Ordeal’s End: A Shaggy Dog Story, and Some Unthinkable Thoughts on Dying

BLOG Ordeal’s End

walk beach
Beach in Esperance, Westerm Australia, where I wrote this blog post – thanks to Cheryl for the photo

Yesterday we visited another of the spectacular white sand, turquoise water beaches in Esperance, on the southwest coast of Australia. We took along a picnic lunch and had Cheryl’s dog, Marlo, and the two dogs that live in the house Cheryl is house-sitting, Cassie and Mattie, in tow. Cassie and Marlo are both young, but Mattie, a husky cross (or what the neighbour’s girls delightedly call “snow dog!”) is old and arthritic. Mattie needs to be coached up the ramp into the back of Cheryl’s station wagon. When we go for walks, Cassie and Marlo vie for the front position, while Mattie usually lags behind.

So I was a bit concerned when I discovered the stairs down to this particular beach were steep and numerous. I was concerned that Mattie would find the climb back up too onerous. Once we’d settled into our beach picnic spot, therefore, while Cheryl went swimming in the transparent shallow water, I wandered off in search of a more gradual track back up to the car. What I found was a sand dune that sloped sharply up to the road, but by the time I had reached the top of the steep climb I was really puffing. Nevertheless, I thought it might be easier for Mattie to navigate than the steps would be, so when it was time to go, despite Cheryl’s skepticism at the sight of this steep climb, we started up the trail.

To my astonishment, Mattie, the dog always at the back of our ‘pack’, positively bounded up the incline, looking very much like the lead husky of a dog-sled team on its way to winning the Iditerod. Non-stop, with an energy I didn’t think was in her, she charged up the hill, sand flying like snow in all directions in her wake, leaving us, and the other two dogs, panting and gasping far behind. When we rounded the corner to the top of the dune, Mattie was standing there triumphant, looking back at us with what appeared to be a mixture of concern and impatience. She was in her element, the alpha dog unchallenged for this remarkable achievement. For her, I’m sure, this was a moment of pure joy, perhaps recalling a memory of her youth, of play, of strength, of living life to its fullest.

A few minutes later, as I hoisted her up into the car, she became again “old Mattie”, the dog struggling to keep up, sight and hearing failing, the dog not entirely sure each morning, as she was roused for the morning walk, if going on was more trouble than it was worth. The dog whose face was at once proud and anxious, her gait weary and unsteady but still marked by a husky’s characteristic high step and graceful rabbit-like bound.

This incident got me thinking about how we begin to behave as we get older, each of us in our own way coping with the anxieties of growing slower and finding it a bit harder to keep up each day, a bit harder to deal with the increasing ailments, accidents, aches and challenges life throws at us.

My whole life has been an exercise in trying, stressfully, to stay in control. I am far from self-sufficient — a non-swimmer, non-hunter, non-gardener, non-builder, non-repairer of things broken. In the wilderness I love and yearn for, if I were left without resources, I would be lost, starved, poisoned, eaten or dead from exposure in days.

My dream is to live simply, as sustainably as possible, but not self-sufficiently. I’m quite prepared to walk or bicycle to the store to buy the organic, local foods and other necessities of life I cannot produce myself, and to hire local people to build or fix what I cannot. I hope to learn, of course, but I’m resolved to live with the inevitable anxieties of knowing I will always be, to some extent, dependent on my retirement savings and on the assistance of others more competent than I at the basic business of living. This is one of the reasons I like the idea of living in community with like minds — provided it isn’t too stressful or too much work. I am in every sense a child of the 1960s — many would say a spoiled, idealistic hippie who never quite grew up.

Stress, or more precisely my incapacity to cope with stress, has been the hallmark of much of my life. It is almost surely the cause of the anxiety and depression that ruled my emotional state for much of my youth and early adulthood, and almost surely the cause of the agonizing ulcerative colitis attack that so afflicted me in 2006 that I kept hoping each night I would die and not have to face the next day. Since that time I have done everything in my power to increase my resilience to stress and its consequences — switching to a more routine and easy job, finding a better diet, maintaining a regular exercise regimen, and a year later conceding an end to a marriage that had become, for both of us, more stress and trouble than it was worth.

In this I did succeed in reducing the amount of stress in my life. I have come to really enjoy my simpler life, where I really don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. I’ve been looking forward to retirement, which will allow me to be even lazier and more self-indulgent in my activities and my pace of life, and to further escape from life’s stresses. What I’ve discovered, however, is that now when stressful events do occur (minor hassles at work, concern about my father, or any minor setback or disturbance in my life), I’m now even less resilient at coping with them, perhaps because I’m less practiced at it. My ideal life of waking when I feel like it, going for a walk in a nearby forest or on a nearby beach, writing, learning, playing, reflecting, having conversations and collaborations with intelligent, imaginative, sensitive people in my intentional communities (real and virtual) or the outer communities surrounding them, sharing meals of raw, vegetarian, organic foods simply prepared with people I love, in some warm, peaceful, uncrowded place — all seems to be more elusive than ever, a pipedream.

