Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Life and death matters

The Diplomad has an interesting post about life and death in the Third World. He notes the First World's outstanding generosity to the Tsunami disaster and the rather remarkable silence from the Saudis and (aside from complaining about the US) from most of the Third World -- including those countries hit hardest by the disaster. The Diplomad, thumbing his nose at cultural relativists, suggests that our culture may, in fact, be morally superior. I'd love to agree (and I do think that we have a superior culture in many ways), but I wonder if the approach to death and disaster has more to do with our luxury, death-averse lifestyle than with any inherent superiority. Some comparisons. Consider your average medieval peasant woman. If she had the good luck to have a "long" life (say, until 40), she would have multiple pregnancies (perhaps seven or eight, or even ten or twelve), and might see one or two children survive to adulthood. Her world would be buffeted by regular and horrible disease cycles (plague, small pox, sweating sickness, diptheria, etc.). Even minor infections could easily lead to death. (Indeed, as recently as WWI, Rupert Brooks, the British poet, died from a mosquito bite that turned septic.) Teeth rotted away or were yanked out, sans anesthetics. What we consider ordinary (or, at least, manageable) diseases led inexorably to the grave. But her comfort was her faith. The all-encompassing Catholic Church assured her that her sufferings were transient, since these sufferings occurred only during her short corporeal existence, and were a necessary prelude to the glories of Heaven. Death was ordinary, death was to be expected, and, if you lived a righteous life, death was an important prelude to a divine journey. One missed the dead and feared a painful death, but it was, well, ordinary, when someone died. Aside from life and death matters, the comforts in her life were minimal. Transportation was confined to foot and the occasional horseback or donkey ride; heat, if one was lucky, came from a smoky fire in the middle of the room; baths were rare; clothes were itchy and lice-ridden; analgesics were almost nonexistent; beds might be a straw pallet on the floor; and food varied, with some peasants eating a much healthier diet than we do today, and some peasants, especially those caught in war-torn areas, eating grass and, on horrible occasions of starvation, each other. Most of the Third World lives a life not far removed from our little medieval lady. Their lives are "nasty, brutish and short." The women have repeated pregnancies, but few adult children to show for their wearying and painful efforts. Their lives are bounded by maleria, AIDS, deadly measles, diptheria, typhoid, typhus, etc. Even minor infections can turn septic. Teeth rot away or are pulled. Their life spans are dismayingly short. And yet they have their faith. In Christian communities, they believe that their sufferings will end with a rapturous ascent to Heaven. In Muslim communities, ditto. In Hindu communities, reincarnation promises it will be better the next time. I'm under the impression (with little information), that other Eastern faiths also provide solace in the form of an afterlife, or something. Each individual mourns his or her dead, and fears a painful death, but death is, well, ordinary. And, again, when one gets away from life and death matters, the comforts of life are minimal. Travel is confined to foot or donkey; air conditioning, since the Third World is usually hot, is nonexistent; clothes are dirty and lice-ridden (although they often have soft drink logos on them); analgesics are almost nonexistent; beds might be a straw pallet on the floor; and food varies, with some Third Worlders eating a much healthier diet than we do, and some suffering terrible starvation. And here we are in the West: The Western world has the lowest infant mortality rate in the world and the lowest infant mortality rate in history. The Western world has the longest life span in the world and (barring those ancient Carpathian peasants somewhere who live on yoghurt and weird fermented drinks) the longest life span in history. The Western world also lives the most comfortable, disease free life in the world and in world history. In other words, we've made death a stranger and physical comfort one of our highest goals. On a day-to-day level, we don't die in childbirth, we don't die of ordinary infections, we manage our long-term diseases, we have more food than one can shake a stick, and our teeth are blindingly white and healthy. When we finally succumb to disease, we're tucked away in a nice, private hospital. During our life, we have luxury cars; clean, comfortable clothes; warm (or cool), draft-free, leak-free, environmentally controlled houses; stunningly good pain-management; abundant food; and on and on. We have faith (at least about 70% of us do), but it's not a very rigorous faith. God is love, God is good, there are angels, crystals will help us, yadda, yadda, yadda. It all seems a little abstract, since it's not bounded by corporeal suffering. You see, when you live a life this good, death and suffering are alien and all the more terrible because they are unfamiliar. In other words, suffering that to a Sri Lankan is ordinary (although made terrible by sheer volume in the wake of the Tsunami) is, to us, frightening and horrible. No wonder we're more generous. Not only are we good people, with lots of excess in our lifes that we can share with others, but we perceive the events as immensely more tragic than those who are actually living them. And in light of all of the above, here is where I respectfully differ from the Diplomad: We're not morally superior, we're scared.