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Moral Moments

Mysterious Loss, or Something About a Body

by Joel Marks

One day a piece of paper fell from my hand. I stooped to pick it up but it was not there. There was no place it could have gone: This was just the bare corner of a room, the uncarpeted floor abutting the walls. But the page had vanished. Several plausible, I suppose I should say probable, alternative explanations coursed through my mind; for example, “It has slipped into a hidden crevice.” But I was really baffled. I let it go. What else could I do?

As unusual an experience as that was, it represents a commonplace: the loss of something. I do not believe in magic, so I entertain no ‘metaphysical’ hypotheses about the paper’s whereabouts. The page was still in the world somewhere; I just did not know exactly where. I could even estimate its vicinity … surely within a mile of the room, and most likely right inside the room. It had not slipped into another ‘dimension’. The situation was no more mysterious than losing one’s wallet or, as we say, ‘misplacing’ one’s keys. They are still in a place, but just not the place we expected them to be, such as our pocket.

But the experience gave me to think: Do we not also speak of the ‘loss’ of a loved one? That terminology may similarly suggest that a person who has died has gone to another place. At one moment she was here; the next moment she is … in heaven? Certainly a person can go missing. And for that person herself, the experience might also be of being lost, in the sense of not knowing where she herself has arrived; but she is someplace. It happens all the time. Death seems just a special instance of that; hence also we speak of the departed.

I have experienced death first-hand only once so far. It was of a dog, my wife’s beloved Teddi. We brought her to the vet to be euthanized. Teddi lay in my wife’s lap. She was weak but had enough energy to give me one last long lick. “Oh, Teddi,” I uttered spontaneously. Then the doctor inserted the long needle, and right before my eyes, this lovely creature simply… I don’t know what.

It was for me as poignant as the death of Socrates in the Phaedo. I had never been so overwhelmed by grief. My wife and I could have cried forever. But even more than grief there was … bewilderment. How could Teddi… simply not be? What had happened to Teddi? Had she… gone away? But here before me was the only Teddi I had ever known. Was Teddi really something else? And if so, where had she gone?

After all, had we not now lost her? How many times I had witnessed the escape of one of my wife’s dogs. We all – Linda, her sons, myself – wandered through the streets, crying out her name, in search of a lost dog. The dog was somewhere in the neighborhood, of course. We always found her. But where, now, was Teddi to be found?

If you ask the wrong question, you will never find an answer, or not the correct one. Teddi did not go anywhere; she ceased to exist. To speak of ‘losing’ someone is just another euphemism, like ‘putting to sleep’ for euthanizing. It expresses a fond hope: the person will wake up, the person will be found. In a word: The parting is not permanent.

But there is something very interesting to ponder about all of this: What does happen when a being dies? If the person has not relocated, has she at least undergone a change (now she is alive, now she is dead)? But I think that is not a proper description either. Ceasing to exist is not a change of something, for the something no longer is. If a flame gets hotter, it changes (in temperature and color); but if it is extinguished, there is no longer any flame that could have changed in any way. If a person grows older, then she has changed; but when she dies, there is no person anymore.

Something does change, however, and that, I now realize, is a body. For a certain duration, say three-score-years-and-ten, a human body may be alive, and then it will be dead. When it is alive, or alive in a certain way, say, ‘viable’, a person exists; when it is dead, the person no longer exists. Typically the body continues to exist, but undergoes this change, from being a person to being a corpse. Sometimes the body goes out of existence at the moment that the period of personhood ends, as in an atomic blast; but never will the person outlast the body, no more than an ocean wave could outlast the water. There is no further metaphysics to puzzle over. It is a marvelous thing, to be sure, that a body can sometimes be a person. But it is not fundamentally mysterious.

A simile: a person is like a car with its engine running. When in gear, the car is ‘awake.’ When the car is idling in neutral, it is like the human body of the sleeper, who is unable to move in certain ways but still lives and can awaken and reanimate. But when the engine is entirely rusted and can never restart, the car is ‘dead’; yet the car body remains. (If the engine is merely removed and put into another car body, it is rein car nated. Thank you, Swami Beyondananda.) So it is with the person and her body. To say that she has died is really to say that a body has ceased to function and lost the ability to start up again. It was not her body; she was its person!

Recognize, then, that thou art a body, in the way that, analogously, a child is a person. Children can be treated as separate entities, forming clubs and what have you. But they are not really distinct from the persons of whom they are an interval between baby and adult. A child as such does not come into being nor go out of existence; a child is a phase of a changing person. We do not typically mourn the passing of the child into adulthood, but recognize that the person is now an adult (Bar Mitzvah).

Just so, a person is a phase of something else that pre-exists it and survives it: the body perdures. Hence, the ‘passing’ of a person is no cause for perplexity since no literal entity has inexplicably vanished, neither to another location nor even out of existence. The person is like time itself, which also passes; but here again, it does not go anywhere, so nothing has been lost in that sense (although the metaphor can be fruitful, as in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu: In Search of Lost Time).

Of course there could still be ample reason for grieving. We may be sad that a body is no longer alive, just as we would be sad that our toy is broken. In fact we may have lost a great deal: the enjoyment of ‘playing’ with another living body, the possibility of certain joint plans coming to fruition, and so forth. We mourn precisely because what we loved is no more. Our grief may also have a moral component, when we consider opportunities that have been lost to another body in its flowering. But none of these losses are of the kind that implies relocation or unknown location.

Does it make any sense to speak of morality with respect to a body, or to a ‘phase’ of a body? Can we owe something to a body? Can one body owe something to another body? Here again I think the analogy of persons is instructive. For example, we do not assign moral responsibility to a small child, even though a child is a person. Hence, even in our everyday metaphysics, morality is something that is assigned only to a phase of something else, namely, to a person between the age of responsibility and senility. I am only suggesting that the person to whom morality is applicable is itself a certain interval, namely, of a body. Furthermore, we do already recognize moral obligations even to dead bodies, for example, not to desecrate them.

Let us therefore praise the body, honor the body, appreciate the body, take care of the body. For it is the plant that blossoms, not the flower.

© Joel Marks 2009

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. More of his essays can be found at moralmoments.com.

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