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Creative Commons 2.5

Death: The End of Lifelong Learning

You will die - have you ever really considered what that means to you?

One of the unavoidable consequences of living is dying. Each of us will experience our own death. Death and dying should not be something that we fear talking about nor should it be a source of morbid entertainment or fascination. It may be uncomfortable to consider our own end and for some people the very thought of their own death needlessly incites fear and anxiety. For other people the comprehension of their own death may be a direct path to higher levels of spirituality that serves to inform and energize their lives and the lives of those around them. And of course, many of us try to ignore the whole proposition until we are forced to deal with it.

If we are to promote lifelong learning, then the inevitability of death and dying need to be a primary consideration in learning. This is not to say that we should be promoting unhealthy psycho-cultural preoccupations with it. For some reason, the balance between healthy understanding and morbid fascination are grossly, ignorantly and foolishly over-weighted toward the morbid in our society. Yet if we are to talk about the goals of lifelong learning, then the most fundamental and unavoidable "standardized test" you and I will face is our own death. Death brings unity to learning as it does in our everyday lives.

One of the problems with death is that we really have no idea when it will make a personal call. Most of us live in the hope of meeting or exceeding the statistical lifespan averages for men and women. The farther away from that we are (in terms of years) the less we feel the need to think about it in the here and now. As we draw closer to it, however, it's felt-meaning begins to infiltrate our bodymind. But these statistical norms are largely irrelevant. An accident, terminal illness or natural death in the family or of a close friend earlier in one's life may demand we face it. People entering retirement tend to feel the weight of it approaching. Clinical depression can lead to suicide that is in one sense a means of taking control of one's life by exercising the power to end it. Like me, you may have had one or more of these influences impact your own learning. Members of my family have died. Friends of my family have died. Some died suddenly, some suffered through a great deal of pain, some died of old age. Suicide has been present on the periphery of family and friends. Death is a deep universal reality of living, a reality that ultimately lies beyond our control. When we were born into life we were also unavoidably destined to death.

In our last moments on this earth, it becomes (I imagine) a glaringly obvious reality that our personal wealth and status in society have no true meaning. For some people, this will not come as a shock, but for others the reality of their lives may result in both terror and regret. Understanding death and dying in a healthy manner earlier in life can only serve to raise our standards for living and our basic assumptions about society and culture. Instead, we promote the morbid side of death through never-ending fodder in our news media, our movies, our books, the games we play, and of course television. No, promote is not a strong enough word, we collectively condition ourselves to live lives of morbid fascination. Some people are able to step outside of this nonsense - they know that it is wrong and understand that it will only serve to disease their minds and bodies. Many others, unfortunately, succumb to it.

We leave at least two kinds of things behind us upon our death. The first is material things. Out of collectively imposed necessity, we spend a large part of our lives buying material things. These material things are distributed upon our death, sometimes smoothly and other times via senseless competition. "You can't take it with you," and a day will inevitably come when you realize that all your material possessions are a house of cards in a hurricane. There is no evidence to suggest that owning a herd of material things makes people feel happy and fulfilled. In many cases it may be that people do not own their possessions but instead their possessions own them. The second is what I will refer to as spiritual things. You literally leave part of yourself behind in the memories and spirits of those that knew you. This is the true legacy of your life. While I continue to struggle on a personal level with religious ideologies in my life, I do not struggle recognizing that there is a very real spiritual element in my life. Our beliefs, our challenges in life, our successes, our failures, and our ways of being will live on through those we were close to. None of this requires material form, and is one sense our contribution to the world.

We learn about death and dying through the unavoidable confluence of everyday life. As a student in public school I cannot recall any discussion of death. As a teacher in the school system it was obvious that investigating death was just too hard for the educational system, and in fact strategically ignored. Whenever something becomes too difficult in education, it is conveniently downloaded to the family, the church, and psychological "support" mechanisms. I can recall times when students had to deal with death in their lives, yet the curriculum machine churned on while some vague attempts at "counseling" were made on the periphery. A student's father dies and the math lesson parades on while the human spirit suffers. While it is wrong and far too simplistic to put the weight of responsibility solely on education, this brief example does provide a glimpse as to why students often feel that schooling is both irrelevant and sometimes just plain insulting. It is not surprising to see anger and resentment increase and seek expression through bullying and other horrific forms of violence and destruction. It may be that they are reaching out (sometimes dreadfully) for a degree of control over their lives in a society that seeks to control it for them. Death can't be sterilized into curriculum.

What does one say about the glorification of death and violence through entertainment? Conclusion: it does change people for the worse and makes the world a less desirable place to live in. What's the solution? Let's all finally admit to ourselves that it's a form of cultural stupidity and just stop it. Maybe then we will reclaim some of our lost creativity and artistic sensibilities.

We have put a great deal of effort into putting distance between death and ourselves. We churn out widgets and gadgets and we throw charity at problems that are too difficult for us to handle head on. The basic problem is quite simple: we as a group of people living together cherish materialism more than we do humanism. Resilient people will stand in opposition to this and sometimes find a niche within the economic engine that allows them to pursue their passion - but this is far from the norm. The need to make more and more money just to survive that is imposed on people often forces their lives to be chaotic, highly accelerated, compromised and fragmented. Is it surprising that the pervasive sense of stress and anxiety this induces would give birth to problems like, road rage, marriage breakdowns, disintegration of the family, greed, selfishness, crime, and increasing depression? No, it's a perfectly normal response to an abnormal lifestyle. The abnormal aspect here is the promotion "coping" strategies that encourage people to accept this nonsense. If we were to bring death and life into healthier and closer proximity, it may be that our collective tolerance for these things would thankfully disappear.

Tom, a student of mine some years ago, died tragically in a car accident. I have clear memories of him - bright, intelligent, polite and very talented. When the phone call came from a colleague of mine my heart sank. Although it had been a couple of years since he had been my student, memories of him immediately came back. I remembered his brother and his parents and could not begin to imagine how they must be feeling. I thought of my own two children - my family. Death had appeared before in my life, but this time for some reason it felt closer than ever before. At the funeral everything seemed unfathomable to me, but did create new sense of direction in my life. Tom's death is for me a constant reminder that a universal bond closely connects all of us regardless of our circumstances in life.

Any kind of learning called "lifelong learning" must inevitably entail knowing death. But not death as morbid fascination or avoidance, instead, death has an underlying core of hope that serves to inform and foster contentment in our own lives and by virtue of that the lives of others.

Hermann Hesse: They Moved Spasmodically Through Life

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