August 31, 2020

It’s Reigning Cats and Dogs: The Psychic Lives of Our Pets

One day several years ago, as my girlfriend Lauren and I were out on her patio, a cute little stray kitten wandered in and stopped to look at us. Lauren who loves cats smiled encouragingly and bent down to greet our visitor who then tentatively approached. I immediately dubbed her "Petunia," though we didn’t then know her sex. That was the beginning of a love affair -- between Lauren and Petunia who quickly became Lauren’s most affectionate and devoted companion, displacing me in that hierarchy to a secondary position.  

Lauren soon discovered that not only was Petunia exceedingly affectionate, but she was clearly psychic, too. She always seemed to know, for example, when Lauren was planning to drive across the bay to visit me. And when Lauren would sometimes bring Petunia with her, the cat would invariably hide on the day Lauren was to leave for home. It got to be so that we would have to mime to each other so that Petunia would not know Lauren’s plans.

There were, in fact, so many instances of Petunia’s unusual, seemingly psychic, sensitivities that a few years later, I actually wrote a little illustrated book about her I called Petunia, The Psychic Cat. Here she is:

Indeed, there is abundant evidence that cats are telepathic. Rupert Sheldrake, an exceptionally creative and curious English scientist, has collected many cases of this kind, and not only about cats, in one of the most remarkable books on animals I have ever read. It has a most intriguing title, too:  Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. But there is a lot about cats in this book, too, and in the first part of this essay I am going to draw on it extensively. It begins with this story about a professor at a university of which I happen to be an alumnus:

When the telephone rings in the household of a noted professor at the University of California in Berkeley, his wife knows when her husband is on the other end of the line. How? Whiskins, the family’s silver tabby cat rushes to the telephone and paws at the receiver. "Many times he succeeds in taking it off the hook and makes appreciative meows that are clearly audible to my husband at the other end," she says. "If someone else telephones, Whiskins takes no notice."

This is not an isolated case. Sheldrake writes that he has collected fifty-nine cases (!) of cats who respond to the telephone when a particular person is calling, even before the receiver is picked up. In every instance, the caller is someone to whom the cat is deeply attached.

Here’s another typical example:

Seven years after she acquired Carlo, my daughter went to teacher training college and rang us infrequently. However, when the phone did ring and it was Marian ... Carlo would bound up the stairs [where the phone was] before I had picked up the receiver. There was no way that this cat could have known my daughter was to ring us ... He never did this at any other time and was not allowed upstairs anyway. 

Many cat owners – about one-third, according to a survey that Sheldrake conducted – believe their cats are telepathic. The examples above and those to come will make it clear why so many cat lovers are convinced that this is so.

As the title of Sheldrake’s book implies, he is particularly interested in anticipatory behavior in animals, especially dogs, who give evidence that they are aware when their owners will be returning home. These reports do not depend on anecdotal accounts alone; Sheldrake has actually carried out controlled experiments to establish the point. Here is a summary of a typical such experiment.

A dog owner is sent into town to wander about. At a certain time of her own choosing, she forms an intention to return home. Cameras have been placed in her home so that the movements of her dog can be tracked. Let’s say the dog has been lying on a sofa. However, at the very moment the owner has turned around and has started her trek toward home, the dog suddenly jumps off the sofa and pads over to the door to wait for his owner to return.

There are many cases of such astonishing anticipatory behavior in dogs in Sheldrake’s book and many other marvelous stories about the amazing things that dogs are capable of, so I highly recommend this book to any of you who are dog lovers. But, as I remarked in my previous blog about animals, since I fancy cats and am actually a bit averse to dogs, the rest of this essay will concern itself with the wonders of cats.

However, before moving on, I should note that cats, too, can exhibit in the same kind of anticipatory behavior as dogs. Here’s just one such example:

When the son of Dr. Carlos Sarasola was living with him in  Buenas Aires, he often came home late at night, after his father had gone to bed with their cat, Lennon. Dr. Sarasola noticed that Lennon would suddenly jump off the bed and go and wait by the front door ten or fifteen minutes before his son arrived home by taxi. Dr. Sarasola made careful observations of the time the cat responded to see if the cat could be responding to the sound of the taxi door shutting. He found that the cat responded well before the taxi arrived. "One night I paid attention to several taxis that stopped at the front of my building. Three taxis stopped and Lennon remained quiet with me in bed. Some time later, he jumped down and went to the door. Five minutes later I heard the taxi arrive in which my son was traveling."

Cats seem to be very sensitive not only to the emotional state of their owners – there are countless examples of that and this is well known – but are especially telepathically attuned to accidents, illness and death. Here are a couple of illustrative cases that Sheldrake provides.

In May 1994 I sat outside on the veranda, and my three-year-old cat, Klaerchen, lay beside me purring comfortably. My eleven-year-old daughter had gone out with her girlfriend on her bicycle. Everything seemed harmonious, but suddenly Klaerchen jumped up, uttered a cry we had never heard before and in a flash ran into the living room where she sat down in front of the telephone. The phone soon rang and I got the news that my daughter had had a bad accident with the bike and had been taken to the hospital.

We had a beautiful Carthusian tomcat that we all loved, but he loved my husband most of all. In the summer holidays we went camping in Denmark and left the cat at an animal home in Switzerland [where we lived]. In Denmark my husband, who was forty-eight years old and had never been ill, died of a heart attack. When we went to pick up our cat the lady told us she knew exactly when a tragedy had happened to us and then gave us the exact day and hour, which she could not have known! Our tomcat had withdrawn into a corner and whined in a way he had never done before, staring at a certain point in front of him as if he observed something special, his whole body shaking.

Cats seem to sense the onset of death, even when there may have been no discernible sign of it beforehand. Again, there are many examples of this kind of premonition in cats, and we will soon consider in detail a couple of such cases, but for now, here is one last brief such account from Sheldrake’s book.

Dorothy Doherty says that the day before her husband collapsed and died, their cat continually rubbed around his legs. "I remember him saying, 'What’s wrong with her today?' As she had never been so persistent before, I have often wondered if she knew what was to happen."

About the certainty of that kind of presentiment, there was no doubt in the case of Oscar the Cat, whose remarkable story was sent to me by colleague. It was originally written by Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician at Rhode Island Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, and published in a journal in 2007. Here’s the story, which was entitled "A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat." You will find it charmingly written, almost like a fable, but it nevertheless is based in fact.

Oscar the Cat awakens from his nap, opening a single eye to survey his kingdom. From atop the desk in the doctor’s charting area, the cat peers down the two wings of the nursing home’s advanced dementia unit. All quiet on the western and eastern fronts. Slowly, he rises and extravagantly stretches his 2-year-old frame, first backward and then forward. He sits up and considers his next move.

In the distance, a resident approaches. It is Mrs. P., who has been living on the dementia unit’s third floor for 3 years now. She has long forgotten her family, even though they visit her almost daily. Moderately disheveled after eating her lunch, half of which she now wears on her shirt, Mrs. P. is taking one of her many aimless strolls to nowhere. She glides toward Oscar, pushing her walker and muttering to herself with complete disregard for her surroundings. Perturbed, Oscar watches her carefully and, as she walks by, lets out a gentle hiss, a rattlesnake-like warning that says "leave me alone." She passes him without a glance and continues down the hallway. Oscar is relieved. It is not yet Mrs. P.’s time, and he wants nothing to do with her.

