Remember Death

Jumping off my post some days ago about the Stoic “premeditation of evils“: Virtually every society since ancient times understood that we should always be aware of death.

Socrates said that good philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.”

Early Buddhist texts use the term maranasati, which translates as “remember death”, which became the mantra of medieval Christian societies following the devastation of the bubonic plague.

Some adherents of Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, are known as the “people of the graves” for their practice of visiting graveyards to ponder death, as Mohammad himself had once advised.

The ancient Egyptians, already so well known for their obsession with death, had a custom of bringing out a skeleton during festivities and cheer, “Drink and be merry, for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

Mexico’s globally iconic Day of the Dead fuses both the Catholic and indigenous fascination with death, putting a more optimistic spin on our ability to remain connected to departed loved ones while appreciative of our time on Earth.

Still Life with a Skull, by Philippe de Champaigne, which depicts the three essentials of existence: life (the tulip), death (the skull), and the time (the hourglass). The original painting is part of a 17th century artistic genre called Vanitas, which encouraged reflection on the meaning and fleetingness of life.

Perhaps the most famous proponents of this idea were the Stoics I quoted last time, who emerged in the Roman Empire the third century B.C.E. In his private journal known as the Meditations, Emperor Marcus Aurelius advised to himself that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Roman statesman and orator Seneca advised that we go to bed thinking “You may not wake up tomorrow” and start the day thinking “You may not sleep again”. He also recommended that we:

…prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.

All this probably sounds pretty morbid and depressing, not to mention counterintuitive: Thinking about death all the time is no way to live and would probably paralyze us with fear (take it from someone with chronic anxiety). But as another famous Stoic, the slave Epictetus, explained:

Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terribly doing so, you’ll never have a base thought, nor will you have excessive desire.

Extrapolating from this, some modern Stoics advise that we remember that the people we fight with will die; the strangers cut us off on the road or in line will die; that every time we say goodbye to a loved one, we keep in mind they may die before we see or speak with them again. Again, the point is not to be depressed, clingy, or nihilistic, but to help put things in perspective and value each finite second we have.

The people we hate will end up just like us one day, which both humanizes them and reminds us not to waste precious little time occupied by them. The people we love will end up the same way, so better that we make the most of our time and fill it with happiness. Of course, all this is easier said than done: It’s every culture and society has been trying to refine this advise for as long as our species has been aware of its own mortality.

Premeditatio Malorum

The Stoic philosophers of the ancient Greco-Roman world had a meditative practice called Premeditatio Malorum, or “premeditation of evils”, which consists of imagining and thus preparing ourselves for the misfortunes, obstacles, and suffering we can encounter every day or while pursuing a goal.

This technique of “negative visualization” forces us to confront undesirable things we would rather not think about, even though they are entirely possible, if not inevitable. Losing your job, being the victim of a crime, falling gravely ill, getting injured or killed in an accident, or getting that dreaded phone call about these things happening to someone you love. We all know these things happen—thousands of people fall victim to at least one of them every day.

It seems depressing and counterproductive for one’s mental health to dwell on these things. But for the Stoics—and for that matter, other practitioners of this idea worldwide, from Muslim Sufis to Buddhists—this mentality guarantees a healthier and happier life. It keeps you vigilant and as ready as possible for the bad things that come your way. It makes you appreciate every second you and your loved ones are alive. It challenges you to not sweat the small stuff, and to try to build healthier relations or interactions while they last.

Making it home safe from work is something to be grateful for, as thousands of Americans are not so lucky. Being able to call a loved one and hear their voice is something to cherish. Even waking up to see another day is something too easy to take for granted, even though millions worldwide wish they could have done the same. In short, it really is the little things that are, well, the big things, if you think about it.

Of course, like most efforts to improve one’s attitude and behavior, all this is easier said than done. But that is why it is called a practice.

The First War to End All Wars

Yesterday was an even more devastating anniversary than the bar exam.