My father told me not too long ago that if he felt his life was nearing its useful end he would want to do what wild animals do, and just walk away into some sheltered , hidden place where he could just die in peace, without interference from anyone. Like me, he has always tried to be in control of his life, never willing to just let go. I sense that, like me, in those instances when he has let go, he has usually had cause to regret it.

Yet now, he seems to have found a way to let go, at least a little. I think that’s more a result of necessity than conscious choice — he just doesn’t have the energy anymore to consider and worry about all the things that might occur, that could go wrong. Perhaps this is nature’s way of forcing us to let go, at last, we alphas who have always tried to control our lives and those of the people and creatures we love.

chemistry of love

Happiness for me has always been the relative absence of stress, worry, doubt, anxiety, and grief. I’ve found it, at least temporarily, in two ways:

  • The early stage of falling in love, with its powerful chemical cocktail of feel-good emotions, gives you, for a time, a feeling of invulnerability, but it soon yields to mature-stage love, driven by the endorphins of attachment and responsibility, with all the anxieties that come with them. 
  • Practices of peacefulness — meditation and other relaxation techniques, and surrounding yourself with peaceful things, people and places. This is what my ideal life scenario above aspires to, but in today’s crowded, crisis-ridden world, it is almost impossible to find and perhaps totally impossible to sustain. It’s what I am referring to when I describe perceiving myself as just “the space through which stuff passes“, being “in the moment”, in “Now Time”. There have been some studies that suggest that wild creatures spend most of their lives in this state, except for the rare (though increasing, thanks to human encroachment on their habitats) moments of stress that pull them quickly into the Time we humans live in nearly all the time — the fight or flight, Anxious Time. 

This Anxious Time in which most of us live, always, in this modern civilized world, is a continuous, lifelong ordeal. When you live most of your life in this state, the world becomes a prison, an asylum. It is no wonder that so many of us, especially in affluent nations, are dying in epidemic numbers from chronic diseases that are caused by man-made environmental toxins and triggered by man-made stress, and which are shredding our natural immune systems.

I think, as we grow older, we begin to lose the capacity to function in Anxious Time, and start to let go, to give up, for better and for worse. We start to long for the end of the Ordeal that a life in Anxious Time represents. I know quite a few people who are retired, but their anxieties have not gone away, and now in addition to the psychological and financial anxieties, the Anxieties of Knowing How the World Really Works, they face the daily physical anxieties of pain, fear of accident, chronic illness, and grief for loved ones dead or wasting away in the twilight world of nursing homes and intensive care institutions. The brief paroles from the Anxious Time prison of civilization culture — like the ones we experience when we fall in love, or, when we, like Mattie, rediscover a strength, a power we had forgotten we had — become rarer and briefer. And finally we just give up and let go; it all becomes more trouble than it’s worth. Perhaps this is the reason for the epidemic of dementias (from the Latin word meaning “out of one’s mind”) that plague so many of us in our declining years — perhaps it’s just a last desperate way to escape from the Ordeal.

I think we need a theory of all this, one that will help us deal with the coming surge of boomers retiring only to find that retirement offers them no respite from the Ordeal that their lives have become (especially as nursing homes fill to overflowing, dementias skyrocket, health care becomes utterly unaffordable and the desperate shortage of general and senior care practitioners continues to worsen), and offers no gracious and peaceful escape from a life in Anxious Time. This coming surge of out-of-our-mind, miserable, unaffordable, unmanageable, chronically-ill boomers is perhaps as much a threat to our world as the End of Oil and climate change.

Like Mattie, each of us, aging every day, probably has a few final heroic moments ahead of us, times that give us respite and joy and belief that the struggle is and always has been worth it. I know I’m looking forward to mine, and I’m prepared to keep falling in love and practicing just being a space through which stuff passes, as long as I can do so without being too much of a burden on our fragile, overcrowded world. Besides, there is still much work to do, and if we don’t do it, who will?

But then what? What will become of us, if we have nowhere to go, no graceful, peaceful process for ending our lives in a dignified and painless way, while there is still enough joy and meaning in our lives to exit life in style? Will we wait until the Ordeal’s End for a billion boomers becomes yet another crisis we postponed dealing with far too long, until we all become its victims?

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3 Responses to Ordeal’s End: A Shaggy Dog Story, and Some Unthinkable Thoughts on Dying

  1. Jon Husband says:

    Thanks .. stuff I think about often. Notice the same thing(s) with my Dad (90 years old now) as with your dad.

