Mary Roach on Reincarnation in India

Mary Roach on Reincarnation in India

In the book Spook, Mary Roach writes, “People don’t seem to approach life with the same terrified, risk-aversive tenacity that we do. I’m beginning to understand why, religious doctrine aside, the concept of reincarnation might be so popular here. Rural India seems like a place where life is taken away too easily – accidents, childhood diseases, poverty, murder. If you’ll be back for another go, why get too worked up about the leaving?” Roach is joking of course, but this quote comes at the end of a lengthy description of dangers and risks that she experienced in India that we would find appalling in the United States. Her travels to India brought her face to face with cyclists moving through heavy traffic and breathing diesel smog. She was afraid of large trucks overflowing with potatoes and cauliflower that threatened to spill over onto the vehicle she was riding in. And she was also afraid for the lives of more than one woman riding precariously on the back of a fast moving Vespa.
While the quote is funny, it does get at some interesting ways of thinking about life, death, and how we go about our days. I’m not sure how much of our differences in risk tolerance in the United States versus India comes down to beliefs in reincarnation, but I can see how ideas of reincarnation would be comforting in a dangerous society. I don’t know if reincarnation would be enough to create a moral hazard scenario where people were intentionally negligent about safety because they expected to come back in another life, but I’m sure there is some impact that could be studied.
The quote from Roach also seems to suggest that Americans value our lives differently than individuals in India. She highlights how risk averse Americans tend to be, referring to how much we go out of our way to ensure everything we interact with is safe, and how we try to limit risk in everything from roller coasters to strollers. I think that what is likely going on is a difference in culture that stretches back years and is fraught with technological limitations and differences in population density. I am currently listening to an audiobook with an author who interviewed friends from her childhood in rural Ohio in the 1960’s and 70’s. Her dad was a doctor, and she notes how many individuals, including children, died in accidents involving farming equipment. Today we have adopted technology within everything we do, allowing us to make the world safer. Risk stands out more than in the 1960’s and 70’s when we didn’t have the technology to make everything as safe as we can now. Perhaps the difference that Roach noted, that she jokingly attributed to belief in reincarnation, is simply due to limitations in technology and a need to earn money.
Superhero Cadavers

Superhero Cadavers

[Author Note: This begins a short three post break in writing regarding homelessness for a few quotes and thoughts on books by Mary Roach. More to come from Roach after finishing some additional writing on homelessness and poverty.]
Mary Roach’s book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is an exploration into what happens to bodies donated for scientific research. In the book she meets with scientists, researchers, and academics who are working with human cadavers to make life better for those of us who are still living. It is a witty, humorous, yet altogether respectful exploration of the ways in which the human body has helped propel our species forward, even after the human life within the body has expired.
Regarding cadavers and what they have unlocked through sometimes gory (though today as considerate and respectful as possible) experiments, Roach writes the following:
“Cadavers are our superheroes: They brave fire without flinching, withstand falls from tall buildings and head-on car crashes into walls. You can fire a gun at them or run a speedboat over their legs, and it will not faze them. Their heads can be removed with no deleterious effect. They can be in six places at once. I take the Superman point of view: What a shame to waste these powers, to not use them for the betterment of humankind.”
The scientific study of cadavers can be off-putting, but it has been incredibly valuable for humanity across the globe. Cadavers have helped us understand basic anatomy, design safer cars, and ensure the safety of astronauts. Without cadavers many more people would have died in ill devised medical experiments and car crashes, and numerous live animals would have suffered as alternative test subjects. Cadavers perform miraculous jobs that living humans cannot perform, and for their service and sacrifices, we should all be grateful.
The End is Always Near

The End is Always Near

The human mind thinks in narratives. Well take in information about the world around us, and we create a story that weaves all of those narratives together in a cohesive manner. The mind creates the reality that it experiences, and it uses narrative to give the story meaning. Unfortunately, sometimes the stories don’t fit the actual world we inhabit very well.

 

One area where the narrative we tell ourselves doesn’t fully match the reality of our lives is with regard to our risk of dying on any given day. As our brains build the narrative of our lives and of who we are, it projects forward into the future of who we will become and the world we will inhabit. My assumption, based on the way I know that I think, is that we project forward a long life with our ending far off in the distant future. I recognize this tendency in myself all the time, and I suspect that even if I do make it to old age, this same tendency will be with me then.  It is hard to imagine that my end is not always going to be far away.

 

The end is always near, however. Or at least, the potential and risk of the end is always near. Our brains believe that we have lots of life left, because that is how the narrative we have crafted in our minds plays out. But the real world doesn’t have to follow the narrative in our minds. The real world is separate from what we think it should be or will be, and it doesn’t much care about how we think about it or understand it (or fail to understand it either).

