Spill-over Thoughts on Death, Camp Kesem, and Cancer

Dear friends,

I’ve just finished an essay for my Illness module, and I chose to write about death. Specifically, I tried to answer the question, “Is death tyrannical?”

This question was inspired by a short fable written by Nick Bostrom, called The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, where Bostrom writes mainly about how he views ageing to be the fictional dragon-tyrant of his story. I took the metaphor a little further and asked myself if death itself could be tyrannical. I thought I would have enough space within the word limit to work in most of my thoughts, however I was surprised as to how little space I ended up having. Hence, I had some spill-over thoughts that didn’t make it into my essay, but I thought were worth sharing.

I won’t bore you with what I ended up writing on for the actual essay, but there was one topic I wanted to write about for which I couldn’t find a good spot, and that is my time with Camp Kesem. I have written about camp in an older post, but I don’t think I devoted too much time to explaining the matter. In short, so you don’t have to go back to that post, Camp Kesem is a student-run organisation that provides a week-long summer camp for kids whose parents have been affected by cancer. The kids go free to camp, and the counselors raise the money necessary to put on a fun-filled week of camp. We use this time to let the kids get away from their lives at home, to be the centre of attention, and to give them a second family to turn to in good times and in bad. A fun little quirk about this camp is the fact that we all go by fake names – my name’s Spice, and there are names ranging from Gumbo, to Private Hurley, to High Ballistic Squid, to Snoopy, and Bud… We just like to have fun, I guess.

Naturally with a camp hosting kids who have all had to experience cancer in their lives, it’s not uncommon for a camper to have lost one or both of her parents to this malady. These kids have to deal with death at an age when they have absolutely no reason nor necessity to think about what death means to them. This forced encounter with mortality is but a nightmare for some kids, especially when they’re old enough to have been able to fully, autonomously loved their parents, yet young enough to not know why they only come home to one parent after school. Perhaps it may be that all they can feel is sadness, and when that sadness is not justified in any way, but only hurts so deeply as what a lost loved one can cause, this child may feel total agony.

In Bostrom’s fable, there comes a time when a little boy shows up at a town hall meeting, where the meeting is in place to discuss what the society should do with the dragon-tyrant who keeps killing people daily. Some say that the dragon should stay, because having the dragon (ageing) in this society is an unfortunate yet necessary, defining part of humanity. But the boy has a different opinion, as shown in this excerpt:

~~

“I want my granny back,” said the boy.

“Did the dragon take your granny away?”

“Yes,” the boy said, tears welling up in his large frightened eyes. “Granny promised that she would teach me how to bake gingerbread cookies for Christmas. She said that we would make a little house out of gingerbread and little gingerbread men that would live in it. Then those people in white clothes came and took Granny away to the dragon… The dragon is bad and it eats people… I want my Granny back!”

~~

Oftentimes, we may feel angry at death because it may be so cruelly ripping away our loved ones from our lives, when we mean to make plans with them, when we hope for a future together. This is so utterly painful, especially when those who death takes from us have not completed what we believe to be the proper ‘shape’ of a life (e.g. when a child outlives her parents).

As is the state of biomedicine, we don’t have yet the technology that can stave off death forever. Hence we have to come up with some way to console ourselves in learning how to cope with this inevitability. Some turn to religion, others to philosophy, some simply turn to a community such as Camp Kesem.

In the middle of the week at camp, we have a day that’s called “Empowerment,” where the campers and counselors alike get to share their experiences with cancer. This day tends to lead to a lot of self-reflection, bonding, and shed tears. Of course, if a family member dies, we are totally justified in missing them, in crying over them, in being angry or emotional as to why they may have had to leave our lives early. Death of a family member terribly, utterly sucks. (There’s no place for an elegant word in the former sentence.)

I was trying to figure out, then, how to find some sort of good in death, or some sort of way to lift anyone up who has lost a parent, grandparent, or other loved one to cancer. Where is the good in death? Perhaps, I thought, when death is inevitable, it allows us to cherish who we’re with for the time we’re with them. But when they leave us, we feel a giant void in our lives that should be filled by one person only, who cannot ever come back to fill that void.

When mourning the loss of a loved one, we look for them, and they are nowhere to be (physically) found. However, we forget to look in one of the most important places we could look, which is inside ourselves. Genetically speaking, we are literally half of each of our parents, but moreover, we forget that we are, in some aspect, a representation and embodiment of what came before us. Our parents are as much a part of us as we are a part of them (as hard as that may be for some readers to realise or believe). So at Empowerment, I felt compelled to remind my fellow campers and counselors alike – that no matter how much we miss our parents, they’re still with us, within ourselves.

Here’s where I believe the tyranny of death doesn’t reach: after death, humans tend to show up in other things around them (this sounds creepy but it shouldn’t), whether it be a piece of music they composed, something they wrote, or, most importantly, their kin and their friends. The beautifully innate social nature of humans tends to be exemplified in death, and I believe that this is at least some sort of good, some sort of freedom, that we can find through experiencing death in our lives.

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Why El Salvador?

Dear Friends,

I hope you are all enjoying this holiday season – I’ve made it to the States and will be here, spending time with family until I come back to London for New Year’s Eve. My time in the US was first spent with a couple days in Ann Arbor, with a necessary trip back to my old coffee shop to see old friends and co-workers.

I’ve been back in the States for a week and a few days so far, and it’s definitely an odd feeling returning to the US after making the UK feel like home. I love seeing my family, especially being able to hold the new baby in the family (Uncle x2 with baby Amelia!). As you might have been able to quite obviously tell, I’ve been a bit behind on the posts – we’re given our essay assignments for after classes end and before the next term starts. Alas, I should have started earlier, but I’ve managed to stay on track with four essays due soon. Two down, two to go!

What I do want to address, though, is a piece of news that came to know a day after I had come back to the US. I was spending a bit of time at the old parish I used to go to, St. Mary Student Parish, speaking to some friends that I hadn’t seen in a while. To give some back story, one of my main pieces of involvement at this church was participating in what SMSP called their alternative spring break (ASB) program. This program consisted of about eleven trips that (probably obviously) occurred over our spring break, all of which involved some type of service. These trips were seen as “alternative,” to, say, going home for the week or spending time abroad or down south basking in the warmth and sunlight that Michigan (really) lacks in the wintertime.

