Letting Things Happen

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Oh hey, it’s an elephant

The woman who cleans my flat in Botswana lives in the certain knowledge that we are staring down the end times Every day brings confirmation that morality has leaked out of this world. One day her phone is stolen out of her hand in a combi, the next it’s the false prophets misleading people from the true faith. This morning she saw an overfull combi hit “on its belly,” with the police stealing injured women’s handbags. I’m unsure the veracity of this story (Botswana’s police are known for their honesty),1 but while her specific fears may be from a certain religious niche, the depth of religious belief and the reading of the world through the lens of faith is common here. The phrase “it’s in God’s hands” or “God will provide” is not an idle cliche. It’s a way of being. While the notion that we are in the end days is probably no more prominent than in the US [Maybe less. You guys doing ok?], there is a pervasive sense that there are larger forces at work, outside of our understanding. Sometimes it manifests in a religious framework, sometimes in less existential forms. A Batswana author, Lauri Kubuitsile, answered a question from a Londoner of what she missed most about home with “fatalism.” Expanding on her thought:

“In Botswana, people accept that life sometimes goes wrong. Problems happen. Sometimes things don’t work. Many questions have no answers. Sometimes the outcome you expect is not the one that you’ll get. It’s just the way it is. There’s something very comforting about that for me. It alleviates a lot of responsibility.”

But here is where I get tripped up. Does this attitude apply to death? Kubuitsile argues yes, of course it does:

“In America, if you say someone died, people need to know what happened. Something must have gone wrong. A 94 year old woman dies and people will want to know why, who messed up, what caused her death. “She went to the hospital but the oxygen couldn’t save her,” they’d say. It’s okay then. There’s an answer. The oxygen failed to work. As if death is not a natural part of life. In Botswana, people are allowed to die and no one gets blamed. Death is part of life, something to be accepted because that’s just how it is. No one needs to accept responsibility for messing up.”

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Woah, it’s a bunch of elephants!

 

At the same time, when I talked with Doreen, a traditional African Religions professor at University of Botswana, she emphasized how the cause of death shapes death’s meaning. Within many African traditional religions, those who die properly become ancestors, dwelling in a world similar to ours, interacting with and directing the lives of their blood kin. To become an ancestor one must die a “good” death: living a full life, getting married, having children, and dying of natural causes. By contrast, a death from a car crash or a fallen tree, or a death in the prime of life are archetypal bad deaths and can lead to a malevolent spirit that haunts the living. Ancestors and evil spirits must be assuaged and are considered a part of day to day life, without a divide between the material and spiritual realms. Deaths are attributed to some ultimate cause, some action that forced a reaction out of the universe, whether the directness of witchcraft or a cosmological comeuppances for some wrong done.

So there’s a cosmology of both deep interconnectedness and, for want of a better word, indifference. Our actions have far-reaching consequences, but sorting out the cause of a specific event is a fool’s game. It seems like a question of control.

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Let me illustrate with a counterpoint. In Western medicine, the ultimate goal is a “good death,” a controlled descent, free of pain in all of its dimensions. A prototypical example of this, and a case of retaining control, is the story of John Shields. The article itself is beautiful and worth reading, but the short version is this: John Shields was diagnosed with amylodiosis, a progressive disease that left his extremities numb and his mind and body severely weakened. Under Canada’s new physician assisted suicide law, John elected to receive a cocktail of drugs and end his own life on a day of his choosing. He designed a wake for before his death, a chance to say goodbye, and the non-denominational spiritual rituals to follow his death.

At every stage, the individual controls the terms of their death, from the rituals to the time. It’s in a sense the ultimate triumph over death’s control. Death may win eventually, but it has to be on our terms. It may dictate what happens to us, but we know why and when and how it will happen. 2

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Here, stories like John Shields’ prompt shock. The idea of a doctor killing someone, even if they had asked for it, is terrifying. And the notion that one could go as far as John Shields as to create a whole spiritual artifice for an individual would be unheard of. Funeral traditions often fuse Christian and traditional elements, but they are carried down from some authority, either the church or the tribe, not just based on preference. Ending your own life is as far away from natural causes as one can be, regardless of one’s medical condition. It goes further than Kubuitsile’s description. To know and cause the death is to do harm, not merely investigating something that is better let be. Life is something that happens to you. It’s in God’s hands.

1. I don’t know if I ever told the story of my encounter with the Indian police. Once I was staying in this AirBNB next to a temple in Trivandrum. I went out for a couple drinks with a friend in the same flat. On our way back, we found the road to our house had been blocked off by police armed with what looked like automatic weapons. They told us we couldn’t go back that way. We replied that our house was there and we sure would like to get away from the mosquitoes. They replied that we would have to come back in the morning, submit our passports to the main office and get a residency pass. This wasn’t going to work, so we forced the head honcho to come down. He asked us if we had money for a place, clearing up the terms of negotiation. I only saw two Bollywood movies while in India, but both had bribeable police at their heart. Anyway, eventually it became clear we could just take a ten minute walk around, though we still had to argue to leave.

2. Let’s be clear, this is an extreme example of Western death care. Most palliative and hospice workers I know have complicated views on physician assisted suicide. But the core ideology is the same. We can decide when it is time to let go. I wrote about the theoretical basis of euthanasia here and here

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