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca wrote, “who is not near death? It is ready for us in all places and at all times.”

 

It is important to remember that the actual course of our lives could diverge from the narrative path we create at any moment on any day. The possibility of a natural disaster, a clumsy mistake, or the malice of another person resulting in our early departure from life is always greater than zero. This means that whatever narrative we create, however far off death is in the story we tell ourselves, the reality is that the end is always near.

 

The take-away is to make our time meaningful, to be content that we have done our best each day, so that if we die, the narrative we lived out will end with us as a confident, complete individual. This is not an excuse for a YOLO way of life, and it shouldn’t be a reason to bury ourselves in work – effectively enslaving ourselves to a job, a cause, or a relationship. Instead, what we should learn from our always near ending is that we should do our best to fully apply ourselves in a way that meaningfully engages in the world to produce more than our own selfish happiness. We should seek opportunities to live a life where we  can develop a strong and fulfilling narrative that helps to lift up others who are doing the same. The end is always near, so we should make sure we have made of our life a narrative we can be proud of.
Our Few Years on Earth - Joe Abittan

Our Few Years on Earth

Human beings are not always good at planning for the long term, but in general, we do expect to have a long term. I know that in my own life I have always assumed I would live to be at least 100, though I know life expectancy in the United States is not 100 years old and though I know many people who have died in their 70s, 80s, or even much younger from accidents, rare diseases, or from other serious problems. We expect to have a long number of years ahead of us and can make investments to plan for that long future, but we should remember that it is never a guarantee. 

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “There is no fixed count of our years. You do not know where death awaits you; so be ready for it everywhere.” 

 

This is not to suggest that we should live in paranoia, afraid that we might die at any moment. Instead it is a reminder that the long term plans we hope to live out might not come to pass. It is a reminder to make our lives what we want them to be today, rather than assuming that we have a long future to achieve our desired goals. 

 

The wrong response to the message is the modern day (though kinda dying out) idea of YOLO. The idea, “you only live once,” has been used to justify a lifestyle of partying, of short term thinking, and of extravagant opulence. It almost ignores all long term planning in focus of short term pleasure, but it doesn’t really help us to be ready for death as Seneca suggests. 

 

Another wrong response to the ideas from Seneca is to be overly ambitious and push too hard to for achievements. We don’t have to push our bodies to be perfect physical specimens today. We don’t have to push too hard for the C suit in corporate America before age 40. We don’t have to be ruthless in our pursuit of money, wealth, and things to show how successful we are today. That too doesn’t actually prepare us for death. 

 

What we should learn from Seneca is that it is important to plan ahead, but to remember that our plans may never have an opportunity to come to pass. We should make our lives meaningful and do things today that we can take pride in. This means building real and lasting relationships, focusing our daily lives on things that truly matter, so that if we depart today, we have been focusing in the right direction, and would be satisfied with where we leave the Earth. We cannot procrastinate and assume that we will eventually have time to do meaningful things in our lives. We can’t use our potentially short time to simply puff up our own ego. We have to pause, to  think about a meaningful life, and continually adjust our course so that we are living well, and ready to depart at any unfortunate moment.
Ever Present Perils

Ever Present Perils

We live in a very dangerous world, but we don’t always recognize it. Most of the time we move about our lives without feeling too much threat to our own personal safety and to our lives, but sudden events can remind us of how close death can be. We see terrible car crashes, are forced away from other people due to a global pandemic, or reminded of health risks when a relative dies of cancer. These sudden shocks of mortality can shake us out of a routine and rhythm, and leave us feeling fearful for what evil might befall us. But the reality is that we do live with ever present perils – the dangers are not just there when a pandemic strikes or when we see a traffic accident.

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “What, have you only at this moment learned that death is hanging over your head, at this moment exile, at this moment grief? You were born to these perils.”

 

For Seneca it is important to recognize how fragile life can be and how we are always living with risk. It is interesting to see is how far back in human history these risks have been with us, how they have persisted, and how we have thought (or failed to think) about the perils we face. It is not only today in the age of the automobile that we can be suddenly reminded of the ever present perils of death and destruction. It is not only in a time of changing demographics and social relationships that people may be afraid of cancel culture – exile has been a threat to humans for a long time. And grief over the loss of a loved one is also nothing new.

 

The reality of ever present perils isn’t new, but we all come to the realization of how fragile and risky life can be at our own pace, at different moments, and it seems to be a realization that we all must reach on our own to truly appreciate. It is important that we pause and reflect periodically on our mortality, to ensure that we are focusing our lives in a meaningful direction, and to ensure that we are using our life, our physical body, and our mental faculties in a way that is worthwhile and valuable. We shouldn’t be shocked into remembering our mortality by sudden events, we should be calm and collected as we reflect on the perils around us, confident that we have used our life in a meaningful way, so that when such evils do occur, we are prepared.

