Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Becoming phoebes

Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

The renowned naturalist, entomologist and sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson maintains that belief in the afterlife developed as a human coping mechanism, as a way for our enlarged brains to contend with mortality. He writes,
"Our conscious minds hunger for a permanent existence. If we cannot have everlasting life of the body, then absorption into some immortal whole will serve. Anything will serve, as long as it gives the individual meaning and somehow stretches into eternity that swift passage of the mind and spirit lamented by Saint Augustine as the short day of time."
Today, religious literalists look forward to Pearly gates or seventy-two virgins while most rational secularists, frightened of death's finality, strive to reject it. The first perspective is delusional, the second, incomplete; both are fearful.

Yet there is at least one sensible and beautiful conception of the afterlife, and it is not at all fearful: reconstitution. Most people find contemplation of the body's posthumous decomposition uncomfortable. But the knowledge that my corporeal substance will rot and, in doing so, release energy for use by the rest of things is deeply satisfying.

Poet Galway Kinnell describes reconstitution in his poem "The Quick and the Dead" as "the crawling of new life out of the old, which is what we have for eternity on earth." But beyond the biological, death remains a mystery.

I can not, one way or the other, speak to supernatural transference, though I feel that metaphysical notions of self or soul preservation are misguided. The "me," I think, will rot with my body, but the flow keeps on keeping on, until the end of time.

The author and essayist Edward Hoagland, the writer that inspired this blog's first post, speaks to the magic of reconstitution in his book On Nature.
"In my stint in the army, working at the hospital morgue, I'd noticed how commonly the dead had managed at the last moment a benign or temperate sort of smile. This circularity is neither alarming nor incongruous, but rather seems to make things whole and complete. In the summer, dancing butterflies of pretty colors will congregate where I've gone outside to piss in the grass. The glint of tiger yellow or cobalt blue in their beautiful wings may be enhanced by the minerals that they so crave and that my body has declared surplus. And if a nesting phoebe soon grabs one, she is going to profit also -- which is a foretaste of the myriad uses that more extensive portions of me will be put to eventually."
We are all, then, becoming phoebes, butterflies, mud and gas. I find so much joy in the thought.

Image credit: ripped from Photographs From Virginia section of Kirk Rogers' site


andiscandis said...

I had no idea that there were birds called phoebes. I guess I learned something today. Thanks.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Yup...they're not so uncommon either, so keep an eye out for them.

Josh Dooley said...


I dig your reconstitution idea, but I have a small bone to pick with one thing that you said in this article..

I find it interesting that you say that secularists who reject ideas of the afterlife are motivated by fear.."rational secularists, frightened of death's finality, strive to reject it..."

I would like to forward an alternative motivation. Namely, that the concept of finality in death is ultimately more comforting than the alternative.

Finality in death suggests that there is no plan in life, no final score to be tallied. This makes all moral and ethical decisions a matter of personal will and weight, as opposed to (what I believe to be) a fear driven carrot-and-the-stick approach to life. Do this... or go to hell. Terrifying.

Doesn't the idea that there are no rewards make life-decisions deemed "Good" that much more worthy and humanity that much more noble? I mean, carrots and sticks are for donkies... baaaaad donkies (and goood donkies).

Also, if there is such a tally and such an afterlife, doesn't that imply that the Creator attached to such a plan had to actually create the sorts of horrible acts that would get you thrown into poor regard in Hell.. or in the next life.. or whatever? I mean, assuming you're not a Manakean (sp?).

You see, I can forgive any accident, but I find the concept of planned violence, neglect, or various other widespread moral and ethical horror to be both terrifying and completely unforgivable... Why? Because, I see life as a one-way street. We are all obliged to ensure that traffic continues to flow because of the love that we feel for our fellows bound together by our inherent sameness. Of course, there is the occasional drunken asshole who speeds the wrong way down our street at a million miles an hour, hell-bent on wiping out as many pedestrians and bikers as he can on his way... But, aren't challenges just what make life interesting? And, those people certainly play their part in helping us define what it means to be Good in a world without God. We can all point to that guy and say, "Ayup. That's bad." And, we can look at everyone who got together to stop him and agree that was good...

An impenetrable abyss also seems both the ultimate restful reward for good behavior, and the ultimate rebuke for bad. I suppose that makes it a great place for humans who are ultimately flawed no matter how great they may be as individuals... Always the perfect reward.

Now, I'd like to present you with a question. Isn't it more likely that people who believe in an afterlife that contains rewards and punishments live life in fear than people who don't?

Anyway, I've gone on mooor than long enough here. Thanks as always for the post. You are always one thought-provoking dude:)

All the best,

Hungry Hyaena said...


Thanks for the comment.

Your argument is sound. I've amended the post to read "The first perspective is delusional, the second, incomplete; both are fearful."

Contemporary evangelical Christianity has moved the focus of moral action from this world - our world - to other-worldly salvation; this is deeply problematic. I agree with you, too, that the individual acting in a morally and ethically responsible fashion absent the carrot-and-stick approach of thoughtless religioneering is more noble than the well-I'd-better-be-good-for-Santa-Claus type. But if both of these individuals are acting considerately, I don't so much care what motivates them.

I'm more concerned with our attitudes toward death (especially for the purposes of this post). On this count, most everybody, no matter their world view, misses the point, either holding tight to a fairy-tale or doing what they can to ignore or deny the messy process. I'm happy that we aren't a culture of death and sacrifice, but we operate at the other extreme, trivializing or ignoring mortality.

Arthur Cohen, a now deceased, once prominent rabbi, eloquently makes the case against the rejection of the corporeal and natural. He writes,
"We achieve the ridiculous posture of having removed...precisely that dimension of our own being which is like that of nature - incommunicate, solitary, unyielding, silent, and interior. We make nature into the fully caused, into the known and the knowable, and in doing so we separate ourselves from the same matrix of flesh and bone and tissue which makes us like the very organs of nature. It is our assumption that nature is unconscious and that being unconscious it is external, static, without history and connectedness, and finally without a meaning for us, except as it gets in our way, or as we pretend that the Uncreated Creator uses the majestic power of nature to chastise our rebelliousness."

But secular culture doesn't get off easily, either. Secular agnostics and atheists like yourself tend to argue that the rational world view jettisons fantastic religious dogma, but retains reason, wonder and morality. That would certainly be a wonderful world to live in! Alas, it is but another fairy tale. Secular society replaces religion with the economy. Everything, including our perception of self, is commodified, and our sense of community is constricted (along with our moral intelligence). Death, in this world, is only an anxiety...a crash of the financial markets.

I realize that a great many individuals of both stripes - the strident atheist and the devout fundamentalist - do have healthy attitudes toward death. Generally, however, we have a very unhealthy intellectual and spiritual relationship with death; it needs mending.

Josh Dooley said...


Thanks for making that change:) I totally agree with your perceptions about our unhealthy attitude toward death.