A good death

I just got back this morning from a trip to the old country to visit my extended family. It was, without question, the single most painful journey I've ever undertaken, for a number of reasons.

At a certain point in your life, people important to you from your past start leaving this world. It's only natural and normal; we live, we die, and hopefully, if we did things right, we leave this world just a little bit better than the way we entered it. Yet there are few things more difficult than watching the slow, terrible decline of a once-brilliant mind and a once-strong body into a shadow of its former strength, while knowing that there is nothing much that you can do about it except observe and hope. This is exactly what I had to watch when I went back to my country of origin (it's not really my "home" country anymore, not in any meaningful sense) and see my grandfather.

Things Fall Apart

My grandfather and I were always very close. I didn't see him more than once a year or so while growing up, mostly due to the distances involved, but we always shared a strong bond. He always loved literature, history, and art, and he passed a strong appreciation for those same things on to me. (Well... the first two, anyway, I'm still a complete heathen when it comes to famous artworks.) Every time I went back as a child and then as a young adult, I made it a point to spend time talking to him; I can still hear his soft-spoken, quietly dignified voice telling me stories of his past even now. Yet today he is increasingly senile, practically reverting to a childlike state. He has to be helped everywhere he goes. He is unable to eat by himself; his eyesight is poor; his motor control is shot; whatever strength he once had is gone. He lacks significant control over his own bodily functions. His mental faculties are declining rapidly with age. Granted, he is over 90, which in and of itself is a tremendous achievement, but watching him go through that reversion to an almost child-like state, with signs of advancing senility and dementia, is extremely painful to watch.

And it is even more so for my father, who (as he says repeatedly) is looking at a picture of what life could be like for him 30 years from today.

It was not a pleasant picture, and it quietly terrifies him.

Come to think of it, that terrifies me too.

More generally, this visit was a startling reminder of our doomed existence on this Earth. Certain people we have known for decades are no longer with us- and every time my parents hear of yet another acquaintance that has passed away, I can see their faces grow a little more grim, for they know deep down that their turn will come someday too. Thankfully they, at least for the moment, know that their legacy will be a happy one. Our house here is quiet, yet filled with memories of life and laughter and works of art, music, and literature; the house in the old country is quiet too, but it is a mausoleum, filled with nothing much more than pictures of dead people, where the books are eaten away by worms and moths and prized possessions are quietly stolen by random visitors, and our once-tight bonds of family and love have been irreparably shattered by issues that I can't even begin to get into.

That got me thinking- is it really true that a man's final years of life must by definition be filled with pain, suffering, and the inexorable rot of time?

The Primal Way...

As far as I can see, the answer is more complicated than one might think. And I, for one, do not necessarily believe that old age must, by definition, mean the prolonged destruction of one's critical and cognitive faculties.


The latest research shows that, during Paleolithic times, if a child survived the very high infant mortality rates of that time to reach his tenth birthday (or thereabouts), and if he maintained himself well during his lifetime by eating well, staying fit, and avoiding serious injury, he could reasonably expect to live to 70, 80, or even beyond. And the good news is, those who did live to see such ripe old ages remained highly active until they basically keeled over and died (or passed away in their sleep).


There are two reasons I bring this up. The first is simple enough: I've watched my grandfather's decline and I've firmly decided that I want nothing to do with a fate like that. There is a very good reason why warrior cultures around the world viewed death in battle as the ultimate end that a man could achieve. To me, a good, clean death, after a life lived in service to one's family and people, is preferable by far to any amount of time spent trapped inside a decaying shell of a body, totally dependent upon others just to feed yourself.

The second reason has much more to do with the lifestyle changes I've made over the last few years. As I've noted before, I eat right, I lift really heavy weights, I get as much sleep as I can, I read a lot (duh), and as a result I am what Tempest rather picturesquely describes as "disgustingly healthy". However, every time I revisit my country of origin, I am reminded in extremely stark terms just how odd the Paleo/Primal approach to life really is.

... is the Outcast's Way

Where I come from, the dietary staple is rice. If people don't eat rice, they eat wheat- or durum wheat-based products, usually fried in some kind of vegetable oil to make deep-fried flatbreads. The concept of eating raw vegetables is virtually unheard of- even today, it's very difficult to find a "salad" in my home town. You ask for one, in fact, and the waiter will probably look at you like you've grown an extra head. Vegetables are cooked, and cooked again, and cooked some more, until they become this nasty horrible mushy substance that, in my opinion, loses EVERY good quality of a good salad and tastes awful to boot.

Meat dishes are rare; my people eat river fish very heavily, which would be great if we didn't insist on cooking everything into a curry- to me, eating fish in any fashion other than raw, grilled, seared, or baked, with only light seasoning, is completely pointless because it destroys the original taste of the fish. When meat is served, it's virtually always served with gravy; oven-baked meats are a feature of the northern parts of my country, not the eastern parts where I'm from.

