I’m a big fan of David Eagleman, author, neuroscientist, and fellow Rice grad (peck ’em Owls!). His book Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives is one of the most imaginative, dare I say spirit-filled books I’ve read in recent years. And he’s a mainstay on Radiolab.
Eagleman has a startup venture (a few years old by now) called Deathswitch, which lets people schedule various technological actions that occur in the event of their deaths. You set the system to contact you every so often and ask for a password in reply. If you do not answer, the system assumes you have died, which triggers whatever actions you designate—sending password and bank information to your executor, say, or emailing crucial files to co-workers. But the beauty of the system is, you can set any action or message you want. So you can write a note to your spouse that gets sent on your 50th anniversary, for example—or get the last word in an argument. (Or both: Happy anniversary, my darling. You’ll always be my lobster. And we WERE on a break.)
One of my favorite chapters in this tech book I’m writing (Lord will it ever get done?) is the one on death, and how technology impacts the way we grieve. I find the idea of a deathswitch fascinating. And Eagleman’s jovial optimism is appealing: he “likes to imagine the many sensational messages, waiting to be delivered: unexpected declarations of love, confessions of secrets or crimes, or the location of buried cash.”
It also raises some compelling questions.
What would it be like to receive love notes from a long-deceased spouse who remains frozen in time, as the recipient ages and changes?
Would these messages become a burden?
If this technology takes off and someone declines to participate, will the absence of a message at key moments cause further sadness?
How does a continued “relationship” help or hinder the grieving process?
On a positive note, what a gift it would be to think about what you’d like to say to your children and loved ones in the future. You can do this “legacy” work regardless of technology, to be sure, and many people do… but knowing that these messages will be delivered (rather than forgotten in a desk drawer somewhere) gives the task an increased sense of purpose and urgency.
What do you think? Would you partake of this technology? What would your deathswitches be?
I’m back from Collegeville and a fruitful week of writing. I’ve now got a very (very) rough draft for book two, currently titled Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. It’s a shorter book than Sabbath in the Suburbs, and I’m still planning to publish it via e-book, though a print option will be available. I’ve been in touch with an editor and a friend who does e-book production for a living. This thing will happen.
In The Hour of Our Death (1987), Philippe Ariès argues that an “invisible death model” has dominated twentieth-century American life. In this model,
Death’s medicalization distanced the community from the dying and the deceased. Individualism ruled, nature was conquered, social solidarity waned, and not the afterworld but family ties mattered.Western society surrounded death with so much shame, discomfort, and revulsion that Gorer (1965) even spoke of a pornography of death. Death became concealed in hospitals, nursing homes, and trailer parks. Yet, the death of death remained, a fear corresponding more to people’s social than biological death.
Accompanying this dispossession of the dying person is a “denial of mourning” and the subsequent invention of new funerary rituals in the United States (Philippe Ariès, “The Reversal of Death,” Death in America, ed. Stannard , 136). Excessive displays of emotion both by the person dying and those they leave behind are considered taboo and “embarrassments.” …
What interested my students, however, was the impact of the internet on the “invisible death model.” Have we entered a new era regarding death and loss? They noticed in particular three results of the internet.
And in case you missed it, Katherine Willis Pershey also sent this along–a beautiful expression of solidarity and care for bereaved parents. Their little one spent her entire life in the NICU and they wanted to see her pretty face without the tubes. Members of the Reddit community responded:
I like the middle one, but they are all haunting. And they are all an offering to total strangers, which makes them beautiful.
Matthew 27: The chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day.” …Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’ So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
It’s downright comical. Pontius Pilate and his men actually think that sealing the stone and stationing guards at the door are all it will take to keep the body safely inside the tomb. Pilate’s power is considerable, as far as it goes. But he has no idea what kind of power is at work.
Some folks have convinced themselves that might makes right, that the ones with the money and the status run the show. But they’re wrong. Desmond Tutu used to say to the apartheid government, “You may have the guns, you may have all this power, but you have already lost. Come: join the winning side.”
