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Natural Life And Death

Friday, September 30, 2005

Life and death are still natural

Translation of “Naturales muerte y vida” by JAVIER MARÍAS published in EL PAIS SEMANAL - 25-09-2005. Also in his own blog.

A friend of mine, the medical doctor José Manuel Vidal, told me that on the 30th July, Mrs Joaquina Álvarez died at the age of one hundred and five in the Residencia de Ancianos de las Hermanitas de los Pobres de Madrid (as kind and exemplary an old people's home as you can find). “She was tired out and dried up”, he said, “but well cared for and clean and glowing after being bedridden for the last eight years”. The doctor at the home, a careful and competent professional, put “Murió a consecuencia de Muerte Natural” on the death certificate (She died a natural death). This is not only plausible and logical but also good Spanish. However, the acting judge didn't accept that one could die from a cause that was so vague and made the doctor re-write the certificate. I don't know what form of words satisfied the judge, what invention or improvisation the doctor eventually used so that his diagnosis was not rejected a second time, but in any case, this example is symptomatic of the times.

We have now reached the stage when dying is seen as something abnormal or unnatural, and someone must be to blame, often the person most affected, the deceased. It started when we began to consider that the sick caused their own illnesses because they were doing something that they shouldn't, because they had a bad life style or habits, or because of their vices or their carelessness, as if the mere fact of breathing and exposing oneself to the air was not already in itself a bad habit and an unforgivable act of carelessness. It continued with the denial that accidents can happen: if any type of accident occurs, it must be because something has gone wrong and someone committed an act of negligence for which they must now be punished. The absence of intentionality is no longer seen as an excuse or as an extenuating circumstance. Of course there are still occasions when the effects of natural disasters should have been avoided or reduced: it seems clear that there is a direct relationship between the terrible effects of hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and the unwillingness of Bush the Worse (his father can't be considered to be the Good so there is no other way of distinguishing them) to grant the local authorities the eleven million dollars that they asked to reinforce the levees that were protecting the city from the waters surrounding it. (The Worse only conceded three million and although Congress corrected his mistake and increased the grant to 5.5 million, the fact is that it was half of what was required). In the same way, there is little doubt that Aznar's government, through the agency of his minister Trillo, played an indirect part in the Yak-42 accident by his lack of concern for the safety of his troops and caused the death of more than seventy soldiers. And it is obvious that if a group of idiots, who have already been warned by the forest rangers, light a barbecue on a windy day in a forest, then the cause of the resulting fire can only be laid at their own door. (A reference to the fire near Guadalajara on 16 July 2005 in which 11 firefighter lost their lives).

What doesn't make sense - and it's also unjust - is to assume that everything that is bad must have had a preventable cause and that things like bad luck, unplanned events, the unexpected, the improbable, or Acts of God (nowadays, even this expression sounds antiquated) don't happen. If you think about it, misfortunes and calamities have been pushed into the background, the tradition of expressing grief and mourning for the deceased and feeling sympathy has almost died out, to be replaced by the eager “search for those responsible”. Much more importance is paid to the statistics of the deaths on the roads of people who were not wearing seat belts or helmets or who were driving too fast than to the tragedy of those deaths. The idea that the poor unfortunates had done something, or had failed to do something, and that caused their misfortune has become so ingrained in society that we are at risk of eliminating compassion and grief from our vocabulary and suppressing them from our feelings. There is a tendency to blank out from our minds something that we see and experience every day: that there is good and bad luck; that not everything is attributable to mistakes or negligence; that people are not machines, and that even machines sometimes fail and break down. In the past, when faced with a catastrophe, people would impotently raise their eyes to the heavens and say without understanding, “It's God's will”. God is no longer valid as an explanation that doesn't explain anything; but there should be a middle ground between the fatalism of the believer and the present time when a natural death is considered to be impossible. After all, until someone proves to the contrary, dying continues to be completely natural, especially if one has reached and passed by some margin the grand old age of one hundred.



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