One of the sites that SMSP usually has people go to is in El Salvador, with an organisation called CRISPAZ. This organisation was set up mainly to establish a relationship between the United States and El Salvador in the name of solidarity. Without delving too much into Salvadoran history, it’s worth saying that the US-backed Salvadoran military managed to kill, maim, and massacre many innocent people in El Salvador in the 1980s. Hence, the mission of CRISPAZ is to tell the story of El Salvador to those not from the country by teaching about recent Salvadoran history, then to basically have foreigners meet various groups in El Salvador who work towards furthering human rights and solidarity within and outside of the country.

The trip to El Salvador was cut for this year. I’ve asked around and have received various reasons regarding why the trip was cut, ranging from “there weren’t enough people” to “the country is too dangerous.” (Side note: if you hear the “danger” excuse about any Latin American country, I would questions these sorts of claims. Perhaps another post can be devoted as to why I may use this sort of caution.)

Regardless of the answer, I think this decision was a deep mistake. I’ve been lucky enough to go on a couple different international volunteering trips in the past – I’ve been to the Dominican Republic (DR) and El Salvador on these trips, and have spent about ten weeks outside of this working with various internships in the DR and Haiti. All of the international trips that SMSP has have their individual merits, and I wouldn’t be in the place and mind-set that I am had I not been to the DR and El Salvador. However, I do think that, if one trip should remain while the others go, is should be El Salvador. Why? Because in El Salvador, we look more into why (largely) white Americans like to go down to Latin America to do “God’s work” and “help those less fortunate.” From my personal experience, both the trips to Nicaragua and the DR are dangerous in the fact that they don’t really address the dangers of voluntourism (as it’s affectionately called) and the massively detrimental effects this practice can have on the people involved in this matter.

I don’t want to slander the other trips that SMSP holds, but I do want to show that El Salvador’s effect has been utterly essential to my understanding of international relations between the US and Latin American countries. Without my time in El Salvador, the experiences that I had in the DR and Haiti would not have carried as much weight with me as they do today.

Here’s the difficulty with El Salvador: when you come back from the trip, the conversations go like this:

Interested family friend who is mildly interested in what you’re up to: “What’d you do in El Salvador? Were you helping the poor? Did you see a lot of poverty there?”

Me: “I mean, sure, I saw poverty, but more clearly, I learned about the storied past of El Salvador. I was also really surprised to learn about US involvement in this country, something I surely didn’t learn about in my history classes in school…”

Family friend: “Oh, okay.. so.. what did you do? Did you build a house, or..?”

Me: “No, there are plenty of Salvadorans who can build a house, or do any other sort of labour that may be needed in El Salvador. But have you heard of liberation theology?”

Perhaps a piece of my writing from soon after I arrived back from the trip could help explain. This is an excerpt from a letter that I wrote to family and friends who helped me out with funding to go to El Salvador, and exhibits what I felt about the worth of this trip upon returning.

~~~~~~

I am attempting to describe an idea, a motive, a truth that can’t be done justice with only words. An experience in El Salvador happened to me last week, and I really do think this trip has been pivotal but I just don’t know to where I’m pivoting at the moment. I’ve learned so much, being among a people so shaken and torn by a past so devastating that even their youth are experiencing PTSD from a war they did not experience first-hand.

This impact has left me feeling in a state of numbness, something like the feeling adrenaline gives after one has broken a bone. I know something is broken, that it should be hurting so incredibly badly but all I feel is a blanket of numbness in place of the pain. What’s broken is my heart, part of my soul. I’m waiting for the moment when the adrenaline ceases, when I can really encounter the pain of a broken heart – I happily await this moment.

The time taken to break my heart was filled with meeting Salvadorans of storied backgrounds. We met a representative from Cofamide, an organization that works for finding those who have “been lost” on the way to the United States from El Salvador (“been lost” refers now to the act of someone “being lost,” a.k.a. being displaced by the Mexican or Salvadoran government and killed or sent to jail). We met artisans who described their story by what they make with their hands, filling blank canvases with hope, which many times manifests itself via the face of Monseñor Oscar Romero, the substances integral to Salvadoran agriculture, like corn stalks, or flowers of the Salvadoran backcountry. We lived with families in a rural community, Guarjila, working to share our lives in solidarity and learn of the torment they had to endure in the compo (countryside), in which too many atrocities were committed against these people. We took the time to see that among the many innocent lives lost, thirteen of those belonged to six Jesuits, four American nuns, a mother and her daughter who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the assassination of Oscar Romero.

I want to describe more of what we did and experienced, but your time is most valuable, and my descriptions would be more meaningful in conversation than through prose. We were, however, exposed to a truth so disastrous to our minds that we will be forever broken by what we’ve heard – Rosa holding her near-dying sister in her arms amidst a massacre of her people in the Sumpul River, children being tossed up in the air and more abruptly being taken out of that air by gunshots ensuing from a military soldier’s gun, a perfectly planted exploding bullet hitting the heart of Oscar Romero directly after he finishes proclaiming the truth that was so hard to hear for the haves but was gospel for the have-nots, religious sisters being raped, killed and left by the roadside by the Salvadoran military – embedded in all of these occurrences is a hard truth we all must face, the truth of a broken world that lies right under our noses.

This point I’ve reached upon returning to this trip is very much worth your contribution, and I do appreciate what you’ve done for me. The money you’ve donated to this trip is an act of love, care, peace, and solidarity. I know it’s hard to read what I’ve written, but these few events that I’ve chosen to slightly describe to you (also knowing that they are not exhaustive – surely there are more atrocities worth being told) are only for you to fell how much my heart has been broken.

Something is stirring in my soul and I can’t name it at this moment. Looking to a brighter side of my trip, I felt such a strong connection to Oscar Romero, a man elected as archbishop of San Salvador (the capital city of El Salvador), who was elected to this position because he was seen as easily persuadable. However, after one of his close friends, Rutilio Grande (a Jesuit priest), and two Salvadorans were assassinated on their way back from the compo, Oscar Romero was instilled with a drive to fight for the people of El Salvador, against the oppression and injustice that was being doled out by the Salvadoran government. Oscar Romero fought for his people with the peace, justice, and love – he was given the power to speak a truth that nobody wanted to hear, willing enough to give his life for this truth. I hope to pray more about this and delve deeper into why I felt such a strong connection to this man, soon to be saint.

I want to leave you with a story, given by Sister Peggy on our last full day in El Salvador. Sister Peggy came to El Salvador during their war to be with the people of the countryside in a town called Suchitoto. This town was well-organized (by the Salvadoran women, mind you), and had gained knowledge that the Salvadoran military was on their way to conduct, presumably, another massacre of The People. All those in Suchitoto dropped whatever was at hand and gathered in the bed of a sand truck to haul out of town and run away from the military. The driver of the sand truck ended up taking a wrong turn, causing the sand truck to topple over.

After these people scattered into the surrounding area, away from the overturned truck, Sister Peggy ended up in a tall grass field with two other Salvadoran women, one of which had a new-born with her and for the sake of breastfeeding her child, had brought along a bag of tortillas for sustenance. That night the woman with the new-born wanted to share her tortillas with Sister Peggy and the other woman, but they both wanted her to keep the tortillas so she could keep breastfeeding her new-born. However, this woman told them no,

“Tonight, we share our food

and tomorrow, we share our hunger.”

This is true solidarity, friends. The head of CRISPAZ, the organization that facilitated our trip to El Salvador, described one of the aims of these immersion trips. These words describe what I feel, what I have experienced and what is surely to come in the future:

“Surely, we hope this trip has done at least three things for you. The first – that your heart

is broken. Second – that you have learned how to fall in love all over again. And third –

that you are ruined for life.”

True, true, and true. Friends, I will have more to tell you in the future, and I really do look forward to where life takes me – I trust that I can find the truth and work to find that truth for others, exposing the truth in the name of justice. I hope this letter finds you in peace and love, but also with an agitation to use the beautiful works this world has to offer in repairing all that is broken in our world.

