Sunday, May 24, 2009

Obituary logic

I read obits, not all the time but often enough. Inside their formula, I often find nuggets of lives well lived - or of lives of suffering and woundedness, some of those wounds self-inflicted.

I've read enough to know that sometimes "heart failure" euphemizes suicide. I've read enough - and lived enough - to know that many a fierce battle with cancer ended with a final acquiescence and peace and farewell and sometimes acceleration that for some reason we seldom talk about.

When I started this reading habit maybe twenty years ago, I told myself that I was looking for the poignant or evocative final character sketch, a biography that I might imagine into a novel. I also told myself that I was trying to get a handle on mortality data, on what kills and when in a life death comes.

Those motives were real and not just rationalizations, but I soon noticed that I actually took comfort from the obits - they seldom marked the death of someone like me. I started to look in each obit for the reason that I could distance myself from the dead, the reason that I could rationalize why I still lived and the dead person did not.

Mostly, I was young, and the dead were old.

Most of the men my age who died were outrageously drunk and not wearing their seat belts. But I also read about so many women in their late forties dying of breast cancer that, despite my relative safety, I started to take their deaths personally on behalf of women in my life. AIDS also took many of my age cohort, and the obits of mostly gay men made their tragedy very real for me.

Nowadays, many more of my peers turn up dead of heart attacks, and that is damn sobering, which might explain my continuing elation at recently getting this year's much better cholesterol numbers - the measure of a middle-aged man.

This has all been preamble to an attempt to understand the sheer hatred and lack of human sympathy seen so often on newspaper comment threads and particularly today on the Washington Post's rare story on poor people as human beings, as distinct from the usual story on poor people as social burden and problem.

I understand seeking safety in differences from the victim. Rationalizing away the vulnerabilities we all have and feel is a human universal. Poverty, like dying, is for other people or so we hope, and if we can show the reasons, all the better.

Just as distance from dying helps, distance from poverty helps. I cherish my distance from those thin years when canned beans from my grandfather's burned down factory helped my parents make ends meet. But I don't try to blot that time out of memory.

I have a hard time understanding how strongly people want to blame both the sick and the poor. There's no doubt that many poor people make poor decisions, even from among their dearth of choices. There's a reflex among conservatives that these poor decisions are the whole picture and absolve us of any social responsibility to help. Never mind that lots of affluent people, including me, make lousy economic decisions - we can afford them to a degree that the poor cannot.


globeisatrocious said...

Please consider that poor people are also stupid and this is passed down, genetically of course and by lack of educational reinforcements, but even materially - if you are stupid enough to have children at 16 and die of an overdose at 32, those poor decisions rob children, who may be smart, of a financial cushion.

lovable liberal said...

Thanks for a perfect example of right-wing misanthropy! I really appreciate your saving me the minute or two a search of my own would have taken.

Silence DoGood said...

Stupidity should not be rewarded.

However corporate profits often drive the taking advantage of the poor.

They pay more for things and the corporate fat cats need to own this.

globeisatrocious said...

What would drive you nuts, but I won't get into a pissing contest, is for you to know how poor for how long I have been. Oh, and that I am better educated than you (see poverty, above).

lovable liberal said...

You won't get into a pissing contest. Now that's rich.