Death Development & the Tribunal of Emotional Bias
My cat died earlier this year. He had suddenly begun to rapidly deteriorate over the course of months, my close friend of thirteen years falling apart right in front of me while I did my best to trust the veterinarian’s advice and have a positive outlook that he’d improve. Well, it wasn’t great advice, but I’m not writing this to complain about the domestic-animal caregiver down the street. In truth, I’m hoping not to complain at all in this piece but rather to discuss the things I’m learning from Pan’s death. After that, I’d like to ask you a question. It’s one of my favorite questions to ask people. Then I want to give you my answer and discuss why that answer is my answer. So stay dialed in. I’ll try my best not to lose you before you finish this article.
Yes, my cat’s name was Pan, an homage to the movie Pan’s Labyrinth, though I would often refer to him by the grandiose title of The Great Cat Pan, a reference to the Blood Ceremony song “The Great God Pan.” After all, “god” spelled backwards is “cat,” or so I’m told.
Now, I’ve had many cats in my life over the years, but Pan was one of my favorites. Yet because of the circumstances of life, we ended up separated for a couple years at one point, him in Pennsylvania and me in California. Once I’d finally got my act together and found an apartment that allowed cats, I made arrangements to reunite with him. My girlfriend is a lover of birds, and when we moved in together she was understandably concerned about flying Pan across the country to live with us, no matter how much I assured her that he’d bring no harm to Crusoe, her conure. Then one day he arrived, and—lo and behold!—the two got along as well as you could hope for a cat and a bird to get along, I suppose. Each was curious about the other, and they could be left alone in the same room without fear of feathers or fur flying.
Pan was gentle and loving. He and I would spend minutes every day rubbing on one another: he’d run his teeth along my chin a few times and then lower his head for me to run my chin across his head an equal amount of times—then the act was repeated. Maybe we were marking each other, letting the other know that, “You’re stuck with me.” One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that I’ve adopted some cat behaviors over the years, and they started showing up the closer I got to Pan. During one of these marking sessions, I remember looking up at my girlfriend and saying, “When this cat dies, it’s going to be really bad,” a statement on how I might handle his death. When his time finally came, years after I made the comment, it was both just as bad and not as bad as what I’d imagined it to be. In other words: I was very distraught for weeks, but not everything that rose from my distress was negative.
As it relates to loss, there’s almost no feeling quite as impactful and enlightening as driving to a destination with a loved on who is alive in the passenger seat, only to return to your starting point with that very same loved one lifeless in the passenger seat. I have no doubt there are many animal lovers out there who know that feeling quite well, which makes it all the stranger that, to my recollection, I’ve never heard anyone discuss it. Perhaps it’s too difficult to discuss, too hurtful to reprocess—in fact, the tears welling up as I write these lines tell me that “perhaps” is precisely the wrong word—but the very fact that this emotion is so powerful and yet seldom discussed is a sign to me that it is indeed something important that we should all the more strive to realize.
At the base level, what I felt while driving back from the veterinarian’s office with my recently deceased friend an arm’s length away was what I assume a great many wrestle with in such moments: a mixture of sadness and anger. Angry at the universe that death is even a thing, an inevitable happenstance that the living must subsist with. Angry at the old man we’d bought our house from who had lazily scattered rat poison throughout the property before we moved in a few months before Pan died. Angry at the vet for not listening closely to what I had told them about Pan’s sudden symptoms. Angry at myself for not pushing the vet hard enough, for perhaps not giving them enough details, for not insisting that they needed to look at him sooner than their given availability, and for losing my patience with Pan as he began to constantly shit on the floor after he got sick.
But below all that personal baggage was something much more profound, a sense of absolute loss that crushes the ego, an unrequited gift that only the dead can give—the gift of spiritual growth that humbles one down to the very core. I soon realized that the anger was pointless, that it was too late for anger, that what was done was already done. If it was poison that killed Pan (“if” because though many of his symptoms matched the effects of a certain rat poison, the vet said it could have been a rare form of cancer), that was of course not the old man’s intentions. The vet here is insanely busy and sees what must be dozens and dozens of pets every day. They’re animal lovers themselves, and I could sense their sadness as much as they could sense mine when I left their office with Pan in a burial bag. Pan’s death wasn’t the old man’s fault, the vet’s fault, or my fault—and at the same time it was all of our faults. We’re all in this together. And yet one thing I noticed as Pan became weaker was that he still did his best to live every day to the fullest. He casted no resentment, no castigation, and no blame at anyone. Up to the very end, he only wished to be with those he loved. He gifted me this spiritual revelation—this partial ego death—the understanding that I must treat those closest to me with as much kindness as I can muster. He taught me that when you’re on the clock, as we all are, anger is largely a waste of time.
That humbling sensation, however, that’s the crux of what I wish to identify. I believe it’s that very feeling—the reminder that we are all ephemeral—that has the power to change everyone for the better. That is what society is currently lacking: a respect for each other and our limited time on earth. This is a gift, as I stated before, that only the dead and dying can contribute—and it’s the ultimate contribution. When we live a good life, when we form tight bonds with others before we pass, our death impresses upon the living’s cogitation a reminder that they’re alive, that we share this life, and that when we lose what we share it affects us all. I think that’s largely what ails us as a people: we forget that we’re alive and that life is a shared experience. Whether it’s toward a loved one, a stranger, or a perceived enemy, respecting the permanence of death is one way—perhaps the best way—to learn to better appreciate one another and to exorcise what demons may be wrenching and afflicting the soul.
