Encountering Finitude

Encountering Finitude (Coming face to face with one’s personal death)

            Three weeks ago, I almost died. After five days of inability to eat I went to the hospital at the bidding of my close friend, a nationally recognized lung cancer specialist in the USA. It turned out I had the uncommon and unfriendly ‘Necrotizing Pancreatitis’, and at that point I had but two days to live. That I am writing this now is testament to a combination of luck and solid medical care. But each day remains a subtle Damoclean existence. There is no cure and only management by diet provides some vague guarantor against relapse. That this was the seventh time I had confronted my own personal demise may seem astonishing, but this most recent experience was quite different. Each of the previous times was had in a moment, the subito of evil which Kierkegaard discusses, equally abruptly, in his book on anxiety. Mostly automobile related, one does not have time to reflect upon what is happening. The most interesting was me being taken out to sea on an ebbing tide while exploring coral reefs in Hawaii. Growing up on the ocean, I had enough nautical sense to simply begin to hold on to the corals when the swell slacked, and then I pushed along when it flowed towards the shore. It took about twenty minutes or so but I regained land to see my much-relieved girlfriend taking a picture of me straggling up on the beach.

            But in all such cases there is either a place, a time, or an event that can in the future be utterly avoided. It may be reckless driving, a specific intersection or stretch of road, or an activity, like ocean snorkelling on an outgoing tide. But with a health condition, that place is you, inside you, and there is no escape from it. One can learn to ‘manage’ it, but this is at best a practice, like yoga or meditation, and not a return to health from being otherwise. Chronic conditions present to the self a new kind of selfhood. ‘This is what I am now’, one must say to oneself, and further, more profoundly, ‘This is what I will be and will continue to be.’ In the hyletic realm, the space of the world and of the social world, health is paramount. One cannot be anything else without one’s health in hand. Even so, in the interior life, that of a consciousness which includes both conscience and self-consciousness, alterations in the vehicle of being do not fundamentally change Dasein’s elemental orientation. If anything, they heighten its proclivities, make one feel that time is short and that life is, after all, solely for the living.

            Yet it is a curious mix: one desires to accomplish this or that, but one is also wary of making plans. There is an instant contradiction between the Pauline feeling of anxious pilgrimage, where the next step may well be one’s last, and the futurity which is one of Dasein’s essential conditions of and for itself. Mediating these conflicting sensibilities is one’s presence in the present. This more pragmatic issue says to us, ‘Until and unless you hear otherwise, carry on more or less as before’. At the end of each day, this is the only thing one can reasonably do, for it is a betrayal of the will to life itself to simply stand and wait for death, while it is a mistaken interpretation of anxiety as fear to be driven to work overtime simply to accomplish some personal goal. Just as chronic illness presents itself as a fait accompli, so one must respond with one’s remaining health and reason by attempting to live, not as if one had remained unchanged, but within the full authenticity of Dasein’s unaltered existential lot. This includes resoluteness, anxiety, being-ahead, and the call to conscience, amongst a few others. And if resolute being seeks to take the fore, like the Jungian warrior who vows to protect one at all costs, one must step back a little at this juncture and remind oneself that life is not what illness says it is; in a word, render unto crisis what is critical alone.

            What then does it mean to experience finitude rather than become aware of one’s own finiteness? The latter is measurable, and for human life finds its expression in actuarial tables, suicide rates, life expectancies and mortality rates at birth, usually ‘per 100,000’ or some other such denominator. Humans too have a ‘half-life’, on average, given the presence or absence of what social scientists refer to as ‘life-chance’ variables. These include genetic markers, made manifest in family histories such as my father having the same condition, though misdiagnosed, and my maternal grandmother having the same again, diagnosed correctly. But most life-chance variables are what are commonly called ‘environmental’. Taken in its loosest sense, an environmental variable list would include level of education, family composition and birth order, poverty rate, intensity of community, rural or urban, and so on. Finiteness can never be utterly specified for an individual life, but it can be framed in a manner completely distinct from finitude. Finiteness has both an objective probability to it, as well as a fraudulent personal equivalent, as when we say to ourselves, ‘well, we all have to go sometime’. Heidegger is particularly critical of this use of ‘all’. Who is ‘all’?