Oscar jumps down off the desk, relieved to be once more alone and in control of his domain. He takes a few moments to drink from his water bowl and grab a quick bite. Satisfied, he enjoys another stretch and sets out on his rounds. Oscar decides to head down the west wing first, along the way sidestepping Mr. S., who is slumped over on a couch in the hallway. With lips slightly pursed, he snores peacefully -- perhaps blissfully unaware of where he is now living. Oscar continues down the hallway until he reaches its end and Room 310. The door is closed, so Oscar sits and waits. He has important business here.

Twenty-five minutes later, the door finally opens, and out walks a nurse’s aide carrying dirty linens. "Hello, Oscar," she says. "Are you going inside?" Oscar lets her pass, then makes his way into the room, where there are two people. Lying in a corner bed and facing the wall, Mrs. T. is asleep in a fetal position. Her body is thin and wasted from the breast cancer that has been eating away at her organs. She is mildly jaundiced and has not spoken in several days. Sitting next to her is her daughter, who glances up from her novel to warmly greet the visitor. "Hello, Oscar. How are you today?"

Oscar takes no notice of the woman and leaps up onto the bed. He surveys Mrs. T. She is clearly in the terminal phase of illness, and her breathing is labored. Oscar’s examination is interrupted by a nurse, who walks in to ask the daughter whether Mrs. T. is uncomfortable and needs more morphine. The daughter shakes her head, and the nurse retreats. Oscar returns to his work. He sniffs the air, gives Mrs. T. one final look, then jumps off the bed and quickly leaves the room. Not today.

Making his way back up the hallway, Oscar arrives at Room 313. The door is open, and he proceeds inside. Mrs. K. is resting peacefully in her bed, her breathing steady but shallow. She is surrounded by photographs of her grandchildren and one from her wedding day. Despite these keepsakes, she is alone. Oscar jumps onto her bed and again sniffs the air. He pauses to consider the situation, and then turns around twice before curling up beside Mrs. K.

One hour passes. Oscar waits. A nurse walks into the room to check on her patient. She pauses to note Oscar’s presence. Concerned, she hurriedly leaves the room and returns to her desk. She grabs Mrs. K.’s chart off the medical-records rack and begins to make phone calls. Within a half hour the family starts to arrive. Chairs are brought into the room, where the relatives begin their vigil. The priest is called to deliver last rites. And still, Oscar has not budged, instead purring and gently nuzzling Mrs. K.

A young grandson asks his mother, "What is the cat doing here?" The mother, fighting back tears, tells him, "He is here to help Grandma get to heaven." Thirty minutes later, Mrs. K. takes her last earthly breath. With this, Oscar sits up, looks around, then departs the room so quietly that the grieving family barely notices.

On his way back to the charting area, Oscar passes a plaque mounted on the wall. On it is engraved a commendation from a local hospice agency: "For his compassionate hospice care, this plaque is awarded to Oscar the Cat." Oscar takes a quick drink of water and returns to his desk to curl up for a long rest. His day’s work is done. There will be no more deaths today, not in Room 310 or in any other room for that matter. After all, no one dies on the third floor unless Oscar pays a visit and stays awhile.

Note: Since he was adopted by staff members as a kitten, Oscar the Cat has had an uncanny ability to predict when residents are about to die. Thus far, he has presided over the deaths of more than 25 residents on the third floor of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. His mere presence at the bedside is viewed by physicians and nursing home staff as an almost absolute indicator of impending death, allowing staff members to adequately notify families. Oscar has also provided companionship to those who would otherwise have died alone. For his work, he is highly regarded by the physicians and staff at Steere House and by the families of the residents whom he serves.


Moved by this story when I first read it, I sent it to my daughter Kathryn who, like her father before her and possibly because of him, has always loved cats and lived with them for most of her life. Kathryn was not surprised to read his story in part because she had one to match it.

This is what she wrote to me after reading about Oscar the Cat. In it, she will describe what she witnessed after she brought her mother, Elizabeth, who was ill with cancer, to live with her and her husband, Bill.

When we first brought Elizabeth back to the house, she was extraordinarily sick -- barely functioning, barely talking. We set her up in the little bedroom and she stayed in bed. Little Princess was a cat that lived down the street. She didn’t have a good home life and for a while before Elizabeth came, she would come up to our house and we would pet her on the back patio, but she would never come in and we would never feed her. Then she would go home and come back when she wanted -- sometimes that next day, sometimes a few days later. The day that we brought Elizabeth home, Princess came up came on the back patio, walked in the back door and went right straight to Elizabeth’s room. The cat had never been in the house. She jumped up on the bed and she walked around Elizabeth and then settled right down next to her. 

Elizabeth had had surgery and her stomach area was very tender. But this cat knew not to walk on her stomach. Princess would walk across her shoulders, would curl up by her head, by her side, and by her feet, even lying on her legs but never on her stomach. Princess stayed with Elizabeth so long that the neighbor who owned the cat started calling around the neighborhood trying to find the cat. The cat finally decided that she should go home. But the next day she was back and she continued to come back every day and stay with Elizabeth all day.

Elizabeth loved cats. Even in her befuddled state she was absolutely thrilled that the cat was with her and she would smile when the cat walked in the room and was just happy to have her there. This went on for a couple of weeks. But Elizabeth was so bad that I had to put her in a nursing home and while Elizabeth was gone the cat would come in and go to her room and look for her.

Sometime during this period when Elizabeth was in the nursing home, the woman who owned the cat was going to move and she was looking for somebody to take all of her animals -- she had three cats and one dog. Bill and this neighbor did not get along at all, but when we heard that she was going to give the cats away, we contacted her through a different neighbor and they told her that we were interested in taking the one cat. She finally called Bill and said that we had to take two cats because they were sisters but we said that we only wanted the one cat. She told us "Well, you can’t have either one then." A couple of weeks later she called us and said we could have the one cat and she would leave the paperwork in the mailbox and we could have the cat when she moved. So she left the paperwork in the mailbox and was supposed to bring the cat by but instead she called us and said "Well, sorry -- the cat jumped into the moving van with us so we just took her." We had already told Elizabeth that we were getting the cat for when she came home and she was, of course, devastated. 

Two weeks later our neighbor (who had facilitated the deal) called us at the apartment and said "Aren’t you taking care of your cat?" "We said, what cat?" He said the cat you got from the neighbor. We said we didn’t get the cat -- she took her with her. He said "Well, the cat is right here in my yard and she looks terrible -- she’s all messy and matted." We said we would be will be right there! 

We went the home and there’s the cat. We took her to the vet, got her cleaned up, shaved and she became our little Princess. Elizabeth was thrilled -- couldn’t wait to get home to see the cat. The cat immediately recognized her, stayed with her constantly and they were a happy couple for the entire time that Elizabeth was there. Elizabeth was definitely this cat’s charge. 

Elizabeth had gotten well enough during part of the time that she was home to use her computer. She had a printer, and after she died, I noticed there was a printout on the printer that was entitled "When cats grieve." The article from the Internet was all about how to take care of a cat after their master died. So goes the story of Princess and Elizabeth. But it didn’t stop there.