It was forty-six years ago this month when a bullet pierced the cheek, jaw, and spine of a man standing on the balcony of his Memphis hotel room. He was pronounced dead an hour later, and in that moment, the civil rights movement lost its most visible and captivating leader. The days following Martin Luther King’s assassination were bleak. Riots broke out in a hundred cities. More militant voices urged their followers to take up arms against white America. And the Pontius Pilates of the world chuckled.
And yet here we are, decades later, and King’s words pierce our hearts as much as they ever did. His dream still endures. His vision of non-violence has deepened and expanded to guide every social movement from Cape Town to Tiananmen to Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, the powers that be continue to insist that sealing the stone will tamp things down, that a bullet will silence a voice and a movement for justice.
They honestly think that death will have the last word.
I also did a webinar on Sabbath for the Presbyterian Outlook this week. I covered some stuff that’s in the book but a lot that’s not, including how to get congregations thinking about and practicing Sabbath. You can order a DVD here.
Some schools forbid children to play in the snow for fear of legal action in the event of an accident. We live in a litigious age, but this is about far more than that: it is about the kind of children we are creating.
By insidiously demanding that children always seek permission for the most trivial of actions, that they must obey the commands of others at every turn, we ensure that children today are not so much beaten into obedience as eroded into it. A risk-averse society creates a docility and loss of autonomy that has a horrible political shadow: a populace malleable, commandable, and blindly obedient.
The author also talks about a real-life Lord of the Flies incident… that didn’t end like Lord of the Flies:
One day, in 1977, six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip. They left safe harbor, and fate befell them. Badly. Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe?
They made a pact never to quarrel, because they could see that arguing could lead to mutually assured destruction. They promised each other that wherever they went on the island, they would go in twos, in case they got lost or had an accident. They agreed to have a rotation of being on guard, night and day, to watch out for anything that might harm them or anything that might help. And they kept their promises—for a day that became a week, a month, a year. After fifteen months, two boys, on watch as they had agreed, saw a speck of a boat on the horizon. The boys were found and rescued, all of them, grace intact and promises held.
If anyone knows more about this story, please let me know. I would love to read more. Google didn’t turn up much.
In a school notorious for its lack of discipline, where backpacks were prohibited for fear the students would use them to carry weapons, Bott’s bold decision to replace the security guards with art teachers was met with skepticism by those who also questioned why he would choose to lead the troubled school.
“A lot of my colleagues really questioned the decision,” he said. “A lot of people actually would say to me, ‘You realize that Orchard Gardens is a career killer? You know, you don’t want to go to Orchard Gardens.’”
But now, three years later, the school is almost unrecognizable. Brightly colored paintings, essays of achievement, and motivational posters line the halls. The dance studio has been resurrected, along with the band room, and an artists’ studio.
Dr. Angelo Volandes is making a film that he believes will change the way you die. The studio is his living room in Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston; the control panel is his laptop; the camera crew is a 24-year-old guy named Jake; the star is his wife, Aretha Delight Davis. Volandes, a thickening mesomorph with straight brown hair that is graying at his temples, is wearing a T-shirt and shorts and looks like he belongs at a football game. Davis, a beautiful woman of Guyanese extraction with richly braided hair, is dressed in a white lab coat over a black shirt and stands before a plain gray backdrop.
“Remember: always slow,” Volandes says.
“Sure, hon,” Davis says, annoyed. She has done this many times.
Volandes claps to sync the sound. “Take one: Goals of Care, Dementia.”
As a pastor I would love to get my hands on the video series Dr. Volandes is creating.
I’ll read just about any topic, so long as Gopnik writes it. And we are years away from kids leaving the nest, but this still spoke to me.
I suspect he will return one Christmas soon with an icy, exquisite, intelligent young woman in black clothes, with a single odd piercing somewhere elegant – ear or nose or lip – who will, when I am almost out of earshot, issue a gentle warning: “Listen, with the wedding toasts – could you make sure your father doesn’t get, you know, all boozy and damp and weepy?” My son will nod at the warning.
