Death & Distractions

During the years 2018-2020 when the pandemic and Trump held our attention, I was caregiver to my wife of 50 years, Elaine, who had fought two bouts of breast cancer, separated by 12 years, lived to see her multiple myeloma in remission and then died in December 2020 of a return yet again of metastatic breast cancer.

In comparison with the way so many Covid people suffered and died, some separated from their loved ones, dying alone, so far beyond in import by what we mean when we say we all die alone, Elaine died at home with me. The world-wide pandemic context of my grieving for her has been and remains more than enough for me to realize that right now is the time for each of us to review our lives as mortals, a review that so much in our fame and fortune ambitions have kept out of sight.

I see mortality strongly brought to the fore in the elemental struggles of people of color just to be allowed to breathe. Their mortality is a daily presence simply because they live in a culture in which their lives can and are so haphazardly taken in this country. I see death pursuing those fleeing for their lives in Afghanistan. Death pursues and finds us inevitably but I see the disgusting ways we underwrite it, the ways we fund it, the ways we accept it not for ourselves but the price others must pay.

My thoughts regarding the way we find ourselves living as if tomorrow is promised were not triggered by this so much larger surround but by my wife’s death and the ways in which I was distracted from my life with her, ways I extrapolate beyond the personal to a culture whose economy benefits some by distracting many. We are distracted from death although it should be a bond which brings us together in life enhancing ways.

It is the elemental need of our zero sum competitive order of things to pull us all away from the fact that, as Emily Dickinson reminds us, it is our mortality that makes life so sweet: “That it will never come again/ Is what makes life so sweet.” We, however, live as if our shroud has pockets and that we take all our winnings with us, as if running from our mortality, consuming every distraction we can, is the way in which we make life sweet.

During the time I was Elaine’s caregiver, I turned to what I call the “Big Guns” of our canon in order to keep myself stable enough to be useful to Elaine as a caregiver. I re-read all of Shakespeare’s plays, Don Quixote, old and new translations of Homer, all the Greek tragedies, and kept Blake and Whitman by our bed. But what kept me most on path other than foreseeing Elaine’s death was how daily I was incited/triggered by what our president, Donald J. Trump, was broadcasting. I needed that distraction, such a noisy elephant in the room, and I have a sense so many also were distracted from Covid by this man.

I put my thoughts regarding the inconceivability of what was emanating, via Twitter, from the highest office in the land in weekend articles I wrote for four years for CounterPunch. I found a home there not only because Jeffrey St. Clair had no problem with a “long form essay” but also because I could, without editorial scolding, lash both Liberals and Conservatives, refusing to see that “The Truth” was out here and not there, there and not here, that truth was buried in the contexts of our seeing and our seeing had become unreachably divided. I did not have to hold back the fears I had of how “social” media would put a bullhorn in the hands of those who for centuries had burnt themselves out in private, shouting their idiocies, conspiracy theories, irrationalities, and their unfounded “alternative” facts in their own bathroom mirrors. All these are now unleashed in cyberspace.

I see no individual freedom in this chaotic communication when such hyped freedom is either dazed and confused by the endless roll of toilet tissue emanating from cyberspace, or captured/confined within views that cannot stand any level of critical examination.

I do not here want to pursue any of this now as Elaine’s death and my contemplation of death itself since the morning she died has brought up questions that have no politics and brought me not to answers but a kind of wonderment. Denying death as the only external reference point in our lives is a necessity if profit to shareholders and return on investment are to be held as the summum bonum of our lives. I’ve understood and rejected this but at the same time I have not been free of priorities which our cultural has absorbed. I am personally imbricated in the cultural. Elaine’s death revealed what I had not seen. I absorbed through much questioning a sustaining notion of death; I found a place in our culture for what had been given no place.

Where is she now? is a question repeated over and over in my head. I have settled on knowing that she is inscribed in who I am. She is not physically with me, but she exists and where she exists is in everything I hear, see, think, write and say. I cannot find peace in knowing I will never see her again but knowing that she is sharing with me this struggle and that her counsel is deep within my own mind — this gives me a place to rest, a monetary stay against utter bewilderment and disbelief that she is no longer physically with me. I still find it difficult to accept the “forever” part of her dying. Perhaps that’s because everything never dies now in our digitalized marketing culture but somehow reappears and is greeted as if it was something other than that same old in new lipstick. Perhaps it’s because I feel Celestial Compassion would give us all a time where the loved and the mourning work their way transitionally toward this “forever.”

I question I have been led to is why did everyday business, everyday absorptions outweigh the preciousness of a life never promised even one more day, a mortal life, her mortal life, my mortal life, our mortal lives?

I could be so distracted for my own reasons or ambitions regarding my own life but how could I allow those — all now pitiable in my eyes — to distract me from the preciousness of this person I loved, whose existence was what anchored my own? What crazy, blind sense of what was important had enthralled me? What climb from dust ascended to a top rung when it was so very clear that all ambitions, lusts and dreams would inevitably end in dust?

I think we are to be distracted in our everyday lives for a purpose and that purpose, as simplistic as it sounds, is profit making, whether we are agents of that or exploited. We each envision ourselves on a path to fulfill our personal destiny, achieve the success we aspire to, go as far as we can, go as high up as we can. I am anti-humanist in all this: I do not see a person, an individual, a subjectivity forging these paths by personal choices. We are enwrapped in stories of success that are not personal though we delude ourselves into thinking they are. Rather, these are shaping forces of a vicious, competitive capitalism gone wild, so powerfully present that it is difficult to believe that something personal, something self-initiated is going on here.