Nita [Bill’s mother who also lived in the house], who did not like cats and put up with the fact that we had adopted little Princess really did like little Princess a little bit. When Nita got sick and started to go downhill, Princess would jump up on her lap and sit with her during the day and comfort her just like she had done with Elizabeth. And when Nita was much closer to death, little Princess would climb up on her bed and stay with her just like she’d done with Elizabeth.

So believe me, we know that cats really do understand when people are sick and they do try to take care of them in a lot of cases. Elizabeth was happier and I believed lived longer because Princess cared for her. 

After Elizabeth died [she had to be moved to a hospice before her death], Princess constantly went into her room looking for her. It was probably the better part of a month before she stopped. She did the same thing when Nita died, but not for as long. 

Princess knew she was supposed to find and take care of Elizabeth and she did. It’s not like we brought her into the house. She marched right in the open back door and ran through the house like a kitty with a purpose to find Elizabeth. Elizabeth suffered a lot while she fought her terminal battle and little Princess softened her struggles. She could bring a smile to Elizabeth’s face when no one else could. She was one of Elizabeth’s last thoughts as she left us that article so we could take care of Princess’s own grief. As we found out, cats grieve too. 


Our pets grieve for us when we die, and God knows that when one of our beloved pets die, we are broken-hearted and mourn for them. I have seen so many women weep with anguish on such occasions, and we men, too, are not immune from deep grief on suffering the loss of pet. Indeed, the death of a pet with whom we have shared such an intimate life for many years can be more devastating than the death of a person, and often is.  

We form such deep bonds with our pets, and they with us, that to experience a final, wrenching separation is often hard to endure. Never to see our pets again? That is a sorrowful thought indeed.


For many people, whether they have heard of near-death experiences or not, the thought that we may after death be reunited with our own loved ones is a powerful source of hope and often a deep-seated belief. And the many accounts of NDEs we now have where such encounters have been reported only bolster those beliefs. I know that, for my part, I cherish the hope that when I die, assuming I can ever get around to it, I will see members of my family again, particularly my father whom I lost, seemingly for good, when I was a child.

But then we love our pets, too. Is it too much to hope that we will never see them again as well? Or is it possible ....

Be sure to check out my next blog to find out the answer to the question whether when a pet dies, does he or she really disappear for good?

August 24, 2020

Confessions of a Retarded Animal Lover

 By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Nature and I are two. - Woody Allen

I’ve always loved that quip of Woody’s, probably because I identify with it. For much of my life, and even to some extent today, I have felt not only removed from nature but alien to it. Some years ago, I wrote a memoir about my father from whom I was separated at an early age and who died when he was scarcely forty years old. I called it My Father, Once Removed. If I were to write about my life in nature, I could give it a similar title.  

Didn’t Thomas Carlyle, who was not a fan of things mechanical, somewhere assert that "machines are inherently aggressive?" Well, I could say something akin to that sentiment about nature – that it is inherently frightening, at least to me. But I know I’m not the only one who thinks this way about nature. I remember when I was young reading the books of a man named Eric Hoffer – he was a self-educated longshoreman whose books were very popular when I was a kid – where he said much the same thing about nature in trying to counter the typical romantic blather about it. Nature is fine on a sunny day in the park, but if you get caught in a sudden thunderstorm in the woods, it is not your friend; it could kill you. 

I don’t know how I got to feel this way, but unlike many kids, I did not grow up with animals. In neither my mother’s home nor that of my aunt’s where I also spent a lot of time when I was growing up were there any pets. Not having a father, no one took me camping, fishing or hunting either. I even flunked out of cub scouts because I couldn’t figure out how to tie a knot properly. I knew that I was descended from a long line of Lithuanian rabbis; what I was good at was reading books and studying. That was the world where I felt at home. Jews are urban people anyway. We didn’t farm; we made money (although I was never much good at that either, come to think of it).

I also had another problem growing up that helped to make me a misfit in nature. I was born with a congenital nystagmus that left me with very poor vision and a wayward sense of balance. No one even discovered my visual problems until I was six years old. Before that, I guess I was walking around like a child version of Mr. Magoo.  

You can’t become much of a naturalist if you can’t see. I can’t tell you how many times I would be walking with a friend who would suddenly stop to point out a beautiful bird in a tree. I could see the tree. Or I remember a time when I was walking by the Pacific Ocean in Monterey with a good friend when she stopped to look at how the sea lions were cavorting. I could see the water. I could never see well enough to make out anything. In order to learn to appreciate nature, of course I had to read books about it, such as Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I could be in nature, but I could never experience it the way most people could. Where nature was concerned, I was a hopeless retard!  

But that was to change when I was in my mid-thirties. It was then that I had my first LSD experience, which took place mainly when I was ambling around in the woods not far from the University of Connecticut where I was teaching.

That experience was a revelation to me at many levels, and it totally changed my feelings about nature. I remember looking at a certain tree and realizing as if for the first time that it was alive – and holy. For a long time after that experience, I could no longer look at trees in the same way I had been used to. And after that, I spent a lot of time tramping through the nearby woods. I would go there as often as possible, both for pleasure and as a place of refuge. I would drag my kids there, too, who were not keen to go and would complain. But I was at home in nature now, and when I could travel to places, such as Colorado, where there were mountains, I learned to love to hike up them. Of course, I was never much of a hiker, given my physical limitations, but hiking became one of the supreme recreational pleasures of my life. It’s only been in the last few years that I was no longer able to hike. I miss it terribly.  

My views about animals have changed, too, and I will get to that since that is what I really want to focus on in this essay but first I need to say a little about my feelings about the two types of pets we are most familiar with – cats and dogs.

It’s often said, simplistically, that there are two kinds of people in the world: dog people and cat people. Well, I am definitely a cat person. And I always have been. Even though I didn’t grow up with them, once I got married and had kids of my own, cats became a part of my life. I feel about them the way the ancient Egyptians did. They are divine creatures, and truly one of the jewels of evolution’s experiments. There’s an old song from South Pacific, "There is Nothing Like a Dame." For me, there is nothing like a cat. Nietzsche said "Without music life would be a mistake." I would say the same for cats. A catless world would be an abomination. I trust I have made myself clear. 

As for dogs, I would be happy to live in a world without them. They may be "man’s best friend," but they are not mine. Oh, I know there are touching stories about men and their dogs, one by Thomas Mann called in fact "A Man and His Dog," or the famous story by J. R. Ackerley, about his dog Tulip (though it was actually named Queenie), and many others. Fine, to each his own. But, frankly, some dogs look like unmade beds to me, and I really can’t abide their slobbering tongues, their panting, their fearsome teeth, their annoying barks, and their slavish loyalty. When my second wife suddenly arrived one day with a large matted four-legged thing, who proceeded to jump on me, seeking out my gonads, I immediately named him Albatross, and his name, shortened to Alby, stuck. I’m sure he was responsible for our fighting like cats and dogs ourselves (you will know who was who) and in part for our later divorce. I’m sorry if I have offended you, if you are a dog lover, but I hope to redeem myself in my next blog when I will have some wonderful things to say about dogs who don’t live with me.  