And my people looooove their sweets. After every meal, it is customary to eat foods so heavily laced in sugar that eating just one such sweet will cause your insulin levels to go completely haywire. Really good dark chocolate is virtually unheard of; most dark chocolate goes to at most 50% cacao, and that's far too sweet for me.

When you combine all of this with the increasingly sedentary population of my country, and its growing wealth, you get a very scary picture. It also means that I have immense problems dealing with the food every time I go back; I caused no small amount of grief for my parents when I was there because I basically refused to eat most things, since I just can't stand them. (Is it a little weird that I'm having dreams about scrimshawing T-bones with my teeth, after over a week of virtually no red meat?) In fact I wouldn't be surprised to learn that I lost mass during my week there, what with the combination of food that I didn't like and near-total lack of real exercise.

You see the results of this everywhere you go. Driving around the streets of my home town, I see very few genuinely fit, genuinely attractive people- and remember, you don't have to be thin to be fit, and vice versa. Everyone is overweight, everyone is unfit, and it's getting worse; my own cousins started out thin and grew to be quite fat simply through eating the way they've been taught all their lives to eat, and not exercising. The people who are truly thin are often very poor, which means that by definition, they don't get a whole lot to eat. The rising middle-class, though, is getting both fatter and weaker, particularly the older folks.

Meanwhile, I'm going the other way- I've never been fitter, stronger, or sharper. And it's becoming very obvious that people like me are complete outliers. With a bit of luck, though, that will turn out to be a very Good Thing.

A Warrior's Death

This is just anecdotal evidence. Unfortunately, the research out there backs me up nowadays, and it is becomingly increasingly clear that the modern dogma of high-carb/low-fat diets combined with sedentary lifestyles is simply wrong. And look at what it's doing to us as a result. We're living longer, sure- but then so did our ancient ancestors. The longest-lived specimens of ancient humans lived just as long as modern humans do- just not nearly in the same kinds of numbers, because they lacked the benefits of modern medicine and therefore lacked the ability to heal from serious trauma and injury.

To avoid the misery of a slow and ignominious death, take charge of your life- no matter what your age- and start making some very important changes:
  • Eat as well as you can afford to. We are highly-evolved apex predators; eat like one to the greatest extent possible. That means protein and fat should be the cornerstones of your diet.
  • Get your ass moving. Sprints are good; weights are better. I'm no underwear model, but it's safe to say that after tossing out seven years' worth of cardio-bunny/light-weight training and going wholeheartedly into lifting heavy s*** and martial arts, I look pretty good.
  • Rest. Sleep right- at least 8 hours a day if you can, no less than 6 if you can't.
  • Indulge in wine, women, and song (within reason). Seriously. Red wine is really good for you. Loose women, maybe not so much, but sex and love are vital- just ask her. And as for song... well, see the clip at the bottom of this post (dltaylor81, this means you).
  • Keep your mind strong and active. If you can read, then read as much as possible. If you're old and you can't, use audiobooks or keep your mind sharp through conversation.
  • Avoid trauma. If you've injured something while lifting or running, take a day or two to rest it. This is, I readily admit, a big problem for me. I probably have mild, undiagnosed OCD; I hate skipping workouts. Most people will come up with exercises not to exercise; I'll come up with excuses not to not exercise. The fact remains, though, that you need to take care of your body to the greatest extent possible.

Life is meant to be lived, to be sure. When it comes to death, though, I do not believe that our modern understanding of what it means to die- through the miserable, cancerous destruction of our bodies and, worse, our minds- makes any sense. Living life to the fullest means eating right, lifting heavy stuff, being a fully developed sexual person- and then dying a good death. I do believe that how we confront death also determines whether we have lived a good life.

Or, in the words of Tecumseh:
So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide. Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none. When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision. When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way.
Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.

Comments

  1. It doesn't have to be like that.

    http://sens.org/

    ReplyDelete
  2. One of my grandfathers died a lingering death as well. His mind remained, for the most part, sharp until the end but his body pretty much disintegrated under him. For the last year of his life he relived his war experiences every night in his sleep to the point where my grandmother had to sleep in a different room.

    He lived long enough to see his first great grandson and after my wife left the room, my grandfather waived me over and said something that haunts me to this day: "I have lived too long, but still I survive." At this point he couldn't really walk, couldn't hold his head up for very long and arthritis had frozen his hands.

    I cried for hours after that.

    ReplyDelete
  3. hi, same person from your latest post...

    there's a great line from patton where he says

    "how i hate the modern world".
    i think that's the primary feeling i have towards life.
    as a brown guy slowly taking full responsibility for my life and going down the hard road of the redpill, i completely sympathize. my father has already almost killed his health with diabetes and preventable diseases, and my mother is next. it's very painful, but you can only fix yourself. god i wish i'd known these things earlier.

    any rate, i plan to live for a very long time and make the best of the next 50 years that i actuarially have. good luck to you on your path my friend.

    may i also suggest blood donation as a health measure? mangan p.d talks about it in a lot of detail.

    love the lucian freud post as well. that's a good one.

    ReplyDelete

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