~~~~

And with that, I will conclude this post. The main point to take away from this post is that decisions are to be made with proper foresight, enough inquiry into as many possible points of view, and, most importantly, one’s decisions should be justified. I’ve been learning a lot in my philosophy classes lately, and one of the take-home messages from a favourite class of mine is that whatever position we hold, we must be able to justify that position. If we uphold a weak justification, we cannot simply expect to let others believe in our position (and subsequent decision making).

This trip to El Salvador truly kicked my life path in a different direction, and I highly doubt that I would be here today had I not learned about this little country when I did. I am incredibly disappointed in the decision to prevent others from experiencing El Salvador, and I do hope that those in leadership positions at SMSP will thoughtfully reconsider their decision.

***

I’ll try and get some more writing out to you in the next week. I hope you all are having a wonderful time in this holiday season!

On fearing the “other”

Recently, I was speaking to a friend about what happened on Oxford Street last week. Well, I guess I should say that we were talking about what didn’t happen on Oxford Street. For those of you who don’t know, Oxford Street is one of the busiest/well-known shopping areas of London, akin to the Miracle Mile in Chicago. As I was sitting in the library on a Friday evening (hey, I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta do), my friend sent me this photo, with the caption, “be careful:”

562b652a-d3bb-4807-a4aa-bae4efe222a7.jpeg

I was a bit concerned, and my other group chats reflected as such:

Be careful guys, there might have been a shooting at Oxford Circus station

Nobody get on the tube in that direction

Was it a terrorist attack?

Fortunately, nothing actually happened at this tube station. Despite the scare, people were held in shops on lockdown, and none of the transportation headed through that area was running. The police responded efficiently and quickly, despite how real the incidents might have been that night.

This friend with whom I was speaking (Maria) happened to be in one of these shops when all of this happened, and after the matter, she told me that she felt scared, but moreover just “powerless,” to use her exact wording. This word brought back a quote that another of my friends from U-M (thanks Indie!) told me after the mis-fired explosion at the Paddington Green tube station back in September.

I told her, “Ah, man, it looks like I’m probably going to have to try and take the bus more often, or the overground.” She responded to this by saying that one cannot really avoid these types of attacks. When I thought more about this, it’s pretty true – we can’t directly avoid the chance of being on the wrong train at the wrong time, unless we choose to never leave our apartment, live in a concrete house, or simply never really live life as a social being. Quite simply, we probably assume more risk of dying from a car accident each time we sit behind that steering wheel than what I assume when I step into the tube carriage.

Another thought occurred to me, combining the “powerless” idea from Maria and the thoughts that Indie shared with me. There is a way to lessen the feeling of powerlessness that may in fact indirectly factor into the ability to avoid a situation like an explosion on the tube. I only say indirectly because, ultimately, there is only so much a common individual can do to avoid attacks categorised as “terrorism.”

To understand my perspective, take another gander at the photo included earlier in this post. Do you see, just one line below the live stream of the Oxford tube incident, what’s included in smaller text?

More than 230 killed in Egyptian mosque

The society in which I live seems to have less regard, care, and notice for those who don’t belong to the commonly accepted “western” world. It’s really easy to not care about an explosion here, a shooting over there, so long as it doesn’t affect those who I believe belong to a similar enough community to mine. It makes sense to be fearful of attacks in Europe because, quite simply, Europeans see an attack in France or London as an attack on Europe as a whole. US citizens fear attacks in European nations because it’s very easy to draw similarities between Europe and the US (for my current purpose), as societies belonging to the “western” world. When an attack takes place in a “non-western” world, then perhaps we just don’t feel as threatened, because a place like Egypt isn’t seen as “similar enough” to the US or the UK for us to fear the same attack in our home country.

The fact of the matter is that those who die, regardless of where they come from, are humans just as much as anybody else. Our media does not reflect an inherent equality in being human, exhibited precisely in the screenshot I included in this post. Whether directly or indirectly, this sort of representation might be harbouring a fear or an alienation from societies that are not similar enough to our own. (I use “our” here as a general term referring to “western” culture. Yes, I know this term itself is way too general and I can’t make these sorts of sweeping generalisations, but bear with me on this one.) Perhaps we can call this the cultivation of a “fear of the other.”

Without going into too much social theory or practical knowledge, I might say that the “fear of the other” has worked itself into mainstream policies and ideas of national protection, perhaps best revealed by how much the state spends on national defence. This idea lies within the general fear, or hesitation, of letting too many of the “other” move into one’s own country, or having incredibly strict border regulations. This concept is more noticeable in the US, as opposed to the UK, where many European citizens live in London especially.