In fact, I will soon have some wonderful things to say about animals, period, because in recent years I have become fascinated with books about animal intelligence (or "animal cognition," as it is now usually called) as well as the emotional life of animals. Indeed, I now have a slew of books in my library – well over a dozen – dealing with various facets of the lives of animals and am currently reading a new one on animal languages. For somebody who didn’t grow up with animals, I am now growing old with them, and what I have learned about them has been a source of endless wonderment and enchantment. Of course, I admit I am really not spending my time with actual animals; I am limited merely to doing my usual thing – reading about them. But that’s been enough to thrill me with what I’m learning about them and why I’m keen to share some of that knowledge with you in the remainder of this essay.   

The thing that’s new in animal studies, and what has particularly excited me, has been the focus on the inner lives of animals. Perhaps surprisingly, in recent years animal researchers have learned a great deal about how animals think, what they feel, what kind of emotional lives they have, and most intriguingly, about the structure of the languages they use to communicate with one another and to us. Consider, for example, the titles or sub-titles of the following books, which are representative of these new directions in the exploration of the lives of animals.

Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves by Frans de Waal. (De Waal is world famous for his forty years of research on chimpanzees.) In this illuminating book, de Waal shows us how similar the emotional lives of chimps are to our own. After beginning with the very moving story of the death of the chimp, Mama, de Waal shows us that humans are not the only species with the capacity for love, hate, fear, shame, guilt, joy, disgust and empathy. There is no sharp dividing line between us and them; we all animals after all and we share a continuum with all life.   

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina.(Safina, a MacArthur Fellow and a marvelous writer – I even wrote him a fan letter and he responded most graciously – in this book writes about the inner lives of elephants, wolves and killer whales.)  I can’t resist quoting just a short passage from the book jacket, which echoes de Waal’s sentiments: 

Beyond Words brings forth powerful and illuminating insight into the unique personalities of animals through extraordinary stories of animal joy, grief, jealousy, anger, and love. The similarity between human and nonhuman consciousness, self-awareness, and empathy calls us to reevaluate how we interact with animals.
The Soul of An Octopus: A surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery. (Montgomery is another accomplished writer and naturalist. She lives with a flock of chickens and a border collie – and did you know that one border collie learned the names of a thousand toys and understands grammar? Yes!) Of course, when it comes to octopuses (yes, that’s the plural – not octopi!), we encounter a creature vastly different from ourselves. For one thing, their brain is distributed through their arms, but Montgomery, too, wants to explore their emotional lives and how they come to experience and navigate the world. I defy anyone not to be amazed and utterly captivated with the story that Montgomery tells of these extraordinary beings whose evolutionary history is so different from ours. And yet…. 

Modern research into the lives of animals has taken us a long way from Descartes (or Des-car-tees, as my best friend, Stan, in junior high was wont to call him until I gave him some French lessons) who thought that animals, because they could not speak and therefore could not think, were soulless creatures, mere machines (in fact, he called animals bêtes-machines), incapable of experiencing pain. 

Did that man ever look into the eyes of a dog?  

Of course, Descartes was famous for his dictum, cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. But why doesn’t someone ever pose this question: If Descartes had said instead, "I do not think," would he then conclude that he didn’t exist?

I think Descartes, as great a philosopher as he may have been, is over-rated. He may have been a smart cookie, but at least where animals were concerned, he was an arrogant anthropocentric nincompoop.  

But he got his comeuppance. The fabled Queen Christina of Sweden, who was fascinated by Descartes’ ideas, invited him to come to Sweden so she could learn from him. Against his better judgment, Descartes allowed himself to be lured there in the fall of 1649. As a brutally cold winter set in, he was obliged meet with the queen in her unheated library very early in the morning, and because she was the queen, Descartes had to appear bare-headed. Naturally, he developed influenza, which turned into pneumonia, which turned into death. So ended the life of a great philosopher who knew everything about how to think but would die without knowing that animals could think, too, and would never be stupid enough voluntarily to venture into territory which could be expected to be a mortal threat. 

Well, so much for our Cartesian diversion. Let’s return to more intelligent creatures. Take bats, for instance.

Free-tailed bats use echolocation to navigate and to catch prey. They emit sounds that are too high-pitched for human ears to detect. And they sing, too. In recent years, digital technology has revealed that bats are now believed to be the mammals with the most complex form of vocal communication after humans.

These bats not only sing, but each male bat creates his own distinctive song to court females. And these songs are extremely complex and varied, and are constructed like human sentences. The language of bats, therefore, has its own syntax.  

I learned all this from reading a fascinating book I alluded to earlier on the language of animals by a Dutch researcher and philosopher named Eva Meijer. She also revealed to me the secret lives of the lowly prairie dog.   

Prairie dogs live in underground tunnels with different areas for sleeping, giving birth, and getting rid of bodily wastes. Because they have to be vigilant for predators when they surface, they have developed various complex alarm calls that sound a bit like the twittering of birds. Did you ever wonder why these animals are called prairie dogs? It’s because when they are out in force vocalizing their alarm calls, it sounds like the barking of dogs.

But these calls also contain information about the predator, and it is so highly specific as to be almost unbelievable. According to Meijer, in the case of a human predator, for example, they can communicate that it is a human, what color clothes he is wearing, and if he is carrying something like an umbrella or a gun. Different parts of the call change meaning depending on the order of its elements, so that the language of prairie dogs has a simple grammar. Meijer says that research into the language of prairie dogs shows that they use verbs, nouns and adverbs in meaningful ways.

Take that, Descartes!

I wish I had the space to talk about the wonders of larger animals that are more familiar to us, such as chimps and elephants (I have read a number of books about each of them, which have been fascinating to me), but for now, let me mention another creature that is familiar to us all on a daily basis: the crow.  

Crows are among the most intelligent of birds. A number of studies have shown that they can solve complicated puzzles and devise and use tools. They are extraordinarily clever and tales of their prodigious memories are legion. If you threaten or actually injure a crow, that crow will never forget you and will attack you on sight. I have read a number of accounts of this sort of thing, but one of the most fascinating comes from one of the best books on birds you could ever read, Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds.

I just can’t resist quoting this story, which I will lightly edit and slightly abridge here:

A brilliant string of studies over the past five years ... at the University of Washington has revealed the extraordinary abilities of American crows not just to recognize individual humans by their faces but to pass along to other crows information about those whom they deem dangerous. In one experiment, teams of people wandered through several Seattle neighborhoods wearing different sorts of masks. One type of mask in each group represented the "dangerous" mask. The people wearing the dangerous mask captured several wild crows. Other people, wearing "neutral" masks or no mask at all just meandered along harmlessly.

Nine years later, the masked scientists returned to the scene of the crime. The crows in these neighborhoods – including those who weren’t even hatched at the time of the capture -- reacted to the people with the dangerous masks as if they were a threat, dive-bombing, scolding, and mobbing them. 

Moral: Never mistreat a crow or you will pay for it. And also don’t volunteer to carry out any such experiments wearing a threatening mask. You may decide that some scientific experiments are just not worth having to fend off savage crow attacks!

Well, there are so many remarkable stories about animals I would love to regale you with, but this blog can’t go on forever, anymore than I can, so let me conclude with one more topic, which many of you will know has long played a special role in my life: death. In this case, the death of animals.

Can animals actually die?  Of course, they can, you would say. That’s obvious!  But not to some philosophers. Martin Heidegger, who along with Ludwig Wittgenstein, is generally regarded as the most important philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century, famously held that animals, because they presumably have no concept of death, cannot die; they simply disappear.

