On Death, Part 1.
“More life, more everything” — Drake, “Free Smoke”
What does capitalism want? Thinkers like Jason W. Moore have said that it wants to eat the world, locked in a perpetual cycle of accumulation, gathering into itself all that is living: soil, forests, minerals, living beings, energy reserves. When I think about capitalist accumulation, I picture No Face in the dark buffet scene of Spirited Away.
We too get caught in the logic of this cycle every time we talk about “the economy” and “efficiency” as ends in themselves, as if evoking these terms produces self-evident meanings on which we all agree. In a slim volume The Burnout Society, Korean-born, German philosopher Byung-Chul Han digs deeper into the surfaces evoked by economic stories or rap songs. According to Han, “The capitalist economy absolutizes survival. It is not concerned with the good life. It is sustained by the illusion that more capital produces more life, which means a greater capacity for living”. Thus, the goal of accumulation is an act of staving off death, of forestalling the inevitable. For all the talk of rational subjects operating with perfect knowledge, the discourse of capitalism is full of magical thinking. The capitalist is on a quest to evade the inevitable. This is why healthism of Lululemon is raised to the ultimate achievement, not body positivity or the complexities of health as an interplay between the physical, psychological, emotional, and social.
So perhaps one way to practice anti-capitalism (at an individual level) is to meditate on and prepare for death. In the introduction to the Penguin version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Graham Coleman writes: “It is undeniably the case that in our society we do not easily accept that death is a natural part of life, which results in a perpetual sense of insecurity and fear.” He sees the book as providing a creative approach at a time of bereavement as well as an opportunity to gain insights into the state of mind.
I have spent the majority of the year at the dog park, and observing the goofballs has given me many moments of reflection on mortality. Some say that the reason we live with animals is that they straddle a fine line between wilderness and domestication. Anyone who has seen a cat toss a mouse in the air then drag it to the doorstep will wonder how a purring 9lb ball of fur can be such a beast. We see our own wilderness in them. Spending lots of time in the dog park means I have also been told many stories, including horror stories, of pets suffering cruel and unpredictable fates. I have heard of dogs bitten, and even killed, in the same parks where I walk weekly. I think about what drives animals to do this to each other. Their shorter lifespans also prompts us to face the fact that sooner or later, they will be gone, as will we, but our culture conditions us not to go to the latter part. We mourn, accept, and maybe even get another pet, but few spaces exist for us to prepare for our own passing.
The first time I practiced the Buddhist “broken glass” meditation was when my father was going to work in the US for an extended period of time and was counselling me on the steps to take in the event of my parents not returning (due to the implied possibility of gun violence): what I should do about my brother, how to handle the remaining possessions, how to step up to the responsibility. My university friends laughed at the no-nonsense approach that only an engineer would take with such a conversation. But in my view, their laughter reflected more on the larger Canadian society that such conversations were so rare that they seemed comical. Clearly, most Canadians live lives where they have faith that they possess control over their circumstances, and that the degrees of unpredictability over their entire lives are managed. The reason so many Life channel specials were created was because no one’s dad laid out a plan for a likelihood of tragedy!
The second time I was preparing mentally for death was when my brother exhibited signs of erratic and irresponsible behaviour, and I drew on all the statistical knowledge to estimate the risks of him not making it past 25. It seemed cruel at the time, so I did not share this with anyone, but I quietly said goodbye, in case I received a call from the police. In retrospect, I recognize that I made such mental calculations as a way to manage my own stress and worry over a now-adult sibling, who was autonomous and no longer listened to my big-sister wisdom. If only he held my hand and did what I say, everything would be okay!
The third time was more recently, when I found myself quietly reciting, “The dog is already dead. Thus, every moment spent while the dog is alive is a joy and a reminder to embrace life.” The pup had nearly chased a magpie into traffic, and given all the horror stories of the dog park, it was statistically possible that one of these peak-hour visits would end with life-threatening wounds. For all the instructions to “control your dog at all times” posted on signs, I did not believe that anyone can truly control another living creature at every moment. To be alive means to accept some degree of variation. This made every flop of the ear and every goofy jump in the water heightened. It reminded me to lighten up and appreciate being alive. As the Tibetan Book of the Dead teaches us, “Are you oblivious to the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death? There is no guarantee that you will survive, even past this very day!”
I have become quite fascinated with this text recently, mostly for its poetic quality, but also for its practical application. I see my job as being in the research methods business, and this volume, though a translation of multiple texts, is also a kind of method for living. In other words, the time for meditation on the passage it now. It is both symbolic and practical.
We have discussed the “broken glass” parable at work in terms of maintenance and care work, but arguably, it is fitting for most aspects of our life. And what is preparation if not a method for relieving anxiety? Isn’t that what public speaking gurus and business practitioners tell us? So why can’t the same principles be applied to one of the most taboo subjects of Western society? To accept dying as a natural part of life brings it down a level, and in many ways, equalizes us all.
This is why capitalism also obscures this fact. The entire Western society is a series of products and services promising to forestall it, and perhaps make us believe that they can eliminate it completely. To ground oneself in the very materiality of the mortal body and to ‘marinate’ on the nature of life is therefore anti-capitalist. Capitalism doesn’t want us to think too deeply about anything, for fear we reach some radical conclusions. To recognize that we already possess everything we need in ourselves and each other would take away its power to alienate us, possess us, make us exchangeable. Whether or not one believes in reincarnation, the question is not about infinite life, but of meaning, of making sense, and of relating. There is no amount of accumulation that will ward off death. But there is such a thing as a good life, as a life spent living fully.
In my recent conversation with my grandmother, after whom I am named, I was surprised to hear her say, “Oh, I wish he would take me with him! I pray every day that he would soon take me to the other side.” She was referring to my grandfather, who died in 2017 after suffering 4 undiagnosed strokes. Surrounded by stories of delaying death at any cost in Canada, what is more unapologetically Slavic than a 90-year old saying she has had a full life, and there is little more to be gained in prolonging her presence. She has survived war, gotten an education, married a pilot, raised two boys, contributed her skills to the growth of a nation by working in various factories, planted trees in her community on the weekends, and raised a medium amount of hell while doing all of it! I did not belittle her with platitudes or pretended that she didn’t know what she was saying. I listened and told her I loved her, and after hanging up, went on with my own life.