On July 28, 1914—exactly one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—Austria declared war on Serbia and the First World War began. Despite directly setting off the war, both nations would soon be overshadowed by the much bigger players they dragged with them: France, Germany, Russia, and the U.K.

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After putting up stiff resistance for the first year, Serbia was conquered by the end of 1915 and occupied by Austro-Hungarian forces until the war’s end in 1918. Over 1.1 million Serbs died, including one out of four troops, up to a quarter of the population and 60 percent of men; proportionally, Serbia suffered more losses than any other country involved (the Ottoman Empire ranks second in this regard, losing 13-15 percent of people, followed by Romania at 7-9 percent).

For its part, the weak and declining Austro-Hungarian Empire lost over 2 million people, of whom 120,000 were civilians, amounting to about 4 percent of its total population. Having exhausted itself in its pyrrhic victory against Serbia, the country barely kept it together throughout the conflict, remaining a peripheral power dependent on German support; indeed, Austria-Hungary would ultimately collapse into several new countries, some of which would join Serbia to form a new multiethnic state called Yugoslavia.

All told, some 8 million fighting men were killed by combat and disease, and 21 million more were wounded. As many as 13 million civilians died as a result of starvation, exposure, disease, military action, and massacres. Four great empires and dynasties—the Hohenzollern, the Habsburg, the Romanov, and the Ottoman—fell, and the intercontinental movement of troops helped fuel the deadliest influenza pandemic in history. The ripple effects of the war, from the Great Depression, to World War II, to the Cold War, continue to be felt today. The war helped usher in the Russian Revolution, and ultimately the Soviet Union, the first major communist government (which ironically would play the pivotal role in helping end the second iteration of the war).

See the source image
See the source image

Better known are the grievances engendered by the post-war Versailles Treaty, which helped fuel the desperation and misery that became the Nazi’s stock and trade. Even Japan saw its star rise further as a major world power, belatedly joining the Allies and getting a seat at the table as one of the leaders of the post-war League of Nations (no small feat for a non-European country).

In Casualties of History, John Arquilla describes the almost morbidly comical arrogance and stupidity of this meat grinder of a conflict:

“Yes, a second and even more destructive conflict followed all too soon after the “war to end all wars”, impelling a name change from Armistice Day to Veterans Day. And the rest of the 20th century was littered with insurgencies, terrorism, and a host of other violent ills — most of which persist today, guaranteeing the steady production of new veterans, of which there are 22 million in the United States.

But despite the seemingly endless parade of wars waged and fresh conflicts looming just beyond the bloody horizon, World War I still stands out for its sheer horror. Over ten million soldiers died, and more than twice that number were wounded. This is a terrible enough toll. But what makes these casualties stand out even more is their proportion of the total numbers of troops mobilized.

For example, France put about 7.5 million soldiers in the field; one in five died, and three out of four who lived were wounded. All other major combatants on both sides suffered horribly: the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s 6.5 million soldiers had a combined casualty rate of 74 percent. For Britain and Russia, the comparable figures totaled a bit over 50 percent, with German and Turkish losses slightly below one-half of all who served. The United States entered the conflict late, and so the overall casualty rate for the 4.3 million mobilized was “just” 8 percent. Even so, it is more than double the percentage of killed and wounded from the Iraq War, where total American casualties amounted to less than 4 percent of the one million who served.

Few conflicts in all of military history have seen victors and vanquished alike suffer such shocking losses as were incurred in World War I, so it is worth taking time to remember how this hecatomb came to pass. A great body of evidence suggests that this disaster was a product of poor generalship. Historian Alan Clark’s magisterial “The Donkeys” conveys a sense of the incredible stubbornness of high commanders who continued, for years, to hurl massed waves of infantry against machine guns and rapid-firing artillery. All this went on while senior generals stayed far from the front. A British field commander, who went riding daily, even had soldiers spread sand along the country lane he followed, to make sure his horse didn’t slip.