Honestly, these philosophers! Some of them deserve to be attacked by a swarm of vengeful, screaming crows.

I have already referred to the fact that animals are capable of empathy, so it won’t surprise you to learn many animals mourn those who have died. Chimps, for example, and the mourning rituals of elephants are well known. (I could easily write pages about elephants in this connection; the stories I have collected about them are deeply moving.) What isn’t well known is that giraffes and foxes also mourn their dead. There is even a remarkable story about a gorilla who used sign language to describe the death of his parents by poachers.   

And there are our crows again whose mourning of their dead comrades is especially affecting. I have read several very touching stories, especially in Ackerman’s book, about the way crows gather around the body of a dead crow, and often return to drop twigs or a piece of grass over its body.  

In fact, when I was talking about such rituals to my girlfriend Lauren a few days ago, she volunteered that she already knew all this from her own experience and proceeded to tell me about something she had witnessed herself a few years ago. After listening to her account, I asked her if she would be good enough to write it out for me so that I could use it in this essay. Lauren indeed was "good enough," so here it is in her own words:

There is a set of wires that intersect in front of my house. One goes to my home, and another is attached to a pole across the street that crosses in front of my view, which would otherwise be exposed to a panorama of the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay. One day I heard a terrific uproar at the front of my residence and wondered at the commotion. As the cacophony continued, I investigated only to find crows sitting on the wires abutting one another bawling, rocking back and forth, and in utter distress. There must have been forty of them in lamentation. Why were they crying so piteously?

In a moment of bravery, I walked out my front door, down my steps, and peered into the street at the object of anguish. There to my surprise was a huge crow without a mark on his body, but dead. I looked up at the mourners and said to them, "I am so sorry that your friend has gone." With those words, the crows inexplicably and suddenly became quiet. I picked up the body, which was surprisingly heavy, and said, "I will take care of his body. You may lament him, but I will take guardianship over him." The crows reciprocated with a soothing cooing sound. I was stupefied that my words and actions had such an impact on these beautiful highly intelligent avians. 

I walked with their friend to my backyard noticing that five of them followed me up the driveway and settled in a tree under which I placed his body. They bobbed and swayed and cooed quietly while I went about my preparations. Inside I found a length of fabric with which to wrap his body and returning I picked up a shovel with which to dig his grave. I dug as deep a hole as I could, perhaps a foot and a half deep all the while the mourners remained unchanged, quietly grieving. When I had completed my regrettable task, I covered the grave with an old doormat knowing that one of the night creatures might dig him up. I then placed an antique fireplace grate over the mat to make sure the gravesite would remain untouched.

This is the biggest surprise of all: five of the crows returned each day for five days and remained all day to mourn their friend. Then I noticed that there were only three who came to lament his passing, and they too remained all day for three days. While I can never be sure, I suspect that one still comes each day to pay her respects, and I welcome her.

I need to bring this blog to an end soon, but not quite yet.

Obviously, I could offer you here only a few tidbits, as it were, about the lives of animals based on my reading of books about them. But I hope I have said enough to intrigue some of you to read some of these books yourself. (If you would like a complete list of such books in my own library, please write me.) Of course, books are no substitute for actual physical encounters with animals, but most of us can’t easily arrange to have an elephant in our backyard or to burrow underground looking for prairie dogs. Anyway, in my case and at my advanced age, I am pretty much forced to follow my usual practice – to spend time learning about animals, once removed, in my belated efforts to become an animal lover after all these years malgré moi. It is never too late for an old dog to learn new tricks. 

And speaking of dogs, I haven’t forgotten my promise to say some good things about them in my next blog, which will be about the psychic life of dogs and especially cats, wherein more wondrous stories will be told about the amazing sensitivities of those we call our pets, including what happens to them after they die.

August 17, 2020

What Death Has to Teach Us

 By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Recently I was introduced to an exceptional man by the name of Hitendra Wadhwa. My son-in-law, Craig, who had worked with this man, sent me one of Hitendra's articles on cultivating death awareness, and I was so struck by its wisdom and the luminous quality of Hitendra's writing that I knew I wanted to share it with you. Hitendra kindly gave me permission to do so, and you will find his essay below. I'm sure you will appreciate it as much as I did.

But before you start to read it, I should give you just a little bit of information about Hitendra himself. He is Professor of Practice at Columbia Business School, where he has won many awards, including the Dean's Award for Teaching Excellence. He is also the founder of The Mentora Institute, where he codifies and teaches timeless principles of success in life and leadership based on scientific breakthroughs, ancient wisdom and studies of great leaders. 

Now here’s his essay….

By Hitendra Wadhwa

Is it possible — regardless of what belief we hold about what happens when someone dies — for us to come together, across diverse faiths and traditions, to recognize the same set of truths, principles and implications for how to use our awareness of death to uplift our consciousness and help us to do our best work during our remaining time in this life? If that is a challenge that intrigues you, then read on.

"If I am killed, I can die but once; but to live in constant dread of it, is to die over and over again." — Abraham Lincoln

The cremation ground in Chandigarh, the modern Indian city I grew up in, is located at a discreet distance from the city center. On the rare occasion when our family would find itself driving by it, I would point in its direction and say, "Look! We’re driving by the cremation ground." My mother would frown and bid my sisters and me to look away. It was her way of loving us. She hoped that by having us shun death, death would shun us as well.

We are made to believe that death is our greatest foe. We live in fear of it because it is unavoidable, unpredictable, irreversible and absolute, wresting us and our loved ones away from everything we possess in this life to which we are so attached.

Fear of death

Part of our fear of death is productive. The fear of the virus, for instance, has made many of us, almost overnight, change a number of deep-set habits. Many of us wear face masks, practice social distancing, meet people on Zoom, observe quiet Friday evenings at home, avoid touching our faces, and diligently sanitize our hands. In more normal conditions, when there is no fear, over ninety percent of people give up on their new year’s resolutions, because behavior change is hard to do when there’s no fear or other motivational force.

But part of our fear of death is unproductive. It distracts us, demoralizes us and diminishes us. Since there is no way to guarantee that death will shun us, what might we gain if we stopped shunning death? In the middle of a speech during the Civil War, President Lincoln was criticized by some for showing respect for Southerners instead of seeing them as enemies that should be destroyed. Lincoln responded with a rhetorical question,

"Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?"

Perhaps we too could destroy our unproductive fear of death by making it our friend.

Could death be our friend?

"Keep the prospect of death, exile, and all such apparent tragedies before you every day – especially death – and you will never have an abject thought, or desire anything to excess." — Epictetus

Somerset Maugham once did a retelling of an ancient tale from Mesopotamia where a merchant in Baghdad one day sent his servant to buy provisions from the market. 

The servant came back, white and trembling, saying, "Just now, when I was in the market-place, I was jostled by someone in the crowd. When I turned I saw it was Death that had jostled me. She looked at me in a threatening way. Please lend me your horse for I wish to ride away from this city to escape my fate. I will go to Samarra so she cannot find me."

The merchant lent the horse, and the servant rode away. Then the merchant went to the marketplace and saw Death standing there in the crowd. "Why did you look at my servant in a threatening way this morning?" he asked her. 

"That was not a threatening gesture. I was just acting surprised, because I did not expect to see him here in Baghdad."