And let me tell you, London is undoubtedly the home of the “other.” I live in an area with especially large population from Lebanon, Jordan, and surrounding countries. Living in London, I will have heard at least three other languages being spoken by the time I end my day. With full honesty, I realise how easy it is to become fearful of the “other” when you live in an area with only “in-crowd” folk, but once you start living amongst the “other,” you start realising the myriad ways in which the “other” contains so many similarities, some that even make you, you.

Is it truly the fear of the other that leads to attacks on certain cultures, peoples, and societies? Why feel the need to make others suffer? Is estrangement and stigmatisation such a powerful negative force in society, enough so to fuel hate between societies? Are attacks in response to the “western” world’s fear and ostracisation of the other, or are they because of a fear of the “western” world?

Without answering any of these questions, I might venture a guess that in many of these cases, those who feel the need to go as far as taking human lives feel deeply unloved. In a truly roundabout way, I’ve reached the point I wanted to make about lessening this feeling of powerlessness that Maria had mentioned to me before. As a member of what has historically (and perhaps unjustly, I might add) been seen as the “in” crowd, I believe that I have a duty to help dissolve the wall between insiders and outsiders. Even if you’re not a white male, but still live a life where you feel, in some capacity, accepted into some sort of group, I still think you have an obligation to let others feel just as welcomed as you might feel. How might this work?

Quite simply, welcome the outsider in. Be it smiling at whoever is walking by, despite their race, nationality, origin, or location of where they call home. I know it’s not as difficult, perhaps, to work myself into British culture, but I can speak from experience that it really makes a difference when someone from the UK truly makes an effort to become friends with me. Perhaps in making an active effort to show love to anyone you meet, you will undoubtedly catch outsiders with that love. In doing so, we can make an effort to let more people in this world feel welcomed and loved, harbouring a more inclusive and peaceful, rather than adversary, world environment.

To clarify, I’m not making a claim that only “foreigners” commit attacks or harm the insiders. Rather oppositely, I’m making the claim that even locals can feel like outsiders, and this feeling of estrangement is so counterintuitive to humanity that it may lead some to commit unthinkable acts. Also, it’s a tall order to make the world a more peaceful place, but we can do this on an individual level for now.  As we work on getting the little things done, some may then have the capacity to start changing world politics, in a way that allows for more inclusion, less harmful nationalistic ideologies that keep people on the outside, and harbour less need for using violence and killing to merely prove a point, or say, “I don’t feel welcomed by you.”

Perhaps, only then, may we start to spend time on fostering the growth of vitality in all human life, even that belonging to the “other.”

Who said it was going to be easy?

This post serves a couple purposes. Firstly, it is to apologise for how late I have been in providing a blog post to anyone who has been waiting for one. Secondly, I felt like using this post as a means for explaining its very own tardiness (hint: it was to do with the title).

Grad school is hard. I can’t actually recall anyone telling me that grad school would be easy. Studying the humanities, at least philosophy (since that’s all I know right now), is hard. I equally don’t recall anyone telling me that philosophy would be easy.

I think embedded in two of the sentences above calls to attention a deeper belief that exists as common (but not necessarily conscious) thought throughout engineering and the sciences. I noticed an unfortunate reality when in undergrad, which was a general idea that the degrees doled out by the College of Engineering carried more weight than those given out by the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LS&A). I must add though that those who held these beliefs were, in my mind, rather innocently holding these beliefs. I don’t think they could be held responsible for thinking that their major was harder, and more credible, than another’s. Engineering is hard work, too.

I remember having to balance my music minor and other humanities classes with my engineering degree, such that I always felt like I was merely taking time away from engineering to devote to humanities classes. It was not always the other way around. Not often would I think I was taking time away from the humanities to get my work done for engineering. Neither discipline is better than the other, but I’m realising that now is the time when I finally don’t have to think that I’m taking away from another field of discipline to study (in this case) philosophy. (Don’t get me wrong – I still held a *massive* appreciation for the humanities (as I’m not sure I would be on the RMJ Fellowship had I not held such a view).)

Engineering could always be used as an excuse if I hadn’t entirely finished the reading for an english class, or for not being truly well-read enough in the theory of a topic being discussed a certain day in anthropology. I still managed to do what was necessary for most of my classes, and luckily my teachers managed to notice that I had a strong passion for (in my case) creative writing, anthropology, and music.

However, now that I’m able to devote 100% of my time to studying philosophy, the topic is no longer a superfluous, cool term that I used in describing an idealistic, romantic view of a discipline. I can’t now just read about virtue ethics, or moral relativism, and think, “Yeah, that’s cool, maybe I can throw that into my arsenal of interesting topics to discuss with people… hopefully they won’t inquire further into the topic.” This use of vocabulary quickly changed when I came to UCL. (I recall getting looked in the eye directly, being asked to delve into what I meant about something I had just mentioned, and getting extremely nervous with this task. This is becoming easier each time the situation happens, thankfully.) I find myself, instead of expressing solidly a thought or belief that I had always held, stopping myself in my tracks and thinking of all the possible counter-arguments and descriptions of my thoughts. I’ve literally stopped talking mid-sentence to a friend when speaking about some political issue in the States because I started to really think about what I was saying. I blame this (happily) on philosophy.

To give an example, I think I remember mentioning in my application to LSE something along the lines of “I will use the term ‘inequalities’ in this essay, but I really believe that we should be talking about inequities in life.” This sentence was saying that I really thought that most inequalities were truly inequities. I gave no significance to inequalities, and all moral significance to inequities. What mainly stirred these thoughts was the following graphic that popped up on my Facebook newsfeed:

However, after one lecture I had in my module titled “The Philosophy, Politics and Economics of Health” (the same as my course title), we delved into inequalities, specifically as they pertained to health. Some questions that came out of this discussion are as follows:

What makes an inequality an inequity?

What is the nature of an inequity? Is it the fact that it is unfair?

If an inequity is simply an unfair inequality, then what makes the inequality unfair?

What’s telling you that anything is unfair? What school of thought are you using — perhaps some form of egalitarianism?

Is unfairness dependent on who is responsible for the unfairness?

What if someone purposefully puts himself into a position of inequality? Is this unfair if their decision was completely free and autonomous?

What implies autonomy? Is it better to have more choice in life all the time? Is freedom directly related to the amount of choice one has?