            Any time we generalize death we are participating in what he calls Uneigenlichkeit, inauthenticity. We do so in order to avoid the intimate confrontation with ‘the death which is mine ownmost’. In fact, we die only our personal deaths, and indeed cannot experience death itself at all. That is, an objective death is beyond our being, and it can only indirectly be understood through the deaths of others coming before our own. Transposing finiteness as if it were an expression of human finitude is one of modernity’s’ great self-frauds. Heidegger makes intimate the confrontation between Dasein’s being-in-the-world as a thrown project and the completion of being in death. Surely, I desire to remain in this sense incomplete for as long as reasonably possible. And just as we cannot experience our own deaths – dying, yes, but this too is a life process and represents also a phase of life, not of death – we can also never understand completed being. Only the Being of the world and of the wider cosmos is of this marque.

            Coming face to face with one’s own finitude is a moment wherein the call to conscience can no longer be ignored. For me, I had to come to terms with the looming potential of no longer being, not only not alive, but being at all. My chief concern was for my wife; that she could, would, and should live on and attain a new life without me in it. But I also had to confront the part of conscience which leveled an indictment upon my character. This part literally told me that I deserved to die. This may seem outlandish, but each of us accumulates a litany of litigious libel over the life course. All of the mistakes I have made, all the others I have hurt, all the chances passed by or wasted, all of the time spent doing nothing of merit. For me, it felt like a lengthy list, and if each of us is our own St. Peter – who, we are told, himself knew very well what remorse and regret meant – then we appear before the mysterious limen before being able to pass over its threshold. In such a moment, evaluation comes to the fore and one hopes for a deeper self-understanding through its unfailing interrogation. That objectively one neither deserves nor does not deserve to die is bracketed, not as unmeaning or yet a fraud, as the cowardly use of ‘all’ connotes, but rather as a reminder that the world is itself value-neutral, and that ‘deserves got nothing to do with it’.

            Finitude is our authentic existential condition. It is both shared by all and intimately experienced by the self. Because we are historical beings, beings of language and ‘social animals’, my ownmost expression of the zoon politikon reaches back into the world, not for justification any more than for judgment, but rather in the hopes that the perspective of the world, which we are said to love as we love life, will allow us to come to terms with our own mortality. Ideas of legacy through work, of continuance through children, even of memory through the ongoingness of others whom we had known, all come from this worldly perspective. Together they make up our idea of a human future, whether or not I am to be part of it anymore. Joined to this, for many yet, is a second perspective which can legitimately be called otherworldly. This otherness to the world speaks also of a future, but a non-historical one, wherein some version of myself persists and thus exists apart from the purely human ambit. Can it be any more called speculative than its worldly counterpart? Perhaps the less so given the travails of said social world, the evils of its politics and the wider Damocles of its dark technologies and elite desires alike. However this may be, it is clear that on two fronts do we set our faces and step forward toward the unknowable Otherness which is completed being.

             It is a sign of ongoing health that we do so. The human imagination, the harbinger of all futures, is coupled with its curiosity, the presage of the present. Not that which Heidegger also includes within his analysis of entanglement, the curiosity that ‘tarries along’ and distracts, but rather that by which we involve ourselves in the world as a child of its own Being. In spite of any fear, or in my case, bad conscience, we remain curious, even about death. Our imagination seeks to frame it, not to make it less potent, but rather to come to know it in some manner, since it already and always seems to know us so well. One is given to say that death has the drop on us, which is a residue, if you will, of the Promethean gift to humanity of hiding from us the precise moment of each of our personal ends. Without this absence of perfect knowing, nothing would be possible; no human project would be begun let alone completed. In this sense, the Promethean trickster in all cultural traditions was a paragon of pragmatism. The apical metaphor is clear: I live on in the face of not living on, and I will continue to do so until or unless I hear otherwise.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, health, social theory and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Experiencing Illness

Experiencing Illness (Its Uncanny Liminality)