"Why so? After all, he lives and works here in Baghdad," said the merchant. "Because," replied Death, "tonight, I am meant to have an appointment with him in Samarra."

The first step toward befriending death is to recognize that it is always hiding behind the veil of our existence. There is nothing we can do to shoo it away. When it decides our time is up, it will pull up the veil and come in to claim us, however powerful we may be. So perhaps we should lift the veil ourselves, look at it in the eye, and make peace with it.

On some occasions, during my meditation practice, I visualize that the time has come for me to pass on. I imagine myself having to walk out of the world I have lived in all these years, out of the lives of the people I have loved, out of every aspect of my mortal identity, out of my own body. How would I respond? 

Powerful and unexpected realizations arise within me. 

"Oh! You should have helped strengthen this one quality in yourself. You should have further prepared your daughter for the world in this way or that way. You should have meditated more. You should have offered more gratitude to those who loved and supported you."

There are other, more positive realizations too.

"I have lived a blessed and meaningful life. I have pursued my purpose. I’m so grateful for all the love I received. Now I will finally experience what lies beyond. I have gone on this same road before. There is nothing to fear. My spirit is ready for this journey into the vast beyond."

Knowing that my life might end any day gives me a clearer view of what is true to me and a surging desire to act in harmony with this truth. I become free and alive – free from social impositions and idle hungers and alive to the need to make every moment count. Steve Jobs would have agreed. He once said:

"Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

Steve had a practice not dissimilar to my own.

"I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been 'No' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."

This kinship with his own mortality guided Steve to have the courage to be true to himself. Once he visited Stanford University to give a talk to the MBA students, and a student, Laurene, caught his eye. As he was departing, he noticed her again, but then remembered he had to be at a business meeting

"I was in the parking lot with the key in the car, and I thought to myself, ‘If this is my last night on earth, would I rather spend it at a business meeting or with this woman?’ I ran across the parking lot, asked her if she’d have dinner with me. She said yes, we walked into town and we’ve been together ever since."

A recent article in Scientific American states:

"Across a series of research studies, Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen and co-authors have shown that ... once life’s fragility becomes a personal truth instead of a philosophical concept that happens to 'other people,' we become more capable of celebrating whatever days and experiences remain to us instead of focusing on everyday hassles. Acknowledging our impermanence makes us more mindful of life’s small moments and our relationships with others."…

American rabbi Joshua L. Liebman writes in his book Peace of Mind:

"Death is not the enemy of life, but its friend, for it is the knowledge that our years are limited which makes them so precious."

Losing a loved one

There is great power also in staying ever-mindful of the possibility of death claiming a loved one – instead of claiming us. It makes us more appreciative of the moments we have with them. We all are guilty of being occasionally distracted, disengaged or disgruntled in the presence of others. Not because we do not love them, but because we do not feel the need to always give them our hundred percent. We expect to have many more opportunities with them tomorrow, the day after, and beyond. But if you were to acknowledge death as an ever-present possibility, you might approach each interaction with a loved one as one that could turn out to be the last. Then would you not take it more seriously and give it your all? Would they not welcome that additional warmth, grace and patience you might bring to the encounter? And when you wrap up a beautiful moment with them, you could whisper a silent "thank you" to your new-found awareness of death for motivating you to give your best in all moments.

After a visit to my parents a few years ago, I was waving a rushed goodbye to my father on my way out. "I will see you again in a few weeks, Dad." I said. Then a thought crossed my mind: "What if there is no next time?" He was eighty-five, and in reasonably good health, so there was no reason to feel this way, but I recognized in that moment the ever-present possibility of death in our lives. I stopped in my tracks, turned and walked toward him, held his hand in my own, and after an unhurried silence, said softly, "Love you, Dad. See you soon." I felt a powerful wave of affection emanating from his deep-set eyes. We both savored the moment. Then I flew to New York, and four days later I received an early morning call from my mother. "Son, I have some news. Your father passed away an hour ago."

I returned to Chandigarh. This time, my mother did not bid my sisters and me to look away as we drove to the same cremation ground we had passed by innocently as children. There is much I miss about my father and much I wish I could have said to him and done for him in life, but this much is clear – I do not regret where my heart and mind were when I held his hand during those treasured moments that turned out to be our last.

Now you might say, "You got lucky, Hitendra – you got that last moment with your dad. In my case, someone I have dearly loved passed away quite suddenly. I did not have that opportunity to be prepared for it or be present for it. How can death be my friend when it summoned them away from life so abruptly?"

I understand. The card of death is the harshest in life’s deck. It is but human to feel the pain of separation when we lose someone we love. And yet, some of the students and executives in my Personal Leadership & Success course at Columbia Business School have shared personal journeys where untimely loss led them, over time, to unexpected riches. The pain someone feels in losing a loved one is a powerful energy, and once the initial shock and grief have been soothed by the passage of time and by one’s own fortitude, some people find a way to direct this energy toward a positive end. A student once shared how he had felt strong grief after the passing of a loved one, but then he realized that the only reason for that grief was because he had been so blessed having had this beautiful friend in his life during her time on earth; if their friendship had not been as special an experience, her loss would not have mattered as much. This realization helped him translate his pain into a feeling of gratitude for the time he got with her. Other students have shared how the loss of a loved one gave them greater motivation to treasure the time they have left with other loved ones, made them take one virtue they really admired in that person and strive to practice it in their own life, or made them more empathetic to the pain other people go through when they lose someone. 

One Columbia alum, a senior executive at a major New York bank, once told me:

"My wife and I lost our daughter when she was three. For some months after her passing, we were inconsolable. What finally got us to make peace with her loss and move on was an orphanage we started in her memory."

The loss of a loved one is irreplaceable, but the grief we feel can become more bearable when it is infused with meaning, when our pain can stand for something. Viktor Frankl, who started a school of psychotherapy focused on helping people find meaning in suffering, shared the following story.

"Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how can I help him? What should I tell him?"

Frankl asked the bereaved man a question: "What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?"

"Oh," he said, "for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!"

Frankl then observed to the man how he had spared his wife this suffering. One of them had to die first, and by surviving his wife, he would need to mourn her so she was spared the pain of mourning him.

"He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice."

Experience of dying

But what about the process of dying? It is revealing – and reassuring – to study the research on near-death experiences (NDEs). These are experiences where people have come very close to dying during an accident or health crisis, where their heart and brain temporarily shut down. Some telling insights emerge from interviewing people who recover from such experiences. 80% of people report a feeling of peacefulness about the near-death experience. When a group of cardiac arrest patients were investigated 2- and then 8-years after their near-death experience, they showed a greater likelihood to have a reduced fear of death, have an increased belief in life after death, take greater interest in the meaning of life, have greater acceptance of others, and be more loving and empathetic.

Here’s a powerful story related by Dr. Kenneth Ring, a pre-eminent researcher in the discipline, on why NDEs make people grow in their empathy. Remarkably, these changes emerged from something they experienced only for a few minutes.

When the time finally came for Steve Jobs to die, he "looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them."

How must he have felt in those final moments where he was shedding all earthly possessions, attachments and identities to become finally, as he had put it, "naked"? We may never know, though we do have a piece of evidence from his sister Patty. 

Steve’s final words were: 'Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.'"

