Death as a Floating Abstraction

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

In the Washington Post is an excellent, though perhaps difficult-to-read column about "Our Unrealistic Attitudes About Death," Dr. Craig Bowron discusses how having incomplete information, including about the nature of death, can cause relatives of near-death patients to resist letting go of loved ones when it is time to do so. Along the way, Dr. Bowron elaborates on why he thinks many people do not really know what death is. In the process, he provides a good example of what I think Ayn Rand would have called a "floating abstraction" (i.e., a concept not mentally tied down to its concrete referents):

For most of us living with sidewalks and street lamps, death has become a rarely witnessed, foreign event. The most up-close death my urban-raised children have experienced is the occasional walleye being reeled toward doom on a family fishing trip or a neighborhood squirrel sentenced to death-by-Firestone. The chicken most people eat comes in plastic wrap, not at the end of a swinging cleaver. The farmers I take care of aren't in any more of a hurry to die than my city-dwelling patients, but when death comes, they are familiar with it. They've seen it, smelled it, had it under their fingernails. A dying cow is not the same as a person nearing death, but living off the land strengthens one's understanding that all living things eventually die.
And this second excerpt describes a common result in action, of someone attempting to act on both a "floating" idea of death and an incomplete context of what a loved one is going through.
This physical and emotional distance becomes obvious as we make decisions that accompany life's end. Suffering is like a fire: Those who sit closest feel the most heat; a picture of a fire gives off no warmth. That's why it's typically the son or daughter who has been physically closest to an elderly parent's pain who is the most willing to let go. Sometimes an estranged family member is "flying in next week to get all this straightened out." This is usually the person who knows the least about her struggling parent's health; she'll have problems bringing her white horse as carry-on luggage. This person may think she is being driven by compassion, but a good deal of what got her on the plane was the guilt and regret of living far away and having not done any of the heavy lifting in caring for her parent.
The above excerpt contrasts people acting on different understandings -- one tied to reality and one floating -- of what death would mean to their loved one.

One does not have to live in the country or be a farmer to be able to form the concept of "death" properly. (To be clear, I don't think this is Dr. Bowron's position.) A decent education that includes, for example, exposure to lots of good literature, and which actually teaches children proper thinking methodology would go a long way towards making up for an individual's lack of real-world experience with death, not to mention many other subjects.

For the same reason I don't see farm life as vital to a proper grounding in death, I think the article raises a larger point worth noting: How many other ideas do most people need to use -- and use much more frequently than the idea of death -- do people form incorrectly and then act upon, due to poor education and a dearth of relevant experience? Capitalism -- which Ayn Rand called "the unknown ideal" in the title of a book on the subject  -- is a big one. There are certainly many, many others.

-- CAV

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