Considering Death

I’m only in my late 20’s, and while I recognize that one day I will die, I am still in the somewhat invincible feeling stage of life. It is easy to think that life will always continue on as it has, and thinking about death and a world existing without my conscious thought is not pleasant. However, I believe that remembering our impermanence on this planet is important if we want to use our time to meaningfully contribute to a world that is better when we leave than when we arrived. Despite being young, I still try to consider death.

 

This is a notion that is common among stoic thinkers today and was presented in writing by Stoic thinkers like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca a couple thousand years ago. By reflecting regularly on their own mortality, these stoic thinkers were able to develop clear senses of the importance of their lives and the actions they took. They could be more considerate in how they lived and how they approached each day.

 

In Letters from a Stoic Seneca writes, “death, however, should be looked in the face by young and old alike. We are not summoned according to our rating on the censor’s list. Moreover, no one is so old that it would be improper for him to hope for another day of existence.”

 

Planning is important in our lives, but not as important as ensuring that in the present moment we are making the most out of the faculties available to us. In any given moment, we could fall victim to tragedy, and while the universe itself may not care and while the world will continue to spin, stoics argue that we should live in a way that will make our absence noticed. That is not to say we should strive for fame, glory, or riches, but that we should strive to live in a way where we make meaningful contributions to the world to help it become a better place for ourselves and for others.

 

Seneca continues, “every day ought to be regulated as if it closed the series, as if it rounded out and completed our existence.” Each day, and any given moment of a day, can be useful and meaningful. If we think about ourselves as always having a chance to do good later, we won’t make the most of each day. If instead we think about how we can be complete in the moment, we can begin to shift our choices and design our lives in ways in which we make an impact in all that we do.

 

Focusing on death changes the way we approach each day and changes the way we design our lives. It helps us to think about our contributions to the world, and to build habits that help us become the best possible versions of ourselves. Remembering and acknowledging our mortality allows us to grow and get things done today that we might not achieve if we did not consider the possibility of our time on this planet being so short. We shouldn’t fixate solely on death and our mortality, but remember that our time is bound, and that if we want to live meaningfully, we have to live accordingly in each moment.

Depart Contentedly

Within Stoicism there seems to be a healthy focus on death. Seneca, Aurelius, and other Stoic philosophers constantly reminded themselves that each day they were drawing closer to their death, and that before their death both their bodies and minds would atrophy. The focus on death was meant to be a reminder, that time on earth for any one of us is short, and if we don’t use the time accordingly, we will fail to do the most with the opportunities we have.

 

Seneca writes, “No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it.” Recognizing that we are mortal is scary. Knowing that we will die, we will no longer experience the world, no longer engage in relationships, and that the earth will keep spinning whether we are here or not is terrible. It is hard to imagine a world without us and the fear of missing out on amazing new things in the world is enough to keep one up at night. But striving to stay alive forever and being afraid of death at every moment is also terrible. The constant worry that one might die is likely to elevate stress hormones and bring death a little closer. Trying in vain to do nothing but extend ones life creates an unhealthy focus on death, rather than a focus that helps us engage meaningfully with our loved ones, friends, and community.

 

Seneca continues, “Rehears this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly; for many men clutch and cling to life, even as those who are carried  down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briers and sharp rocks.” We should try to live a fulfilling and meaningful life so that if we die at any moment, we can die proud of what we have done in the last 24 hours or over the course of our life. This sense brings an awareness of our actions and how we are spending the moments of our lives. Are we on autopilot meandering around through the world, or are we truly present with our friends and loved ones? Have we just been trying to accumulate more stuff, take the coolest Instagram photos, and drive the most fancy car? Or have we tried to find ways to give back, to encourage those who are close to us, and to improve some tiny piece of the world not just for ourselves but for others as well? We all want the first set of things I mentioned, the ones that feel good and make us look cool, but we know the second set will help us sleep better at night. Remembering our death will help us shift our priorities and do more so that we can one day pass one with content instead of fear.

How Strangely Men Act

Reflections on our mortality are common in Marcus Aurelius’ collection of thoughts, Meditations. He takes a very stark approach to the reality that we are not going to live forever, and the fact that our time on this planet is very short compared to the life cycle and existence of nature and the Earth.  Beyond simply acknowledging our mortality Aurelius looks at what our temporary existence truly means, and how we should act during our lifetime given that we will one day be gone.