  2. vera says:

    I almost died, 7 years ago. I was horribly ill and in vast amounts of pain, my mind refused to work (I kept notes from hour to hour as reminders for myself), and I was completely unprepared for the reality I ran into: that when a ready diagnosis did not offer itself, medical practitioners found it expedient to either just drop me, or to treat me as an addict (I was on huge amounts of pain killers for a while). Though I was in the hospital and medical clinics many times that spring and summer, nobody EVER sat down with me to problem-solve.Three months later I was finally diagnosed with pancreatitis. This time, they wheeled in a morphine pump and asked me to self-inject several times an hour!I eventually got better. It took about 4 months to begin to regain weight, and to believe I was no longer dying. I swore then that I will not allow myself to die within the Leviathan. If I sense my time to be able to “have a life” is indeed ending, I will walk away and let the coyotes have me, or some such. I learned a hard lesson then (as well as 2 years ago when I nearly died of cancer): the system we live in is quite unprepared to help people in dire straights with severe chronic or ill-defined problems. They will either treat you to death (if you have the money and let them), or shunt you off to cold-hearted pain clinics, hospices or old folks institutions. No thanks.The key is timing… recognizing when. Wait too long, and the body and mind give out long before death’s mercy. Do it too soon, and you may have lost out on a miracle cure, as I have been blessed with. It ain’t easy being human.

  3. Paul says:

    My father’s life has generally been in control. He was successful as a businessman, husband, and father. He never seemed to have an especially controlling personality, yet recently I have begun to see how he, like most of us, has spent his entire life straining to stay in control of himself and his circumstances. In the last ten years or so (he’s now 85) life seemed to be gradually slipping out of his control–my mother’s health has failed (she has been slowly sliding down a long path into dementia, and is now essentially bound to a wheelchair), he has had to move into progressively smaller apartments, his savings are slipping through his hands. He has been forced to slowly relax his grip over the last couple of years as he finds, though his health remains strong, that so much of his personal life is falling out of his control–especially as he is forced to share care of my mother with an institution.Dave, as you’re aware, this straining for control is cultural, its not inherent in the human condition. There have been cultures (still are some, I think) in which people did not have to look forward to retirement for the good times, did not expect happiness only occasionally as an exception to the rule of anxiety, did not look forward to a continuous, lifelong ordeal. They did not expect to live forever, or to control all the circumstances of their lives, but they knew they could live happily.The ordeal of a life in Anxious Time may be normal for modern civilization, but you recognize that such normality is pathological, so please point our way out of it. The way out is not hoping for a few, final heroic moments ahead of us. I suggest the way out involves deconstructing the world even to the point of deconstructing our personalities, our habits of thought, the stories we unconsciously act out–so that we can more consciously choose how to live.You, and many of us readers, have already cast off so many limiting beliefs; why stop part way? We no longeraccept that civilization is the best human invention, that humans need to dominate each other and the world, that technological progress generates constant net improvement, that exchange of money (including the system of wage labor and profits) and the power of nations are the only ways to manage human relations, that “my sort of people” are better than “those other sorts of people”. We have already started to question how our thoughts are determined: identifying the roles of physiology, the media (news, advertising, propaganda), education.Can’t we take the next steps in learning why we think the ways we do? What is it that we have to feel in control of, what are we grasping onto? We know that nothing we gain is changeless–fortunes, loves, achievements, recognition by others, joyful experiences of all sorts–all of it disappears or loses value more or less quickly, so why do we chase it? If we really are just space through which stuff (thoughts, feelings, emotions, perceptions) passes, why are we so stressed? Why can’t we just live (work, play, write, converse, struggle, even run away when we have to) without straining for achievement and security? Why can’t we know the possibility of pain and sorrow (failing health or death, loss of a loved one, loss of a home, loss of a profession, war, climate disaster–the list goes on forever) without feeling the victim of life or living in perpetual worry?Those are the questions I feel it’s most important to ask right now as we strive to know how the world works. Sure, it’s always interesting to learn more details about our economic and political systems, threats of various sorts (climate change, pandemics, depression, war, fascism, limits to growth, institutionalized mind control through mass media), and ideas for the future (intentional communities, polyamorism, unschooling, localization, permaculture, innovative technologies). But let’s also wonder why we are constantly anxious; why our minds are so often caught up in past wrongs and future disastersthat we are unable to be in and handle the present; why we so often claim ideals yet fail to live in ways that feel right.Then instead of worrying what will become of us at the end of life, instead of hoping for a few heroic moments, instead of thinking life will become more trouble than it’s worth–I’m concerned you’re taking that as a given!–we can learn to live life well, appreciating and doing what needs doing in each moment. That’s my “ideal”, and I wonder if it might also be what more and more other people want from life.

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