on October 10, 2015 at the Shanghai Huashan Hospital. He was 63 years old. I only met him briefly twice in the last two years as we overlapped at two anthropological conferences here in Shanghai. I was thinking about visiting him at the hospital in the summer. I sincerely didn’t think that he would pass away. Prof. Tapp has left us with his illustrious legacy and fruitful scholarship that all of us could try to assimilate.


4 thoughts on “Day 26: On Death

  1. Pingback: Day 36: Worst Mistakes People Make in Their 20s | 100 days of writing

  2. Pingback: Day 43: On Loneliness | 100 days of writing

  3. Pingback: Day 55: On Writing Well | 100 days of writing

  4. Pingback: Day 72: The Power of Logic | 100 days of writing

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