As you can see, the questions can spiral into other areas that might not work directly back to our initial question, but this is the nature of philosophy (at least in my mind). I’m quickly learning that I need to truly develop a difficultly intangible frame of reference on which I can build my argument.

Since truly so many ideas have validity in philosophy, some may say that there is no right answer. However, I think this is really the beauty of philosophy. If there’s no right answer, then I had best be sure that I build my argument so well that, when I try to attack my argument as best I can with counter-arguments, the argument holds through and becomes believable by the reader.

I remember listening to a lecture by Dr. Christian Casper in my senior design course, about the failed launch attempt of the Challenger space shuttle (apologies if I get any information wrong in this account!). The day of the launch was predicted to be colder than usual, and those in charge of the launch asked those who manufactured the shuttle to determine whether they believed it was safe for the rocket to be launched that day. Embedded in all of the data gathered from tests on this rocket was the fact that an integral part of the design (an o-ring, I think) had a really great chance of failing if the outside temperature was below a certain point.

Essentially, it was going to be too cold to launch the rocket that day, but those in charge of the launch failed to be convinced by the engineer who worked with the o-rings and the shuttle. Alternatively, and perhaps more importantly, the engineer failed to present his data well enough so those in charge of the launch would be successfully convinced to not launch the rocket. The shuttle proceeded to explode and kill the entire crew aboard.

Here’s where (at least one) utility in philosophy comes into play. Independent of whether or not there is one true, right answer (Truth with capital T), the way in which you present your argument has a large part to do with how those listening or reading will receive this argument.

Humans do not function on facts. We can think of facts as blatantly true or false, or perhaps as 0’s or 1’s, the familiar binary code that computers use to process information. Humans, rather, are perceptive beings, despite how much truth our claims might hold, so we must present our ideas of the truth in such a way that will give them the best chance of being fully understood (where understanding is not the same thing as agreeing).

After I finish this post, I’ll move into an evening of becoming evermore well-read, searching for the best counter-arguments for my own views, such that I can reinforce (or respectively and consciously change) my thoughts on what I believe to be important and worthwhile. Hopefully this process will end in a way that prepares me well for fighting for the health and well-being of various populations and people with whom we inhabit this earth.

In ending, I want to address my use of the word “it” in my title. My old english teacher, James, abhorred the word “it”, only because he believed (and still believes) that the word is a terribly nondescript and useless word to use in writing. However, I wanted to utilise the generality of this painfully ambiguous pronoun. If we learned anything from this post, it is that each field of study has its worth, and is going to require a warranted level of expertise that is required by its students. As the old cliché phrase goes: if I am doing something that I see as easy, I’m most likely not properly challenging myself in the matter, and hence not letting myself grow to my full potential. (Keep in mind that ‘natural’ cannot be substituted for the word ‘easy’ in this sentence.)

~~~

Have a happy rest of your weekend, friends! In some news, I’ll be taking part in a couple jazz shows happening on campus soon – one is called Fiesta, and is a night full of Latin, fun-filled jazz and dancing. The other is called “Cross-Currents”, a jazz fusion show that’s going to be played with minimal instrumentation and for an audience in an intimate (meaning small) setting. I’m really looking forward to these shows.

On fearing death – why does it matter?

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I can’t remember specifically when, but for a some time when I was younger, perhaps around my early grade school years, I would start tear up a little each time I went to bed. My dad would come in to say good night, and when he did, my tears would become stronger. He would notice my sadness, and in his comforting, caring tone, he’d ask,

“What’s the matter?”

“I’m afraid for when you die,” I’d timidly say.

I can’t remember what my dad would say in response to this, but whatever he said was enough to get me to calmly go to sleep. I guess nighttime was the time I saw best for confronting the nature of my parents’ mortality. Is this normal for the common seven-year-old? Keep in mind, I wasn’t forced to do this – both of my parents were healthy, along with my sisters, and most of my extended family as well. We didn’t really have many health issues in our family outside of those seen as “due to old age.” This is surely not the case for many, many children in this world – too many children are forced to confront the nature of their parents’ mortality all too soon in life.

I brought this story up in class last week, because the topic of class was simply, “Death.” This module, titled “Illness,” is where we try to take the idea of illness and examine illness’ place in society as a philosopher would. The first of a few readings we were assigned for this class was Epicurus’ letter to Menoeceus where Epicurus speaks, among other things, on the idea of fearing death, and what it means to think of death as being good or evil.

Epicurus tries to speak about why humans tend to fear death, and speak to why it might not be rational to fear such a thing. Pulling a quote from Epicurus:

“Death…is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”

Here we see that, considering two possible states (being dead or alive), we can’t really fear death as death itself, simply because we might cease to exist when we die, hence we cannot be present to do the fearing death. This isn’t necessarily contradictory to many religious beliefs, I think – in the Catholic tradition, life is found in death, hence I don’t really think Catholics (I can’t really speak much to other religions) believe in true death, but only physical death; Catholics believe in the eternal life of the soul. Going further, the only conclusive thing I can say about death are these words: “I don’t know.” I don’t know what lies on the other side of the passing of my body, I don’t know where my mind or soul goes.

If we take Epicurus’ words to be true, we might be able to say that it’s not rational to fear death. However, I was speaking with a classmate after this week’s session and she drew the distinction between the idea of fearing death as being reasonable versus rational. The distinction I’d like to make here is that while it might not be rational to fear death, it might wholly be reasonable. This idea hinges upon the mere fact that we are social beings, and live in relation to others. Since I really, honestly don’t know when my death will come, and I won’t actually be able to know that I am existing “in death” (again please don’t construe this with ideas noted in whatever religion you might hold), then I really shouldn’t worry about life for my own sake. What I should worry about, though, is my life in relation to others, and others’ lives in relation to mine. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to fear the death of those I love, because if they leave this earth, or this realm, there would be nothing in this world that could fill the gaping hole in my heart and soul that their exiting would create. I have yet the capacity to experience their absence, and that absence would undoubtedly cause me to suffer as a result.

I chose my words carefully in that last sentence, because the term “suffering” is an interesting one. Oftentimes, especially in biomedicine, suffering comes in tandem with pain (patient X is experiencing pain and suffering due to Z). However, after exploring the idea of suffering in class, it can’t really be said that all pain leads to suffering, nor that all suffering comes from pain. Suffering, in a broader sense, can be caused by all sorts of things in life, or simply by life itself. The loss of a loved one, a hard breakup, not getting that dream job… What I think I want to believe is that death is not the greatest evil in this world, rather it is the suffering that comes with death, or more generally, that suffering is something that we can rationally fear as humans.

Suffering consists not only of the item that caused its existence (pain, death, etc.) but also of a unique temporal element. That is, suffering exists only in a narrative of life – of past, present, and future. If we think ourselves as suffering, then we usually know when the suffering started, and hope for when the suffering will end. Some might say that suffering is a good thing, as it builds character – however I would only agree with this if we can reasonably see that our future holds a time when the suffering we experience now will not exist.

Without hypothesising any more on suffering, I want to turn towards biomedicine and the motives that drive biomedicine into such a high role in today’s society. It seems as though the role of biomedicine today is ultimately to stave off impending death, to relieve us of our mortal duties as humans, to keep us living as long as possible. I often turn to the concept of a quality adjusted life year, or the QALY. Yes, this time is adjusted for “quality” and not merely years lived – living off of a ventilator for 20 years, incapable of speaking or moving around, might in fact be worse than one year of being medically unhindered. However, the QALY is still attached to time – the QALY, and therefore our objectified goal in medicine, is temporally dependent. Why this dependence?

I could imagine that one might want to extend her life because this gives her the opportunity to make longer, more meaningful connections to others, to leave a lasting impact on this world, and to effect change in the best way possible. We live for the future, we prepare ourselves for what might happen later on in life, and what we might be able to do with one more degree, with a little more work experience, or with a little more time spent in connection with others. I can’t argue against having more time spent with loved ones, but bear with me here and take that idea to the extreme. What if we had eternity to spend with others?

If I had eternity to spend with my family, I might just pass up an opportunity to hang out with them for, say, another opportunity to go out and meet new people. However, strictly because I do not have eternity to enjoy my loved ones’ company, I might want to spend a little more time cherishing what time I do have with them. In this sense, our mortality, and its temporally limited nature, allows us to really cherish the relationships we have because we never really know when they’re going to end. Furthermore, if we spend all of our time fearing the end of our relationships, we would never have the time to really enjoy them in the present moment.

I’m going to leave the conversation there for now. I do want to talk more about the goals of biomedicine and the role that suffering and death play, but this would require many more words, and a lot more thought and time. I’ll also use that time to ponder more on suffering, and how to actually tackle this idea philosophically. In other words, I’m going to devote an entire blog post to the matter instead of tacking it onto this post.