If we follow Gandhi’s precept of "live as if you will die tomorrow," being ever mindful of our highest aspirations and duties and never taking the moments of life for granted, perhaps we will find that when Death finally makes its appointment with us at our own Samarra, we are packed and prepared for the journey that lies ahead.

"Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come."  — Rabindranath Tagore

© 2020 Hitendra Wadhwa | All Rights Reserved

August 3, 2020

What We Don't Want to Think About

In order to delay my seemingly inevitable slide into terminal torpor, I have taken up a new form of exercise that I commend to you all: reading. Of course, you may have heard of this delightful avocation: I can't claim that it is an original discovery. But if my life has entered a stage where dullness is my daily bread, I can tell you that lately I have been feasting on some books that are anything but dull. They are the fuel for my mind that happily distracts me from the sorrows of my body and also keeps me from over-indulging in the unpalatable pap that the cable news networks feed us every day to induce gloom and despair.

Just last night, for instance, I finally finished another tome – this one ran to more than 700 pages – by one of my favorite authors, Mark Helprin, whose books I have extolled in previous blogs. This novel, which he called In Sunlight and in Shadow, is not one of his best – I would give it four stars – but it has plenty of excitement and, like all of his books, is beautifully written, as you would expect from such a master stylist as Helprin. Perhaps too beautifully written in some ways, but then this is not meant to be a book review. Nevertheless, I need to tell you a little about the story in order to lay the groundwork for what will follow. 

The novel is set in 1946 in New York – the book is in part a rapturous hymn to the city where the author was born – a year after the ending of World War II. The hero of the story, Harry Copeland, spent four years in the war, in Europe, as a paratrooper. The book has a complex plot, which I won't attempt to summarize, but the chapters that deal with Copeland's time in battle are incredibly gripping; the author makes you feel you are there with Copeland, surrounded not just by ever-present danger, but with death all around as he sees some of his buddies die. Helprin's writing about war (and he has been a soldier himself), especially in his greatest novel, A Soldier of the Great War, is, to my mind, supreme among contemporary American novelists. You don't just read Helprin's novels; you live them.

So, yes, reading and living in Helprin's world for so long did bring a great deal of excitement, however vicarious, into mine. And the effects linger. After you put his books down, they leave their mark on you.

Still, it is not Helprin I want to write about here. Instead, I want to introduce you to another writer who I suspect not many of you have ever heard of, much less read. His name is Gregor von Rezzori. (I do not hear many bells ringing.)   

Gregor, as I shall call him (though he was Gricha to his friends), was not just an outstanding novelist; he was a phenomenon. In addition to his work as a novelist, he was a memoirist, author of radio plays, screenwriter as well as a film actor (he appeared in films with such well known actors as Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Bardot, Anna Karina, Marcello Mastroianni and the French singer, Charles Aznavour), journalist, visual artist, art critic and art collector. He was fluent in many languages, too, including German, Romanian, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish, French and English. 

What a guy, eh? Apparently, the only art he didn't master was that of archery.

He was born in 1914 – the year World War I began – in a little town near the Carpathian Mountains in what is now Romania, but not far from Ukraine. (Before the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, he and his family thought of themselves as Austrians.) As you can tell by the "von" in his name, his family was reasonably well-to-do, though not wealthy. But they had servants, and little Gregor grew up with a nanny, a peasant named Cassandra, to whom he was very close.

I will not take the time to trace his career, which took him to Vienna, Bucharest, Berlin (where he was during World War II), Paris, and, ultimately, to Italy where he died, much beloved, in 1998. 

I first heard of him when reading about him in an essay by  a charming French writer, Emmanuel Carrère, of whom I am a fan. It was in that essay that I read about an article that had first brought him international fame when it was published as a story in The New Yorker in 1969. Subsequently published as a book entitled Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, I was intrigued by its title, so I immediately ordered it.

It's not what you think. Gregor is not an anti-Semite. His book consists of an interlocking series of five very powerful stories in which the main character (never the same person) has a fateful and often devastating encounter with a Jew. The book packs a wallop and is really designed to show how the kind of casual everyday anti-Semitism that was rife in Europe between the wars, and so quietly but fatally insidious, was the tinder that would soon be ignited and cause the Holocaust that was to follow. Knowing what was to come, as the characters in the book do not, one reads it with a shudder.

That book got me hooked on Gregor, so I ordered one of his autographical books, and it's really that book, or rather one incident in that book, that I want to focus on now. It's one that will also finally begin to put this essay into focus for you and give you your second clue as to what it's all about.  

When Gregor was about eight something happened to bring his childhood to a close. I will let him describe just what occurred to him at that time. It concerns his magpie.   
My magpie died. One afternoon she lay dead in her cage. That very morning she had been hopping around gaily as ever. I could not believe that this cold and rigid piece of rubbish that lay in the sandy gravel at the bottom of her cage was she. I trembled with sorrow. My sister was all eagerness to arrange a funeral, but Cassandra with bewildering roughness forbade any such un-Christian nonsense and saw to it that the little corpse was discarded with the garbage. In doing so, she was seconded by my mother, who thought the magpie died of tuberculosis and might possibly infect us; this only increased my grief. For the first time, Cassandra was not my ally. My lamentations were for naught. Cassandra remained peremptory, as if faced by the unavoidable fact of life and death, her unbroken peasant sense of reality revolted against citified fussing. "Dead is dead," she said gruffly. "One day you will be dead."
Had she said what surely I had heard before – "You too will have to die one day" – it would have remained abstract. When hearing such sentences, comprehension glanced off from the purely verbal, but "being dead" meant what was clearly manifest by the bird's corpse on the garbage heap. I understood.
Terror struck at me like a dead weight. I saw myself stretched out on my bed, rigid and cold, rubbishy in my cements, rotting underneath, something to be discarded as quickly as possible, like the dead magpie. Around me stood my sobbing family. I saw the hearse carrying me away and, behind, my sister in black veils, triumph in her eyes dutifully red from crying. I saw my grave and my dog refusing to leave it. All this was unavoidable, inescapable. It could happen tomorrow or many years on – but it had to happen, and against that no revocation or merciful exception was possible. I was overcome with great fear … Wherever I would go, this fear would go with me. This death fear would henceforth be with me, inextinguishably and forever, and would hollow out my whole being.  
In my utter despair I asked Cassandra whether this was truly so. Cassandra was incorruptible. "Everything has to die," she said. "Your father, too, and your mother and your sister, and I too, we all have to die one day!" And I knew she was telling the truth: Cassandra, the seeress.
And, of course, it's just that that we don't want to think about. Not just death in the abstract, but the ineluctable fact that that we – that you – are going to die. And with the doomsday cloud of COVID hanging over us, maybe sooner than you had ever thought. Sure, no one wants to think about death, especially dying as a result of contracting COVID, which, from all we have heard and seen, is an absolutely horrible and frightening way to die. Why think about such a terrifying specter? Things are bad enough without frightening ourselves – pardon the black pun – to death.

But, be honest, how can we avoid doing so when every day on MSNBC or CNN or the nightly national news we are bombarded with the latest number of people who have died in the U.S.? Every day now, another thousand or so, as the number of the dead climbs beyond 150,000, with no end in sight. As I wrote in my last blog, "Death is all around us and, literally, in the air."