Because we are always already caught within such forces and illusions we cannot find an outside perspective enabling us to see that all the accoutrements of success, the signs of winning are not unique but everywhere the same for everyone, the indicators of having won or having lost recognized by all, pointing not to individual autonomy but to a hive mind, to the fear, hate and greed of the hive.

How amazingly baffling is it to believe that we can personally choose to be outside this hive, and that we can choose to live as if we didn’t die, or, most amazingly, not to realize that our own death cannot be preempted  or co-opted by our defensive wall of distractions, our long term ambitions and our everyday busyness.

Because we as Americans are deeply rooted in the illusions of individual autonomy, we represent to ourselves “Mindfulness” and being “Woke” as personal struggles and achievements. We are trying to overcome the onslaught of capitalist meanings and values, deeply rooted now in our American way of life, by asserting a personal warfare. We the choosers can choose freedom and justice and so on. We just have to choose to do so. We choose to have such personal choice that if exercised — Just do it! — cannot be denied.

I find all this appalling and stupid. It has led to the stupid and appalling deification of our own personal opinions, as if each one of us is an original inventor personally giving birth to every thought and belief we have. If we admit they are constructed for us, and most powerfully constructed within a culture that has as powerful an economic stranglehold on us as our own, we must realize that most of what’s in our heads is designed, constructed and manufactured and we did not do the original blue prints.

We are far from what Aristotle meant by eudaemonia, the art of living a human life well, an appraisal of such wellness shining through when a person has died, an appraisal that has little to do with whether we won or lost in the parlance of our competitive capitalism. To live an individual human life well that life must replenish the goodness of other lives. There is no personal review. The quality of our lives is judged within the context of the lives of all those we have known. We live within the remembrance of the goodness of others.

With what should we be absorbed in our everyday lives when we each day realize the next day is not promised?  I don’t have a list but it seems clear that what takes us into our own personal will to power and away from observing and grasping what surround of power we are enmeshed, including our own mortality, is worthless and escapist. A hierarchy of values and meanings designed to replace our commonly shared mortality and give it no value, create the kind of artificial paradises and homeless camps, the kind of monstrous aberrations attached to all flights into delusions and illusions. It may be an intrinsic part of the American Dream to fabricate the worthless and escapist in this fear of ending in a death, which may be a marketing frontier for undertakers, but profitless to the dead. Because we have no grasp of the commonality in death, we fear and tremble in the face of our own personal death.

We preach to our children the ambitions of the cultural imaginary we are in right now. Rather than being absorbed with global warming and a pernicious plutocratic wealth divide we are absorbed with fear and hate. Without a means to reach a common understanding, we must remain imbeciles capable only of acting accordingly. In a grotesque way it seems to follow that if you build an order of things dedicated to an ontology of consumption and mortality has no place then everything is disposable, or subject to the rule of a personal “Like,” from reason as a path to reality as well as mortality as the impetus to living your life so as to replenish with your acts and words the lives of others.

While some remain absorbed in their daily lives in “getting theirs,” and others are absorbed in all manner of ludicrous conspiracy theories or, worse yet, lost within the enclosed space of their own opinionating, such opinions always find some support in a cyberspace of chaotic minds, the deeper question remains of how do we rise from the superficial and ephemeral to what is truly significant in living our lives well not simply personally but within the context of the lives of others?

When all the machinery of our consumer oriented capitalism and a semio-capitalism which works hard to shape our subjective processes are both working to draw us into an everydayness in which our undeniable mortality is cancelled, to use that word outside the parlance of the day, how do we keep from being so absorbed? How do we get back to realizing that though one lives forever on Facebook, the dead receiving friend requests and invites to all the dead can no longer join, death in our real world cannot be so mocked.

I confess that I did not realize the extent of my own absorption in all that kept Elaine from the center of my attention at all times until she died. And now the loss cannot be represented, only felt. I suppose I can exonerate myself and say I was a teacher and I wrote and taught toward the edification of my students, that my daily goals and ambitions were nobler than the guy who jacked up the price of a needed drug a million times for profit sake. I wasn’t absorbed by the ambitions laid down by our competitive capitalism, but I was occupied, like Poland in WWII, nonetheless with fighting those inhumane ambitions. I found myself interpreting every headline, except that which her death brought to me. Death is a presence that illuminates her and our life together, uncovers the foolish distractions, and causes me to do what I do within the illumination.

It is ever so much more dreadful than my personal grieving that a whole country is now so captivated by fears and hatreds and have made those so much a part of everyday life that guns, violence and killing lie on the horizon. Perhaps it is my deep grief that enables me here, because I see all this division as mindless within the inevitable horizon of our mortality. It is the horizon which shows us our commonality and the need to temper our lives while we can.

I am re-reading Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and understanding Heathcliff’s passion to break through the veil of death and find his Catherine. High romantic yearning. So very personal. But also I find comfort in Whitman’s, the “Good Grey Poet’s,” quieting affirmation of our commonality with all life, joined in the commonality of or mortality. A song of himself brought way beyond the province of the personal:

“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-
Soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

“Song of Myself”

Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Dark Affinities, Dark Imaginaries: A Mind’s Odyssey .