It is little wonder that in the face of Nazi aggression barely a generation later, most of Europe melted away and succumbed to occupation within a year. Most nations did not have the political or public will to endure yet another meat grinder of a conflict; indeed, the major powers could not imagine that anyone would actually want another war given all the bloodletting that went around. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the First World War was the fact that even all that death and destruction failed to stem the hatred, cruelty, and aggression of monstrous men and their millions of supporters and collaborators; in fact, the shortsightedness and vindictiveness of postwar leadersas had already been evidenced by their callous ineptitude on the battlefieldall but ensured that desperation and humiliation would give the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, and their minions plenty of currency to start an even bloodier.

Thanks goodness that, for now, that has not played out again all these decades later.

Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc./Kenny Chmielewski

Remember Death

Since ancient times, all across the world, it’s been understood that we should always be aware of death. Socrates said that proper philosopher is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.”

Early Buddhist texts use the term maranasati, which translates as ‘remember death.’

Some Muslim Sufis are known as the “people of the graves” for their practice of visiting graveyards to ponder death, as Mohammad once advised.

The ancient Egyptians, well known for their obsession with death, had a custom where, during festivities, they would bring out a skeleton and cheer to themselves, “Drink and be merry for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

Throughout the Middle Ages, Europe developed an entire genre of artwork dedicated to memento mori, literally remembering death.

To my mind, the most famous and articulate proponents of this idea were the Stoics, a Greco-Roman school of philosophy that emerged in the third century B.C.E. In his private journal, known as the Meditations, the Roman philosopher king Marcus Aurelius advised to himself that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” The famed Roman statesman and orator Seneca said that we should go to bed thinking “You may not wake up tomorrow” and start the day thinking “You may not sleep again”. He also recommended that we

“… prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”

All this probably sounds pretty morbid and depressing, not to mention counterintuitive: Thinking about death all the time is no way to live, and would probably paralyze us with fear. But as another famous Stoic, Epictetus, explained:

Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible—by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.

Extrapolating from this, some modern Stoics advise that we remember that the people we fight with will die; the strangers tick us off on the road will die; that every time we say bye to a loved one, we keep in mind they may die before we see or speak with them again.

Again, the point isn’t to be depressed, despairing, or even nihilistic, but to allow us to put things in perspective and value each finite second we have. The people we hate will end up just like us one day, which both humanizes them and reminds us not to waste precious little time occupied by them. The people we love will end up the same way, so better that we make the most of our time and fill it with happiness.

Of course, all this is easier said than done: It’s why we’re still trying to keep this advice thousands of years later.

Daily Survivor’s Guilt

With the sheer amount of people that die every day for no good reason — from freak accidents, horrific acts of violence, or even banal causes — regardless of what they were doing and what kind of people they were, you can’t help but feel a sense of survivor’s guilt every day you make it out alive.

It is all the more sobering when you consider that an estimated 106 billion people have existed in this world, and the overwhelming majority of them lived short and brutal lives, ravaged by disease, constant violence, ignorance, oppression, and so many other miseries.

It is sobering to know that the only reason I am in the top 0.00000001 percent of humans who have ever lived, and why I am still here to reflect on it from the comfort of my home, is pure, unearned luck. (And even if someone wants to credit some divine or cosmic force out there looking out for me, you have to wonder why I get that honor when people just as deserving, if not more so, don’t; still feels like pure luck.)

Ushering in the New Year With Immense Gratitude

I am immensely grateful to have made it to another year in this world. It seems morbid to frame it that way, but consider that the vast majority of the 108 billion people who have ever existed had short, painful, and miserable lives that often ended in terrifying violence, famine, or disease.

This remains the reality for tens of millions of people around the world, and it’s only by random luck that I was born in just the right time, place, and condition not to be in the same position. I — and most of you reading this — are literally in the top 3-4 percent of all humans who have ever lived, for no discernible reason than random chance. (This doesn’t even include the many people who live in similar prosperity but whose lives are cut short by freak accidents that could just as well happen to anyone.)

Of course, this kind of gratitude should be had every moment of everyday, but given the context, now is as good a time as any to highlight it.