            Perhaps the most pressing impingement on the will to life as lived is the experience of illness. Health, as Hans-Georg Gadamer aptly put it, is an enigma. We are unsure of exactly what it is without due recourse to understanding its absence. As if it were a singularly focused sense of the social, wherein we only feel the weight of society as a set of rubrics, roles and rules when we resist its presence or openly rebel against it, similarly, illness speaks to us in irruptive tones, interrupting the generally unthought experience of health. Illness, no matter how slight, is always something of a shock. ‘I felt fine, just a moment ago’, we might tell ourselves. ‘What could possibly have gone wrong in that time?’ of course, we are told that many illnesses have incubation periods, genetic markers might manifest themselves over a brief and sudden period, or injury might have resulted from being at the wrong place at the wrong time, or through a freak accident, or yet a calculated risk gone awry. Our health, the most precious thing we can be said to ‘possess’ – the love of another is a gift and not a possession, for instance – is, in one sense, constantly at risk of being lost.

            And it is not that illness is ever-present for most of us. If so, we would have no true experience of what it means to be healthy at all. Sickness and health would be subjectively interchangeable. No, it is rather the sometimes-stark contrast between them that allows us the perspective to compare and contrast such seemingly opposing states. Illness confronts us in the manner of all things irruptive. The visionary was confronted by his vision, the saint by her mission, the pilgrim by the end-times, and the artist by their muse. In all such cases, there is a ‘reality to the unseen’, which William James specifically states is a hallmark of religious experience, also irruptive when radically present, though much less so when presented through institutional lenses. This generally invisible yet real plenum, the space from which uncanny things emanate is by its character unidirectional. We, for instance, at least in our mortal and fragile form, cannot transgress its boundaries, oblique and occluded as they are when made contiguous with the everyday world. To do so would be risking all, as if we had deliberately made ourselves sick, or if we had attempted suicide.

            The irreal sphere speaks to us, but it hears us not. We too might close our ears to its glossolalia, turn our eyes from its hieroglyphics. But what we cannot do is control it from without. This at least, from the tradition that claims such a realm even exists at all. It is medicine that makes the first attempt to open up the irreal in the name of rationality and through the use of empiricising methods. The mystery of ill-health itself was to be solved, even if specific conditions remained unresolved. What medicine does is to reframe illness as a departure from a set of experienced conditions that betray their ‘normal’ state through their functional status. That the doctor often begins his hermeneutic by asking ‘How do you feel? Where is the pain? What kind of pain is it? How strong?’ and so on, betrays both its kindred nature with the investigation of any mystery, including the criminal type at perhaps one end of the spectrum – after all, the criminal role is merely a socially defined career that itself is ‘ill’ and Abnormative – and cosmology at the other; what is the nature of the universe, how did it come to be? The diagnostic criteria are themselves arranged on a spectrum of their own, gradually departing from the cut and dried as we experience the shift from physical ailments to those deemed ‘mental’. If we can say that the mechanics of proprioceptive function seem to take on their own uncanny presence – functioning in health ‘normally’ and yet also somehow miraculously – they thus exude a certain tacit charisma, as if they are the resonance of Being in creation. On the other hand, mental illness is both the truer mystery due to its ability to fraudulently present itself as if it were a kind of charismatic presence, but also and at once due to the fact that while charm can be faked, as anyone who has been on a first date can attest, authentic charisma cannot. The emotionally compromised can maintain their charm, at least for certain hours of the day, but physical illness is simply, and at best, unpleasant.

            For modern physical medicine, the discursive dues have been paid. Even if the root cause remains unknown, this idiopathy is never an epistemological problem. One always can identify the effects and perhaps also treat them. ‘Managing one’s illness’, from addiction to diabetes to pancreatic breakdown and a host of others, has become a commonplace phrase in daily life. It may be diet, it may be drugs, exercise or even meditation, but such management clearly takes the place of any outright cure. It is of interest, from the perspective of witnessing the shift from illness being sourced wholly within the irreal no matter its material effects to it being itself fully material and empirical, that illness management can claim to have the only remaining pedigree that harks back to traditional diagnostics. That is, the shaman, in countering the sorcerer, tells the victim that she must ‘live with the curse’ as there is no cure for it. But there are countermeasures, which must taken even daily, that ameliorate the curse’s effects or indeed force it into dormancy, as if in remission. For in traditional cosmology, there is no such thing as an accident; nothing occurs by chance alone.