~~~

Life update: we’re into reading week, so I don’t have class this upcoming week. I have a few things planned:

  • To play in the house band at Phineas on Tuesday night
  • To see a West End show on Wednesday night – The Exorcist (getting my socially necessary dose of Halloween activities in a little later than usual)
  • To go see a BBC jazz live recording session this coming Friday
  • To start (and finish) my first political philosophy paper (wish me luck)
  • To go visit a few museums in London (I just got a national art pass, so I have no excuses now!)

 

(A bit) on the justification of jazz

Life here at UCL is a bit tricky, as a necessary part of graduate studies is figuring out the proper work-life balance (cliché, I know). I believe the double-edged sword of grad school to be the newly-, socially-acceptable idea that graduates can make more excuses to stay in and study, because they have “so much work.” I can’t possibly go out because, well, I have so much reading to do. I have a paper to work on. I’m a studious, *keen* grad student so I shouldn’t spend much time socializing. And people would believe me if I make these sorts of excuses.

I guess this reasoning isn’t false. I do have a lot of reading (and soon to be) writing to do, but that work tends to fill whatever time span I give to myself, be it two hours, an entire evening, or the expansive weekend. I have trapped myself in a corner, believing that I simply have no time to do anything else but read and worry about my classwork. The walls behind me fell apart, though, when I started getting involved in UCL’s jazz society. This society offers not just opportunities to play with each other, but time to laugh, talk about jazz, or just express our feelings about things not necessarily jazz-related. There’s this sense of inclusion and mutual benefaction that we all get from indulging in such a type of music together, and I think the Jazz Society speaks volumes to how London is in general. London welcomes all, no matter their origin, and allows one to find their niche in such a vibrantly huge place in this world.

Every Tuesday the jazz society holds a jam session at a campus bar, Phineas. From 8 PM to 9 PM the house band plays, and from 9 – 11 PM they open up the band to anyone who would like to join in and play a tune. If this kind of thing happened in the States, I’m not sure how many people would come. I think I’m safe saying that, if put in front of a band playing live, upbeat jazz music, someone my age would have a great experience. However, if presented with the idea of going to a jazz show, some friends might hesitate because jazz doesn’t carry the same idea of “fun” that the genre did 40 years ago. However, these Tuesday nights are some of the liveliest I’ve seen this campus bar, where patrons are packed shoulder-to-shoulder, to the point that I feel getting out of the establishment with ease would be pretty difficult. In other words, (I can safely assume that) people like jazz here! Friends dance, sing, and sway to the music that we make on these nights and experiencing others enjoying jazz is truly beautiful, especially from the viewpoint of a performer.

Keeping in mind, however, that this happens in the middle of the week: How in the world do I justify treating a Tuesday night as I would a Friday night back in Ann Arbor?? Well, sometimes I’m not able to properly justify this decision in a “classwork first” sort of mindset. A few nights I’ve had to sacrifice the couple extra hours of sleep to finish some work that I hadn’t finished Tuesday afternoon. I might have to sacrifice a few extra pounds (analogous to dollars, surely) to spend on an extra Wednesday pick-me-up (in the form of coffee). However, if four weeks of philosophy has taught me anything so far, it’s that we can view problems and situations in multiple different frameworks. What if I process this situation in a framework that we might call, say… “Jeffrey’s soul is not fully whole unless he gets to play music for others” framework? Okay, I’m lacking a bit of originality in naming, but I’m learning an important lesson here. Classwork and reading do not hold the entire answer to having a truly beneficial experience here in London, which is something I’m sure Roger M. Jones would have agreed with.

Having internally resolved that conflict, I wanted to bring up another topic, that of which revolves around family: Parents.