The Anniversary of Porajmos

On this day in 1943, Heinrich Himmler—one of the most powerful Nazi leaders, and the main architect of the Holocaust—ordered that people of full or part Romani ancestry (a.k.a. gypsies) were to be put “on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps”.

Thus began the systematic extermination of Romani people all over Europe, resulting in 220,000 to 500,000 deaths—a quarter to nearly half the total population—though some figures put the death toll as high as 1.5 million. This event is sometimes known as the “Porajmos”, meaning “the Devouring”.

Himmler’s order was the culmination of the racist Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which classified Gypsies, like Jews, as “enemies of the race-based state”, ripping away their German citizenship accordingly. It also reflected centuries of hatred and antipathy towards the Romani.

Better known as Gypsies—after Egypt, which was believed to be their origin—the Romani or Roma people (to use their proper name) actually arrived in Europe and the Middle East from northern India over a millennium ago; many still retain some Hindu beliefs, customs, and symbolism, and speak a language related to Hindi. (Moreover, tens of millions of Indians maintain a similar nomadic lifestyle.)

Like the Jews, the Romani were regarded as an alien race, inherently strange, untrustworthy, degenerate, and devious. In some of the earliest records, they are described as satanically inspired wizards—hence the trope of the Gypsy curse or fortune teller. Depending on the time and place—or whether people needed a scapegoat—the Romani were either grudgingly tolerated, or chased out and killed. They were often subject to similar discriminatory laws and treatment, including enslavement, forced assimilation, separation from their children, and pogroms. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S., Argentina, and other settler countries. There is even a term for hatred towards them that is equivalent to anti-Semitism: Antiziganism.

Thus, as with the Jews, the Nazis simply tapped into a long-existing prejudice that was widespread and deeply rooted throughout Europe, which is why so many Europeans collaborated in rounding up, imprisoning, and killing them. It is believed part of the impetus for their mass targeting was the heavy resistance they posed to Nazi occupiers, especially as nomadic peoples who were often not well documented in national census data.

Unfortunately, it was their widespread invisibility that partly explains why Romani remain relatively forgotten, despite being one of the Nazi’s biggest targets. Overall records of their population before the Holocaust are sparse or unreliable, and after the war few gave them any mind; West Germany did not recognize them as victims of the Holocaust until 1982. Some scholars also attribute this to Romani culture, which is “traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others”. Others blame the effects of pervasive illiteracy, the lack of social institutions, and rampant discrimination to this day, which has deprived the Romani of “national consciousness” and historical memory.

Pictured are Romani people being round up by German police in 1940; most were likely still detained, and thus later killed, following Himmler’s order.

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The Bleak and Macabre Art of Francis Bacon

To commemorate Halloween, here are some surreal and often creepy paintings by Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon.

Although known for his bleak, existentialist worldview — which became more somber and macabre following the suicide of his lover — he was actually quite energetic and charismatic in person, and spent much of his middle age eating, drinking, and gambling in London’s leisurely Soho district.

Source: Wikimedia

Another Ebola Outbreak Speaks to the Cruel Randomness of Birth

An Ebola outbreak has reported in the Congo, and may be spreading to larger cities where it will become more virulent. The horrific disease, which is sometimes known as the death of a thousand cuts, is endemic to the region; only a few years ago, a similar outbreak, this time in West Africa, claims tens of thousands of lives in across three of some of the world’s poorest countries.

I cannot help but contemplate the sheer randomness of the human condition. By a mere accident of birth, millions of people are at risk of dying in one of the most awful ways imaginable. Hundreds of millions more find themselves born in places rife with disease, natural disasters, poverty, and/or political repression.  Continue reading

The Bloodland of Belarus

Belarus, a former Soviet republic of about 10 million, is said to have the highest per capita number of World War II films in the world. Many of them are considered to be some of the finest war movies in history, most notably the 1985 film Come and See, which tells the story of a young teenager who joins the Belarusian resistance and witnesses horrific atrocities.

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The Soviet theatrical poster for Come and See.

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