Characterizing Life and Death

Everyone knows what life and death are.  Life is when you are alive, and death is when you stop living.

Several posts in this blog have offered a different perspective.  In the vocabulary used here, life and death are actors or forces.  Life is the force that impels living things to strive for their own increased size, power, and comfort.  Death is the agent that seeks to damage, impair, and ultimately kill living things.  In place of medicine’s black-and-white dividing line between the living organism and the dead one, this blog favors shades of gray.

It may seem odd to talk about shading, when death is so stark and final.  Doctors struggle to keep people from dying precisely because, once they are gone, there is no getting them back.  Or so it has always seemed.  The problem is that, in recent years, the time-honored dividing line between life and death has become interesting, for several reasons.

There is, first, the fact that people who would have been dead in the old days can now sometimes be brought back to life.  An example:  cold-water drowning, in which the person’s body is not only as cold as death but has drowned to boot; and yet the combination can mean survival and full recovery.  Another example:  asystolic (i.e., “flatlined”) cardiac arrest – which, again, has often been taken as a sign of death but can sometimes be reversed.  Even brain death, which would seemingly be a convincing cessation of life, turns out to be much more complicated and uncertain than one might expect.

In addition to the issue of determining when brain death is final, we have definitional (and sometimes legal) problems arising from brain-dead people who are kept “alive” by machines.  We also have glimmers of the opposite:  the brain in a vat, continuing to function after the body has gone.  Although it is still in the realm of science fiction, one can at least imagine, now, a database that would store the contents of one’s brain, and a set of bioengineering procedures that could recreate one’s body, such that even a person blown to bits might someday be reconstructed.

Along with complexities on the physical level, there are strange reports on a more spiritual level, involving near-death experiences and the like.  As noted in a previous post, not all of these reports are obviously wishful thinking or religious invention; some appear to come from credible sources and seem to be backed by varying levels of third-party verification.  While the whole line of thought is a long way from being established, it is possible that temporary physical death could quiet the noise and distractions, enabling some remnant of a person to recognize an alternate or subsequent world, or a substratum of existence, in which that human remnant might experience a form of post-death individual awareness lasting for seconds, minutes, or longer.  If there is anything at all to such reports, the underlying mechanisms may someday become as familiar as today’s “magic” of using defibrillator paddles in the emergency room to shock a heart attack patient back to life.

In short, the reliable old black-and-white line between life and death is still with us, in the large majority of cases, but it is showing signs of vulnerability.  As in other areas, straight lines are hard to draw.  There always seem to be exceptions that complicate any simple division of situations.

For some purposes, it can be more useful to think in terms of dynamic rather than static definitions – in terms of processes or agents rather than fixed entities.  Rather than treat life and death as vast and unchanging monoliths, it appears that sometimes we might characterize them as grabby kids with their fingers in each other’s pies.  On our side of the line, in the world of the living, we see physicians digging into death’s territory – striving, that is, to preserve, prolong, and even resurrect life in the ways just described.  We can’t see what, if anything, may be happening behind the curtain, in the realm of death.  But we do see that death is likewise constantly probing into our sphere of life.  On physical and mental levels, death fights every medical advance.  Combat veterans do survive wounds that would formerly have been fatal, but many of them also struggle with bodily and psychological legacies of their brush with eternity.  Old and ill people live on, now, long after they would have been extinguished, back in olden times; but often they, too, remain with us at a price:  sometimes their minds and/or bodies are halfway in the grave, long before doctors announce the final lightening of their burdens.

The interactions of these dynamic forces are often not well captured in large, fixed abstractions of life and death that attempt to incorporate everything from the amoeba to Jesus Christ.  Especially when speaking of one’s own lived experience, sometimes the contested frontier between these kingdoms is better captured in private terms.  On that level, the individual may perceive that life and death adopt unexpected strategies, variously appearing as personal benefactor or foe with changes of scene.

To adopt another metaphor characterizing the large notions of life and death, it may be interesting to observe the land and the sea from far above; but it tends to be more compelling to experience their interface at surf’s edge, where the waves meet the sand.  Then one may be positioned to contemplate the personal reality of existence and departure, as the water reaches one’s toes, or is closing about one’s nostrils.  Then, perhaps, the preconceived notions and canned assumptions can give way to firsthand learning about the interplay of life and death, in forms custom-tailored to one’s own existence.

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