RIP, Keith.

Dear friends,

On my way home today, I passed this set of flowers and messages on the wall outside of a Sainsbury’s (a UK grocery store chain).

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I tend to use this Sainsbury’s fairly often, mostly because it’s close to Uni and close to the tube stops that I use. I may have seen Keith outside, perhaps made eye contact with him a few times, but did not engage with him further than that. As a disclaimer, I want to fully respect the death of this man. I think his death (which I would not have known about had I not passed this memorial) brings about a few thoughts worth sharing. (I’m also not claiming moral high ground on talking about others’ actions – for all intents and purposes, I, too, belong to the ‘other’ that I write of in this post.)

Here’s what went through my head upon walking past this memorial:

  1. This is out of the ordinary – why are there all of these flowers outside of Sains?
  2. There’s a message posted on the wall – ah, it seems as it someone who used to sit out here has died. Perhaps a homeless man? – yes, confirmed by what’s pasted to the wall.
  3. It’s good that people are remembering his death with flowers – he must have been well-known by those who frequent this area.
  4. What were people doing during the time when Keith was alive?
  5. Were they spending the money that they spent on flowers to give food or other necessities to Keith?
  6. What makes one’s death worth drawing attention to, when the suffering it took to reach that death was probably an objectively worse thing than the death itself?

This article was pasted on the wall above the flowers – it gives a short overview of who Keith was, why he was on the street, and how he may have died that night. I want to expand upon a thought regarding death versus suffering, and why we notice death more than whatever suffering leads up to that death. Also, why would we feel a moral imperative to act on that death and not on the suffering that precedes the death?

It seems that these flowers may be a signal that others have chosen to show their sadness and lamentations over Keith’s death at this moment, only after he has died. Upon first examination, this seems a bit counter-intuitive to me. Quite bluntly, this man’s death might have been a form of respite from his life up until that moment. That’s not to say that it was okay that he died, but it may be safe to say that he isn’t suffering as much as he was (not to open up the debate on what ‘suffering after death’ actually means). What is it about death that makes us realise so suddenly the ‘badness’ of any lost human life? Think about that cliché moment in a film, when the antagonist’s family member or loved one dies – even the protagonist and their posse manage to find compassion for the antagonist’s loss. However, they can’t seem to find that compassion until death is involved.

One idea that may help explain this is Daniel Kahneman’s ‘peak-end thesis’. This topic is best explained using the experiment that Kahneman and his fellow researchers used, involving colonoscopies. In this experiment, the researchers had the whoever was conducting the colonoscopy leave the probe in the patient a little longer for some patients (which led to the patients getting a bit more used to the pain by the end of the test), as compared to leaving the probe in for a normal amount of time (this was the control trial). Patients then rated their overall pain experience as they remembered it, and it showed that the patients who had the probe in for longer (which might have caused a larger ‘total’ (think integrals here, calculus people) amount of pain) remembered less pain than did the patients who had a normal-length colonoscopy (who would have experienced less ‘total’ amount of pain).

This basically shows that people will remember the ‘badness’ of experiences by two things: the amount of pain at the worst moment (the peak) and the amount of pain at the end of the process (the end). Taking this idea to Kevin’s death (or anyone’s death, who is also suffering prior to that death), we might think that the ‘end’ of someone’s life ending has a great determining factor in how we actually remember that person’s life – i.e. death plays a large part in our perception of the ‘badness’ of the suffering in one’s life, and the length of that suffering plays less of a role in how we recognise the ‘badness’ in someone’s life.

This may be able to provide us with an explanation of why humans act more often (and perhaps why they feel more compassion) for someone when they die (as opposed to when we see a living person suffering).

If this is true, the implications of this sort of thinking are drastic, especially in explaining why homelessness (and more generally inequality that leads to human suffering) persists despite our clear knowledge of the sort of suffering that is caused by homelessness. If our reaction towards this sort of suffering is explainable using contemporary behaviour theory, then we can’t necessarily fault those who participate in that way. However, once we become aware of our implicit assumptions and actions, we may at the same time generate a duty to address these actions and not merely leave them up to the whim of nature. After all, we are rational beings (not meaning that we always act rationally, but have the ability to think about our actions and not merely ‘do’).

If we now can recognise why it may not be natural to go out of our way to recognise our compassion for the living homeless only until they die, our duty to do something about human suffering (and homelessness, surely) may be grow stronger with each passing day.

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