Thursday, June 6, 2013

Death & Hedonism

I read this article yesterday about a double suicide by a Brooklyn couple who hosted a radio show called “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Now I know nothing of the show, beyond what’s in the article, but as someone engaged in his own “pursuit of happiness” via enlightened hedonism it does force me to take pause and contemplate this sad and ironic occurrence.  Am I on a similar crash course with despair? Is this but a fool’s quest that ensures that I will never obtain the things I seek?

It’s a sobering thought, and one I’m not sure I can fully grasp. On the one hand I support the right to choose to end one’s own life. I’ve seen far too many instances in my own life where the medical mechanics of prolonging life for life’s sake seems so at odds with actual living life. But is what Lynne Rosen and John Littig faced really so dire? Again, not knowing them I can’t really judge, but I’ve also seem many people in my life grapple with depression or addiction to know we sometimes are not in a frame of mind to even perceive let alone understand our real situation. I feel sad for them, as I look through the details of their lives to assure myself that my fate will be different.

And yet, we all are going to die sometime. I figure for myself there are enough external forces at work that I won’t have die at my own hand – why rush things? But in the end who knows what circumstances may be in store for me.

Because life is full of happenstance, or we have a penchant for pattern recognition, I attended the first Long Beach Death Café last night.  Started by Jon Underwood in the UK two years ago, the death café is a sort of salon/movement of communities coming together to talk about a topic most of us would rather avoid, death. The Long Beach event was organized by Jen Leong, and her facebook posting about the event intrigued me – particularly her phrase, “I really believe that having open discussions about death can help us live better lives.” 

As a hedonist that rests upon my underpinnings in existentialism. I regularly return to the concept that it is death that makes life valuable. Since our lives take place in finite space and time, every action or decision is of extreme importance. We don’t get to do them again so they shape both who we are and who we become. This is where the “enlightened” part of hedonism comes into play – we must be mindful of our finite space, our limitations, so we make the choices and take the actions that will truly fulfill us and make us happy.

So the Death Café itself is not intended to be a support group, or be in line with any particular belief structure – rather it is just to have an ongoing conversation about death in all its many incarnations. The salon like structure immediately appealed to me – and since this first meet was such a small group, I probably talked more than I should have. I don’t want to say too much about the content of the evening, as it’s intended as a “safe zone,” with individuals’ sharings to be treated in confidence, but topics this evening included suicide, preparing for the death of loved ones, immortality, and reincarnation.

I went into this session wondering how sustainable it could be. Honestly, how long can you talk about death before the topic is exhausted? But I found as I left, that we had barely touched the surface. That despite already talking plenty, I had so much more I wanted to say, and query, and listen. We hide from death, but it is always around us and plays a role in so many things. I’m looking forward to future editions of the death café – long may it live.

That brings me around to the beginning my day, because it also fits the pattern. As I got up for work and scanned my messages while coffee brewed, I got word that a friend of mine had been in a car accident. He survived and despite some injuries was able to walk away from a situation that easily could have killed him. It’s these moments, these brushes with death, that make me realize how fragile and precious life is. It prompts me to be grateful, to honor my mortality, and make sure that I am making the decisions and taking the actions that will lead me to a more fulfilling life.  There are regrets one can have for things that were done, but far worse are the regrets for the things we never get around to doing.