birthing and deathing

Birthing was easy. Well, I mean, it wasn’t easy easy. But it was easy. Pregnancy was easy. There was a time limit to pregnancy and birthing, and it’s pretty fixed and universal. This is how the body works in that regard. Expect this. Breathe like that. Push now. Baby. And there were a million books to read. Granted that pregnancy and childbirth don’t always go by the book, no matter which book you’re reading. But for the most part, humans have this one pretty much down.

Deathing isn’t like that. It can be a poof! you’re gone kind of death. Or a lingering on in diminishing capacity for years or even decades. Or it can be treatments. Or not treatments. ‘Procedures.’ Amputations. Meds, and more meds. Hospital visits or hospital beds. Incontinence. Dementia or delusion. Caregivers. No caregivers. Point is, it could be anything, anything at all — and last for a very long time.

It’s that Dylan song, that lyric:

he not busy born is busy dying

Which we used to quote smugly looking at our elders. They were busy dying. We were busy living.

At a certain point, I realized that I was busy dying. I think it was when some financial rep came walking into my office (and every office on our floor, building, and likely the entire campus), trying to hook me on planning for my retirement.

I mean, was that some kind of joke?

Busy-being-born people don’t plan for their retirements. They’re too busy being in the present to be inside that future.

But I did it. I learned about IRAs and TSAs and deferred taxation, and all that shit. And I came to care about it.

And then I started budgeting my paycheck each month, and my expenses each quarter, and my obligations each year.

And then it was long term care insurance. One thing after another…

You get the point. I became one of those older people busy dying. And truth be told, I thought it was kinda fun.

Thinking about the financial part of living and dying, I realize, is one big reaction formation. Yes, the psychoanalysts have a word for this. But it’s more than this. van Gennep, in his classic work, Rites of Passage, analyzes both the structure and function of life cycle rituals.

Rites of passage, he says, ritualize the major transitions of our physical being, from birth to death (or cycles of being) — and we take comfort in this. He covers many of the functions of ritual in this regard, including, for example:

public acknowledgement of the transition: Here, the community essentially proclaims that a shift is made, whether or not you feel that you’ve made the transition at all. Thus, suddenly you may be declared ‘a man’ or ‘a woman’ even if it’s not at all what you feel. After this point, everyone in the community will treat you as this thing they claim you are.

public acknowledgement of expected shifts in behavior: And once the community declares you man or woman, or married, or widowed, or dead or alive — you are expected to behave in keeping with the rules associated with that status. This can be a very big bummer.

relieving anxiety regarding the life cycle change by transferring the anxiety to performing the perfect ritual: This one is why people make such a fuss over weddings. If you focus a year or two planning the perfect wedding, you don’t really have to think much about what being married is all about. Likewise, if you focus on having the perfect birthing experience, you’re probably not thinking about what it’s gonna be like taking care of that kid for the rest of your life.

Futzing around figuring out retirement finances falls into this last category. Moving numbers around (at least in your head, if there are none in your account) is the great distraction from thinking about this latter end of the life cycle. We don’t have to think about what it’s really like to get ill or old or frail.

And then our parents start falling into that stage. And all our friends’ parents do as well. And thinking about IRAs and retirement isn’t the same as dealing with dementia or incontinence or frailty or simply not being recognized anymore. And, unlike the general incompetencies of infants, we know that the older generation (and eventually we ourselves) are not gonna just outgrow it. It’s gonna get worse and worse and worse.

Being busy dying turns out to be an opportunity of sorts. An exercise in humility. Patience. Paying attention. And (for many) forming a strong personal relationship with their maker. Learning something new about yourself and the people you care about. I know this sounds like an awful lot of platitudes. I’m just trying to apologize here for the contempt I felt in my youth for anyone who spent an iota of time thinking ’bout the busy-dying end of things. This may well have been the pervasive attitude of my generation.

I realize I’ve conflated a number of different issues here, but the timing seems to go together: the death and dying of our elders, preparation for our own elder years, and thinking about our own death and dying. These, clearly, are not the same — but they all fit that concern with being ‘busy’ dying. And the rites of passage to be performed seem to include a mountain of harrowing paperwork to focus on in order to keep our minds off the real stuff: feeling it.

So. Birthing was easy. Raising kids was easy. This isn’t easy. And I think this is why some of the older folk I know begin obsessing about grandchildren. Or a new puppy, or something. Focusing on the continuity from one generation to the next, and their birthdays, and their rituals, is another way to not be present with the hard transitions of the moment.

So here’s the plan. Being present. To this moment. To this stage, whatever it brings. Not deflecting. No new puppies. Doing this as well as can be done.

Not sure what that’s supposed to look like. Haven’t read a single book on the subject. I think it’s just about paying attention. Could be wrong. And could be fun.

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

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