I particularly loved being in Ann Arbor because I was approximately two hours away from home. To me this was the perfect amount of separation: healthy enough distance so I could make my own life without having to consult my parents about decisions that I made, but close enough that I could go home for the weekend without spending too much time in transit. Additionally, my parents could come to events that were important to me in my time at U-M, be it graduation, a music show, a birthday, or a presentation.

Don’t get me wrong – I truly, deeply love my parents, but something is to be said for parents who raise children who are able to be independent when they need to be, but at the same time vulnerable enough to ask for help in a time of need.

Last Tuesday, one of the singers in JazzSoc had her birthday on the same night as jazz night, and her dad and his friend accompanied her to the bar to watch her sing and enjoy her birthday in good company. What surprised me, though, was when the dad got up and asked for a guitar, because he was ready to play and sing a blues. This woman’s father, getting up to perform in front of a crowd with an average age about one or two sigmas’ worth below his, was what I thought an act of true love for his daughter. And his daughter got to observe him partaking in music, on her birthday, in the company of her friends.

The sheer distance between my family and myself started to become so real at that moment. I was really happy for this experience, yet I realized the sacrifices that my parents make for my own independence. Something can be said for letting a child be independent and make their own decisions, but even more is the idea of accepting the idea that their child is going to move to the opposite side of the world. As much as they would want to (and I would, too), my parents cannot physically come to my shows, to a presentation I might have, or to celebrate most special events with me. I’m starting to realize how difficult this might be for a parent, especially when “letting go” is carried out to the extreme in my sense.

There’s something to be said about this lack of physical connection and space. In the absence of physical presence, I can start to feel the intense intangible connection that a child (and brother – shoutout to my sisters!) feels with his parents (and sisters). It’s this connection that will never leave me, that is inherent in having been born of my parents and them having raised me in their unique style and means. As much as some might not like to hear, our parents will never leave us, even when they’re across the world.