Doubt is a thing which many Christians see as opposing their faith. Many have fought it and its prevalence in the modern minds of man. 19th century pastor Robert Turnbull once stated that “Doubt, indeed, is the disease of this inquisitive, restless age.” Many people react negatively towards any feelings of doubt that they may have, fearing that this doubt means that they aren’t fully committed to God.
However, this fear of doubt is dreadfully dangerous. Not every man who doubts his faith loses it. And if they look at most human lives, they’ll find that if one doesn’t doubt, then one isn’t human. It is a necessary idea for any believer, for it acts as the catalyst and tool for a man or woman to grow.
Then a quote from Tim Keller:
A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection. Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts—not only their own but their friends’ and neighbors’.
Would be interesting to have a church group study on doubt.
I’m on a big David Lose kick right now. I posted this one last week to Twitter but saw it too late for last week’s Link Love. Stu Rasmussen is a man in Silverton, Oregon who is a cross-dresser. He was also elected mayor of the town:
Don’t get me wrong, not everyone was wild about this development. The election was very close and his doubters didn’t stop doubting. Some because of their religious convictions, some simply because cross-dressing just goes against their sensibilities.
But then something else amazing happened. After his election, and before his inauguration, a group from the Westbro Baptist Church came to town. (A quick side-note: this isn’t your typical Baptist church. In fact, this is an extremist group not affiliated with any major Christian tradition.) They came with signs – “God hates Silverton,” “God hates your mayor” (and these were the more polite signs!) – and with their slurs, determined to protest Stu as an abomination.
And although Stu encouraged people not to give them the time of day, folks in the town staged a counter-protest…where lots and lots of ordinary, everyday folks cross-dressed. Men dressed as women, grandmas dressed as men. Kids joined in. Liberals, conservatives, young, old, on this day in Silverton it just didn’t matter. They were determined to stand with Stu, to identify with him, to stand up for him.
BTW, the story originally aired on Radiolab, which is my favorite podcast bar none.
From the site: “The work was created with commuters and passers-by from the Haymarket Bus Station in Newcastle UK. Most of the participants are non players, many had never touched a piano before, we just convinced them to donate a note or two.”
The delight on some of the faces is palpable… and I love the end.
Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act has been in effect for the past 14 years, and the state of Washington followed suit with a similar law in 2008. Despite concerns of skeptics, the sky has not fallen; civilization in the Northwest remains intact; the poor, disenfranchised, elderly, and vulnerable have not been victimized; and Oregon has become a leader in the provision of excellent palliative medicine services.
But the Massachusetts ballot question has the potential to turn death with dignity from a legislative experiment into the new national norm.
I support so-called Death with Dignity statutes. When properly defined and carried out, they are sane and compassionate.
This article profiles some of the physicians involved in this movement:
Perhaps it takes the dramatic actions of a flawed advocate like Dr. Jack Kevorkian to catalyze change that leads to the appearance of more reasonable and likable physician reformers. Physicians of this new generation do not seek out or necessarily welcome the role, but, having accepted it, they are irreversibly changed. Most are modest, highly intellectual, and intensely private professionals who are drawn to medicine because it offers a challenge and an opportunity to help relieve distress.
…After her patient’s death, Dr. Kate concluded, “I think Cody taught me that ‘first, do no harm,’ is different for every patient. Harm for her would have meant taking away the control and saying, ‘No, no, no! You have got to do this the way your body decides, as opposed to the way you as the person decides.’”
A friend sent this to me and wondered: “Sabbathy? He talks about taking the trip because he had stopped appreciating things and wanted to slow down his life.” Could be…
He left only with the clothes on his back, a sleeping bag, his backpack and a few thing in it, determined to survive only on the goodness of the people he met on the road. He depended on them for the most basic needs, like food, water and a place to sleep, and whenever he got money and gift cards he didn’t actually need to survive, he just gave them away to the homeless. He said the point was always to give away more than he took, and added that the biggest takeaway from this epic experience is to have realized that “mankind is better than I ever dreamed.”
This is one of those “it takes all kinds” stories. And I don’t mean that disparagingly—it really does take all kinds.