            Nothing truly is altered by the upshifting of both magic and sorcery – the one patrolling the sunny side of the existential street, the other skulking along the shady side – into the sole purview of a god. If such a deity is given to evaluation, it issues forth its own curses and blessings, and only time will tell which is which in the end. The sourcing of the irruptive in the irreal, giving it is uncanny force and perhaps also a kind of soteriological suasion, is unchanged. It is only with the advent of medicine that illness is both brought down to earth but at once denuded of its earthy roots. Even so, such knowledge is clearly also a work in progress; everything about the subjective volatility of mental illness underscores the incomplete character of medical discourse. More than this, its own history, especially that of psychopathology itself, lends credence to the belief that applied science may have its limitations, if not in principle its limits, when confronted with a state which rests part of its status in premodern metaphysics. Like ultimate questions which only religion presumes to answer – indeed, it must do so if it is to be worth our consideration at all – mental illness proffers to the doctor a kind of abject faith, if only in itself.

            Though the medical specialist is also human and thus also can suffer ill-health, medical discourse is an objectivating space deliberately set over against the irreal, just as is modern evolutionary cosmology a bastion against creation ex nihilo. Not that the discourses of anti-transcendental metaphysics can answer to ultimate cosmogonical questions. In this, the absence of understanding precisely what health is, in its essence, is made choate only by being able to tell what it is not. Sanity thus is best framed as a practiced knowing of social customs and the presentation of self in daily living-on. Any other definition risks sliding sideways from this normative practice and becomes immediately subjective or, at the very least, introduces a ‘subjectionable’ element by having to undertake the interrogative journey of ascertaining how the patient ‘feels’ about her emotions and thoughts. The person who suffers from illness of any kind is subjected to it simply by retaining their status as a subject. I feel my illness in a manner no one else can, and so it goes for everyone else. Even the dislocation between pain receptors and pain processors in the brain is not enough to resolve this subjection of the subject to illness. Yes, some persons appear more ‘stoic’ than others, another factor amongst a myriad that the doctor must try to take into account. Some patients ‘present’ well, other badly. Some presentations little resemble clinical data, while in other cases, the data speak to relatively good health though the patient still feels badly. In a word, illness is the most salient way by which we identify health.

            One early deontological departure from the traditional sensibility that illness and therefore also mortality are functions of either evil acts or primeval fates comes to us from the Greek physician Alkmaion, who stated that humans are in fact mortal because ‘they have not learned to connect the beginning and the end’ in the way that the rest of nature has been evolved to do. I am not a perennial being, and even though my being is completed in mine ownmost death, this completion differs utterly from that which is completed by beginning once again, over and over. Insofar as the experience of illness is like a rehearsal for dying, its theatrical power emanating from a representation of both the uncanny and the charismatic in the guise of a journey from the healthy place of magic to the unhealthy space of sorcery, it alerts us to the fragility of our shared human lot. But illness is no mere metaphor, a point to which Sontag as emphatically has alerted us. However irreal it may feel, its reality rests in the material change in function and variance that often can even be measured, sometimes indirectly but always with a sense that illness’ sources, however obscure some of them may yet be to medicine, cannot be taken literally as either curse or cure.

            Thus, the experience of illness is as much something that distracts us from pursuing the most objective course while at once offering a very personal glimpse into the very ontology of health, its history and its discursive career. For mental illness, this glance may become a manner of life, though never a way of living. For in being forced into the darker reaches of mortal being, we should not think to rest there let alone remain. Illness is the lesser sibling of anxiety, which rests within us as part of our Dasein. Even so, illness as experienced allows us to more gently understand that dying has its own ethic, and that the disconnect between our origins and our ends is not so fatal to absolve us of willing a return to an enigmatic health. Only through accomplishing this return do we then also glimpse the wider miracle of nature’s self-connected being, that which our consciousness cannot so far grasp in any other manner.

            G. V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, health, social theory and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.