 

He writes, “How strangely men act. They will not praise those who are living at the same time, and living with themselves; but to be themselves praised by posterity, by those whom they have never seen or ever will see, this they set much value on. But this is very much the same as if though shouldst be grieved because those who have lived before thee did not praise thee.” In this quote he focuses on the desire that humans have to make a lasting impact on this planet and to live on in the memory and reverence of those who will follow after them.  He criticizes this idea and says that it is foolish to be so focused on the future rather than the present. Living to impress those who will never know you, and being so focused on creating a reputation to impress future generations is a poor focus for our lives. Aurelius did not believe such a focus was worth our time, especially if it limited our ability to make true connections with those living with us now.

 

What Aurelius wrote about 2,000 years ago is still a struggle for many people today. Rather than worrying about how we can be great people now and make a real impact in the lives of those who are around us, we focus on what we can do to build a reputation to impress those we will never know in future generations.  We would all find it absurd to think that people who lived before us should have honored us, but we seem to desire that we are honored after our death by those who we will never meet. We will not be around to feel the warmth of their support or praise, and living solely to be impressive in posterity leaves out the present and diminishes your ability to truly enjoy living and change the world.

Marcus Aurelius on Brevity

In his common place book, published after his death with the title Meditations, Marcus Aurelius continually returned to the idea of our death and the short period of time that we spend on Earth.  He had a very realistic sense for how short our time here is, and how we should think about that time.  Our mortality can be a difficult subject to think about and focus on, but Aurelius was in many ways fascinated by the recognition of his mortality and what that meant for the life he lead.

 

Aurelius wrote, “Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.” In his quote he is showing that not only is our life short, but the lives of those who will remember us are also short. Not long after we have passed away, those who follow us will pass away. Living for legacy and trying to live to be remembered and venerated for eternity is a wasteful approach to life because you will never be able to control what is remembered and exactly how you are remembered.

 

Throughout meditations Aurelius writes about living in the present and being content with the life that you have. By focusing on our thoughts and changing the perspectives we foster, we can better understand our place in the world and our motivations.  Accepting that we will have an end, and that our memory will be forgotten is difficult, but it is an honest reality that we should embrace.  When we accept our mortality and the brevity of our lives, each moment can become more important and special, helping us better use our time to improve the direction and focus of our actions.

Continually Closer to Death

In Meditations a reoccurring theme is  the acceptance and awareness of death and the end of our time on Earth.  While writing down his thoughts and collecting his ideas, Aurelius returned over and over to death and our recognition of death.  He did not have a morbid view of our passing, and he did not have a negative view of our death, but he approaches it with humility and realism.  The emperor writes, “We ought to consider not only that our life is daily wasting away and a smaller part of it is left, but another thing also must be taken into the account, that if a man should live longer it is quite uncertain whether the understanding will still continue sufficient for the comprehension of things … We must make haste then, not only because we are daily nearer to death, but also because the conception of things and the understanding of them cease first.”

 

In the emperors view of death we find an understanding that we don’t only expire in a physical form, but in a mental form as well. He is well accepting of the aging process and recognizes that our physical form will break down along the path to death, and that before we do reach our end, our mental faculties will also experience a state of decline.  Aurelius, throughout his book, never seems to be worried or concerned with death and generally approaches it as a welcome experience at the end of our lives. Since everyone faces death he sees it more as an equalizing force in humanity, and as it affects everyone he sees no point in trying to hide from it or fear it. This mindset transforms Aurelius’ views on death from pessimistic to optimistic.  He is excited about the time he has on earth and is compelled to take advantage of the time he has.

 

I think you could compare the way that Aurelius views death and our time on this planet to the way that many view school in the United States.  Whether you look at high school or college, for many people in our country school life is a limited time period with a beginning and an end.  Continuing on in  this metaphor I will focus more on college because it can be easier to comprehend the end of college and of the lives we lived throughout college. From my experience in college everyone approaches their time at school with a different lens. Some are excited about every day, some dread each day, some simply want to reach the end, many fear what the end of college will bring, and many students fill the gaps between or occupy multiple states at once.  You can see the end of college as a reward and as the end of your life(style) all at the same time, which creates a wide range of approaches to college for students.  In my metaphor Aurelius would be a student who recognizes that his time in school will end, and works to fulfill his time at his university before he runs to the eventual end.  He accepts that it cannot last forever, and he strives to find ways in which he can constantly improve and gain knowledge that will make each day richer.

 

This is truly the approach Marcus Aurelius brought to his life and implemented over the long run.  He saw death and his eventual end as a welcome part of life, even if he did not want to face it.  His message about remembering death is not morbid or fear inducing, but rather a message encouraging us to focus on the present and take advantage of the time that we have.