Over half a year later that feeling still smacks me across the face, is still there to put me in my place, so to speak. Pan’s passing was an invaluable lesson that I guarantee I will remember until my atoms are dispersed and recycled into new life. If you’ve had a similar experience, feel free to release it in the comments below. Sharing such profound life experiences helps us to connect and learn, and who knows?—you might be surprised with what comes to the surface. I can tell you that typing out the words above has caused me to process my experience in a deeper way, and here I’d assumed there was nothing new for me to discover, which is probably something one should never assume.
Though I loved Pan greatly, I hadn’t anticipated I’d be struck with such powerful notions at the death of a pet. It hit me harder than a lot of departures I’ve dealt with before him, and that’s likely because not only was he a best friend, but I was with him shorty before he passed. I drove home with his body. I buried him. It was more personal in that way. I’m sure a lot of people think, “Come on, he’s just an animal.” But we’re all animals. And though we don’t share language, there are some bonding experiences that can only be shared—and bonding experiences that are easier to be shared—with non-human animals. But instead of focusing on what those experiences are, I’d like to use this topic of animal–human bonding to segue into the question I’ve been waiting to ask you.
The question is this: If your pet (if you don’t have a pet, perhaps picture another animal you’ve cared for at some point in life) and a stranger were both drowning out in the middle of the ocean, let’s say fifty feet apart, some distance where you only had time to save one of them, which would you save?
Before I reveal my own answer, allow me to admit that I personally don’t believe the essence of life—that is, the intrinsic source of biological matter that makes life what it is—is more valuable in any one thing over another, whether insect, plant, animal, etc. With that being said, I do find it a bit ignoble and cynical to lift non-human animals above humans, to demonize humanity by only focusing on the horrors they are capable of. I think it’s lazy, because it’s harder to like humans than it is to like an adorable and loyal pet. Other people lie to us, they disagree with us, they blurt out words that hurt us. But the fact that it can be much harder to connect with a human over a pet is the very reason we should pursue such an endeavor, to attempt to give our fellow brethren a chance to make a positive mark in our lives, and to forgive them when they leave a negative one. Being accepting, helpful, and forgiving to those in our lives may be some of the most profound ways we can allow ourselves to grow as individuals.
So, I’ve made two statements that some might find contradictory, though I don’t believe that to be the case: (1) I don’t find human life more intrinsically valuable than any other life, and (2) I believe it’s lazy to proudly exclaim that animals are more worthy of love than humans. So, what’s my answer?
I’d grit my teeth and save the stranger, but my answer lies more in logic and an understanding of the human condition than anything involving some kind of celebratory appreciation for the human race. And I’m not trying to be insulting when I say that. I’m simply saying that all walks of life have their place in the natural world, and I would not save a stranger over a beloved pet simply because I think the animate essence is more valuable in a person.
I’m aware there are many out there whose religiosity would have them believe humanity is the most valuable lifeform walking Dog’s green earth. My philosophy on it is that those who think humans are above all else—whether it’s a religious standpoint or otherwise—came to that understanding simply because being a human is what they understand. In other words, you are human, thus you value humanity. I know, it’s really not that deep, but if you happen to be one of these people, I have a scenario for you. Let’s say we have a group of humans trapped in an enclosed space with a pride of lions. As food runs low, hours pass by, and the lions become hungry, will the lions feed on each other first or the humans? We all know the answer here. So, if human life is intrinsically more valuable than the lives of these lions, why would the lions attack the humans before feeding on themselves? Don’t they know that we’re the superior species? Of course not—they’re lions, and they’re going to look out for their own. They don’t see us as the ultimate form of life, though they probably enjoy the taste. And how can we say they’re wrong to act in such a way? Harder yet, how can we convince them they’re wrong?
But still, I would save the stranger. Because it would be selfish to do otherwise. If I saved my pet, it’d be for me, so my animal could make me happy for another ten years while I feed it and clean up its shit as it happily enjoys a relaxing stroll through existence. So, no, I’d save the stranger. The stranger has a family, could create a family. The stranger has decades to live, decades to make the world a better place, decades to spread joy and love to countless others around him or her. Besides, I could not let a stranger perish knowing the terror he or she is facing as the water begins to replace air, as the awareness of impending doom creeps in and all of life’s failures and successes flash in an instant across the mind like an autobiographical collage at the end of a movie reel flapping and spinning and playing over and over and over again…. No, that would be cruel. So…perhaps I’m just like those lions, and perhaps I’m similar to—but not just like—those who place humanity on a pedestal in the way that I’d save the human because I comprehend the human best. Humanity is my pride, but this is precisely why I comprehend the lions as well. Though our complex functions differ in many ways, I’d argue we aren’t so different, they and we.
That’ll do it for now. Stay safe out there.
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