Obviously, there is no way we can really avoid this subject, but there is another way to think about it. And in the rest of this essay, I would like to offer one for your consideration. In effect, it is my reply to little Gregor's anguished cry of despair after he learns that he, too, will die. 

Two Perspectives on Death

Consider the way most of us over the age of thirty were socialized, consciously or not, to think about death. Perhaps our first exposure to death was like Gregor's – the death of a beloved pet. Or to human death by overhearing a whispered conversation about the death of a family member. Or to take a more traumatic example, we might have been involved in an automobile accident in which one of our companions was killed. As a result, the searing memory of this person's shattered and bloodied body, lying partially covered by a blanket on the roadside, might thereafter be the origin of a powerfully charged image of death.

It is hardly necessary to resort to further such situations to appreciate how we are typically educated to understand death. Plainly, we learn to view death from the outside. We are always spectators to death; obviously, we think, we can never experience our own death – we can only imagine it. Thinking of death in this way, as our example from little Gregor shows, it is natural to fear it, even to be repulsed by it, and to avoid the subject as if it were still under some kind of dreaded cultural taboo.

Consider next, however, the understanding of death suggested by near-death research. This is an interior view of death. It is based on the direct experiences that many thousands of people have reported when they almost die, or when they do die clinically. The great unanimity of these testimonies means that there is now a consensus emerging concerning what it is like to die. And what these near-death experiencers are telling us is that the external view of death is only a part of the story, and hardly the whole picture. What death looks like to an external observer is not what it feels like when you go through the process of dying.

Let's pause to consider a couple of representative illustrative accounts of what it's like to experience death.
This INCREDIBLE feeling of peace [came] over me ... All of a sudden there was no pain, just peace. I suppose it's because it's so completely unlike anything else that I've ever experienced in my life that I've got nothing to compare it to. A perfectly beautiful, beautiful feeling ... to me, there's a definite feeling of sunlight and warmth associated with this beautiful feeling. But when this feeling of peace came over me, I was warm. I felt warm, safe, happy, relaxed, just every wonderful adjective you could use ... This was perfection, this is everything anyone could possibly want and everything I could possibly want.
... the thing I could never – absolutely never forget is that absolute feeling of peace, joy, or something ... I remember the feeling. I just remember this absolutely beautiful feeling. Of peace ... and happy! Oh! So happy! ... The peace ... the release. The fear was all gone. There was no pain. There was nothing. It was just absolutely beautiful! It was a feeling that I think everybody dreams of someday having. Reaching a point of ABSOLUTE peace.
The literature on NDEs is now replete with many accounts of the kind I have just quoted. You can find them in any number of books on the subject. Some of the best collections of NDE cases that I know are in books like David Sunfellow's The Purpose of Life or Jeff's Janssen's 10 Life-Changing Lessons from Heaven.

Again, it is not necessary to multiply such testimonies to understand how this interior view of death can become a potent anodyne to many people who are either facing death themselves or who have to cope with the death of a loved one. To know that there is indeed more to death than meets the eye and that what cannot be seen is a kind of perfection that must be understood is to have great peace of mind in the presence of death.

Of course, all this does not banish the undeniable fact that the process of dying itself – which we know in cases of COVID-caused death can be ghastly beyond words – can often be difficult to bear for the dying person. The interior view of death supplements – it does not supplant – the external perspective. But when death finally comes, if we can trust the accounts of NDErs, all the pain vanishes, and the person is then suffused with a feeling of peace, joy and homecoming that even the greatest poet would be unable to capture in the net of words, however sublime.   

What NDEs Teach Us About What Life Is

There is more, much more, we can learn from accounts of NDEs, and not just about death.  Consider the implications from one NDEr, Joe Geraci, whom I knew well when I was teaching at the University of Connecticut. During Joe's NDE he recounts that for him it was...
A total immersion in light, brightness, warmth, peace, security ... I just immediately went into this beautiful bright light. It's difficult to describe; as a matter of fact, it's impossible to describe. Verbally, it cannot be expressed. It's something which becomes you and you become it. I could say, "I was peace, I was love." I was the brightness, it was part of me ... You just know. You're all-knowing – and everything is a part of you – it's just so beautiful.

It was eternity. It's like I was always there and I will always be there, and my existence on earth was just a brief instant.
I have often reflected on these last words of Joe's. I have now lived well into my eighties – much longer than I had ever expected. I have had a long and very full life. And yet from the perspective of NDEs, I have just descended from an eternal realm to dip my toes into the sands of time for what seems to be all these years, only to return to that eternal realm, my true home, from which my life will seem just like a blip in time.  

Whoa! When I think about my life from this perspective – or when you think about yours – what is life, and what is death? It's not just that death is not what it seems, but  neither is life. From this point of view, death is an illusion and life is a kind of dream from which physical death awakens us. According to NDErs like Joe, we are living in a dream world.

Consider these testimonies from other NDErs. I know most of these people myself, or in the cases of all but one am very familiar with their writings. But I am indebted to David Sunfellow for extracting these excerpts for me.
When I recovered, I was very surprised and yet very awed about what had happened to me. At first all the memory of the trip that I have now was not there. I kept slipping out of this world and kept asking, "Am I alive?" This world seemed more like a dream than that one.

I knew that I'd been underwater too long to be alive, but I felt more alive than I've ever felt. It all felt more real than anything has felt on earth.

And yet the more I went over my medical records and my experiences with my doctors, the more I came to realize that there is no way that this brain, so devastated by bacterial meningitis, could have manufactured any of that. It should have been a state of nothingness, with the near-destruction of my neocortex. And yet it was much more like the blinders coming off and an awakening to a far richer, more vibrant and alive reality than the one in this world.

It is impossible to convey the beauty and intensity of emotion during those visions. They were the most tremendous things I have ever experienced. And what a contrast the day was: I was tormented and on edge; everything irritated me; everything was too material, too crude and clumsy, terribly limited both spatially and spiritually. It was all an imprisonment, for reasons impossible to divine, and yet it had a kind of hypnotic power, a cogency, as if it were reality itself, for all that I had clearly perceived its emptiness.

Suddenly, not knowing how or why, I returned to my broken body. But miraculously, I brought back the love and the joy. I was filled with an ecstasy beyond my wildest dreams. Here, in my body, the pain had all been removed. I was still enthralled by a boundless delight. For the next two months, I remained in this state, oblivious to any pain.

Although it's been 20 years since my heavenly voyage, I have never forgotten it. Nor have I, in the face of ridicule and disbelief, ever doubted its reality. Nothing that intense and life-changing could possibly have been a dream or hallucination. To the contrary, I consider the rest of my life to be a passing fantasy, a brief dream, that will end when I again awaken in the permanent presence of that giver of life and bliss.

In this short essay, we have traveled a long way from the writings of Mark Helprin and Gregor von Rezzori that treat death as something vividly and frighteningly real after which we came to the findings of NDE research from which death can be seen from still another perspective in which it has the face of the Beloved. Such a view can, I believe, be profoundly reassuring in these days of COVID because it makes it clear that however terrible death may appear, it is not what it seems, or, more accurately, not only that.

But, finally, when we arrive at testimonies like that of Joe Geraci and the other NDErs I have cited, we find that life is apparently not what it seems either. However "real" it appears to our senses, we are victims of a kind of delusion. In fact, we are living in a dream world and it is only when we die that we awaken from the dream into true life.