So, shouting out to mom and dad, you might not be able to physically share in my time here, but you are emotionally and spiritually taking part in every waking moment of my time. Despite my inability to send a message every day (sorry mom), I do always think about you – know that the senses of security, safety, and confidence that I feel in my own capacity to adjust and live in a new world do not come from my own inherent abilities but largely from who you are.

~~~

More to come on studies – reading week is approaching, and I have a pretty difficult paper due after this week, so stay tuned for the inevitable “I’m going to practice my ideas on my readers” post!

 

Legitimacy, Obligation, and the Authority of Illness

In writing this post, I hope to accomplish two things:

  1. To inform you a bit about what I’ve been learning so far in my classes. (Only specific highlights, to make things digestible.)
  2. To speak of another part of my past life, Camp Kesem, and the disease the camp addresses: cancer.

The ideas I’m going to address will pertain to two of my classes that I’ve had so far: Contemporary Political Philosophy (CPP) (on anarchy, democracy, obligation, etc.) and Illness. I’m thoroughly enjoying my other classes, but I think I’ll leave them out of this discussion for the sake of being concise.

Now, to dig into the matter… I think I might have mentioned a few questions regarding what I learned about in this CPP class. This past week struck me as profound after we discussed what are called the instrumentalist theories as well as the idea of consent. Consent turns into a real interesting topic, especially when we think about how integral this idea is especially in the field of health (see small text below for a short diversion).

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Consent, in my mind, has been used as a shield to guard patient autonomy. Furthermore, in many circumstances patient autonomy is seen as something we must not infringe upon (almost taking up an anarchist view in this sense). It is completely unheard of practicing any bit of medicine on a patient without any bit of their explicit consent.

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Without explaining much, the instrumentalist theories (slightly) contradicted what we learned about anarchism. Anarchism (as told by R.P. Wolff) states, among other things, that humans are to remain completely autonomous beings that should not relinquish any of their autonomy to an authority, because there is no way for a government or an authority to be truly legitimate. In other words, it’s never okay to submit yourself to the power of an authority if you want to respect your dignity.

Despite how many times the anarchist can keep asking “how” and “why” to your presumptions about what’s okay in terms of obligation, I couldn’t reason with myself that anarchism was the answer to living a successful life myself, nor for society to be successful in any way that wouldn’t end up like what happens in The Lord of the Flies. Plus, if medicine was a complete anarchy, we wouldn’t have the ability to actually give consent and almost “turn over” our power to the medical professional. How would any progress actually be made? (See another small text for another diversion.)

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This merits an entire discussion on how we define autonomy. Some definitions might include:

  • Having complete freedom of choice, all the time. No exceptions.
  • The absence of any hinderance to the way one wants to live.
    • This means that, potentially, one could submit themselves to, say, a government or authority in order to give themselves more opportunities to live a better life, where if they denied the authority, they may in fact be hindering themselves more than if they didn’t.
  • Not ever submitting yourself to another individual’s power.

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This week of class, and the connected readings, brought some clarity to the question I posed before the small text (at least as much clarity that is allowed in political philosophy). Joseph Raz, when speaking on authority and legitimacy, brought up one of the instrumentalist theories, or the normal justification thesis (NJT). Raz proposes that one is justified in resting his own power in authority if, in that case, he believes that the authority has the expertise, knowledge, and time to devote to making a decision for him/her (“him/her” being the hypothetical “one” that Raz introduces) than he/she might not have.” Furthermore, Patrick Durning adds to Raz’s thesis that if the subject claims to have more knowledge or expertise than the authority in a specific problem, then they are justified to override the authority’s power and make his/her own decision in the matter at hand. (This theory would then lend itself to the definition of autonomy that I posed in the second bullet point of my most recent “block” text.)

Raz’s theory makes a little more sense to me, and can lead (in my mind) to a society functioning much better than us all deciding to become anarchists and not give any recognition to any central authority. Atul Gawande, in his essay, Whose Body is it Anyway?, manages to speak of (or around, I should say) this theory without even mentioning the NJT itself. Gawande speaks of when his 11-day-old daughter, Hunter, stopped breathing due to an unknown reason, which led to Gawande and his wife taking their daughter to the hospital. After some testing, the medical professionals ended up at a proverbial fork in the road. It was suspected that Hunter had a lung infection, but they wouldn’t know for sure for a few more days until the lab results could properly come in. Hence they could have put Hunter on a ventilator, posing many risks to her little body, or alternatively they could have let Hunter push through, risking her body of a shut down and her subsequent death. As the patient (since a child’s autonomy is extended to her parents in most cases), Gawande had the complete ability to make the decision to put his daughter on a ventilator or let her push through. However, in this instance, he chose to defer the decision to the medical professionals, despite his ability and expertise that would give him full capacity to make his own decision.

Following Raz’s NJT, Gawande assessed the situation, showed that he had the right expertise to make a decision for himself and not pass on his autonomy to the authority. But he still refrained in making this decision. Would Raz say that Gawande was not justified in passing this decision to the medical professionals, when he was on par with them professionally and was more familiar with his own daughter, therefore making him more qualified to make his own decision regarding his daughter’s health?

Hunter ended up living, but what if she ended up dying because of this decision? Would Gawande have published this story? Largely with Whose Body is it Anyway?, Gawande is trying to make a point that sometimes a doctor’s paternalism might be justified, and I think Raz’s NJT supports this idea. (If the doctor, or the “expert,” is seen as the one with better faculties to make a decision for a patient (but not necessarily in Gawande’s case), then it would actually free up the patient to live a less hindered life if they release their autonomy to the doctor’s whim.)

Okay, so I might have just walked you through a pretty obvious point, making it more obvious with some cool philosopher’s knowledge and discussion. But the heart of the matter is what happens when we succumb to what I believe to be a truly dominating authority in our lives, that of which truly relinquishes our autonomy (in the “hindrance” definition I’ve used). I could speak of illness in general, but I want to highlight one in particular, that which has been a growing, silent, and deadly killer of our century:

Cancer. 

It’s highly likely that any one of you reading this blog has lost a loved one or at least knows someone who has been affected by cancer. I lost my grandma and my great grandma to cancer, and this may be considered lucky in relative comparison to other families. Cancer takes a hold of one’s life, not only physically but also socially: we see the disease literally wrapping its hands around the patient, the brother, the daughter, the mother… yanking them in to whisper in their ear: I will force you into thought about your mortality; I will hold you from normalcy; I will stigmatize you; I will make your life hell.

If a lawyer representing the U.S. government did the same thing I just described, I would be pretty skeptical of this government’s legitimacy. However with cancer, we must relinquish all of our faculties to make choices to this disease. Sure, we can make the choice to get chemotherapy or attack the cancer in some way, but these methods usually come with terrible side effects, are not 100% effective, and cast the patient into an eternal state of remission, never being cancer-free. In my mind, we lose autonomy when cancer takes over our lives. I couldn’t help but make this connection when I was reading about authority and obligation to obey in Raz’s work.

As much as I want to have an answer for you, or a theory about how truly deciding to obey or not obey cancer will actually do anything about the cancer itself. What I’m talking about is pretty theoretical and in reality, in practice, these ideas may collapse into thin air. But I want to explore this idea further, despite that risk: what happens when we do submit ourselves to the authority of cancer? I’m not speaking only about the patient, because cancer is something that affects the entire family. And this is where Camp Kesem comes into play.

In one sentence, Camp Kesem is a summer camp meant for kids whose parents have been affected by cancer. It’s not a camp for kids with cancer, and it’s not a camp where kids go to only talk about death, sickness, and the disease that has ravaged many families. This is a camp where kids come to have fun, to find kids like them who understand what cancer does to a family. They go to a place with families who all have one thing in common: they have had to obey to the authority of cancer.

For some reason, though, camp has turned into a place of refuge for me and for many of the campers who come back every year. Camp Kesem is a family, and some of the strongest connections that I am aware of in this life have formed out of being together for only one week. One week – that’s how much time has passed since my last blog post, and I think I stand pretty neutral on where most of my friendships are (which are in a good spot – don’t worry!). How can we find such refuge that was founded from cancer,  that which has coerced us into devoting our mental, physical, and monetary resources into a disease that many times ends in death? After asking this question, my mind pointed me back to the Dominican Republic. I think I might have described this situation before, but I’ll describe it again:

We, being myself and the fellow interns for a Dominican NGO called FUMSIL, were on a vacation day and decided to go to the south coast of the DR. We went to a beach town called Jarabacoa, were we could choose to swim in an (ice cold) river or in the sea. We chose the sea mainly because it was warmer. Before I left for the water, one of my Dominican friends, Kiko, told me to be careful with the ocean. Okay, if a Dominican tells you to be careful with the ocean, it means that this matter is pretty serious. So I go down the rocky beach and go towards the water. I enter in about four feet, only to be slammed by a wave that knocked me to by rear, then proceeded to drag me across the carpet of small pebbles and rocks. Woah, I thought, Kiko was right.

Now that I knew of how powerful this ocean was, I had a newfound respect for this beast of nature. The next time I went out into the waves, I gave in with all of my faculties – I believed the ocean to be a completely legitimate force of power, and let the ocean take control. And to let such a large, governing force of nature take over my life, toss me about, was in a sense liberating, because I had gathered a great sense of respect for the ocean as well as for how fragile my own life was.

Cancer is not the same thing as an ocean, but does submitting ourselves to some greater force of nature that is out of our control generate in us a newfound sense of respect in our lives? Does this respect for life, then, let us appreciate what we have more, and let us use our own faculties more efficiently and in better, more productive ways in our lives? With this question in mind, I think back to Camp Kesem. What I experienced with these kids, largely, was that they all had some kind of profound respect for life that I only really saw consistently in the kids who went to camp. Was this respect a factor of having had to learn how to obey the  nasty, authoritative force that is cancer?

Perhaps, without writing too much more, I might make a small conclusion from these thoughts. Instead of trying to resist the obligation to admit to the authority of cancer, why not admit to its authority? (Admitting to the authority of cancer would not be the same as admitting defeat, however.) Cancer, put bluntly, is an expert in matters of mortality, but in my experience, it is those who fully well acknowledge the authority that cancer has in their lives, who can then use more of their faculties to live with cancer and, hopefully, live past cancer. By ignoring cancer, and remaining in solitude to fight it alone, we cannot win against such a ravenous disease.

This conclusion might be weak, and I will probably have better skills to tackle these thoughts in a few months’ time, but consider this a chance to explore what goes on in my mind when I’m spending countless hours in the library reading through this new field of philosophy. To end, I’m going to leave a things a bit brighter and give you a picture of my birthday “cake” from yesterday, in addition to a birthday latte.

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