Thursday, January 11, 2007

mortal thoughts

when i was still a student in university, i took courses in Japanese over a period of two years. one of my Japanese teachers was a graduate student called Mihoko. she was a very lovely girl, and looked like one of those prototypical cute anime girls, with puffy round cheeks and a beautiful smile. she was also one of the sweetest and most polite persons i ever met. one day, on the last week of the school semester, we heard that she passed away. rumour was that she took her own life because of serious problems with her dissertation.

one year ago, my father passed away after fighting cancer for almost 2 years. today is his first death anniversary.

i don't think anybody finds talking about death a pleasant thing. yet i think, perhaps, some of the most important thoughts in your life are those pertaining to your own mortality. you will not live forever. you will die one day. what do you want to do before you die? why do you want to do them? how important are those things you want to do in the light of the fact that you will die one day? what is truly important to you? the answers to such questions are incredibly personal. yet perhaps, the answers to these questions will determine whether or not you lead a meaningful or regrettable life.

why is talking about mortality such a personal thing? is it because it is precisely the nature of death which is personal? that dying is a lonely experience? or is it because death is associated with sadness, grief, mourning, a sense of loss, and these are all emotions and reactions of a personal nature?

yet death is something which is common. how many people die each day? the obituaries alone carry the picture of around 10 people a day. if you consider the entire earth, perhaps 1 person dies every 10 seconds or so. death is a ridiculously common thing. and what makes it even more common? death is universal. everybody dies eventually what. so if we take a larger perspective, death is no big deal what. just another statistic.

supposing i told somebody that today was my father's death anniversary, and that i was contemplating issues of mortality. and then this person said "contemplate for what? death is no big deal what. after all, around 10 people in singapore die everyday. 1 person dies every 10 seconds in the world. such a common occurrence." what would you think? would you think that this person was being insensitive? if so, why? certainly his view isn't wrong what. in fact, his comment might even be appropriate if it was an academic discussion about population statistics, for example. further more, isn't "a larger perspective" a more objective one? and aren't we conditioned to exalt a more objective perspective compared to a more personal and subjective one?

now assume that i am actually not a human being who has lost his father but a year ago, but say, a sentient but non-living entity, such as a highly sophisticated computer program. and i say "i am contemplating about death" to somebody and then that person makes the same comment about death being common and is no big deal. is he now being insensitive? perhaps not. because now that i am a non-living entity, i cannot be "offended" by such insensitivity. i cannot feel as if i've been insulted because you have trivialized the contemplation of such a deep and personal issue.

this is a weird thought experiment because it's probably hard to imagine a sentient and yet non-living entity. but hopefully you get the gist of the comparison i want to make. what makes the comment in the first scenario insensitive, but probably okay in the second scenario?

there are certain informal rules about the interaction between humans in a civilized society. the breaking of such rules generally result in what we call "insensitive", "rude", "disrespectful" or "discourteous" behaviour. telling me "death is no big deal" when i am contemplating mortality is one such instance of "insensitive" behaviour. this is even so when "death is no big deal" is a considerably more objective claim. there are certain things we just do not say to people under certain circumstances, because its just not what people do in a civilized society.

what factors determine such informal rules? there are probably many different reasons, as it can be observed that standards of good manners or sensitivity differ across cultures. yet there seems to be one overriding theme: a respect for the other individual. because we respect the other individual, we do not say things which might greatly offend them, even if we might even be justified in believing the views we say. such is a mark of a civilized society, it appears.

are bloggers and netizens civilized? when you leave comments or engage with other people in the blogosphere, do we care about the individual we are engaging? or do we fail to see that the blogger that we are engaging is also a fellow human being, with human emotions and human sensitivities? or we couldn't care less? our own opinions matter more?

if so, what makes you any different from someone who says "death is no big deal" to someone on his father's death anniversary?

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