One of the most common questions students will ask me, when they find out I was in Iraq, is, are you any different? Are you crazy now? Well, I was crazy before I signed up. I am different, though it took a while to sort out exactly how. I learned something they can’t teach in school, something institutions around the globe rather you not learn. I came to terms with my mortality. Like in The Twa Corbies, when I die, nobody is going to know where I went, my dog and hawk and lady will move on with their lives, and naught but the wind will blow over my bones for evermore.
Figuratively, of course. I assume somebody will mourn me. With luck I die somewhere near people, so they’ll know where my corpse is, and they’ll do something with that corpse and so they’ll know where that is, too. (Interlude. The week before we went to Iraq, the Chaplain said to us, I want to die like my grandfather; peacefully in his sleep. I don’t want to die screaming and on fire, like the passengers in my grandfather’s car). Yet the memories of us are finite. In three or four generations there will be no one alive who ever met you. Given enough time you’ll leave no trace of your existence, in print or memory. It’s not just our bodies that are going to die.
Most people I know are either scared of dying and so they avoid thinking and talking about it, or they don’t care and so they have no reason to think about it. The ones who don’t care shrug it off as something mechanical, something biological and unavoidable except by pretending it doesn’t exist, and wave it off as a nuisance thing that may catch up with you someday, but doesn’t matter now. What matters now is consuming whatever can be accumulated.
Denying your mortality out of fear or indifference is denying your humanity. When you deny your humanity then you deny the humanity of others, and the sanctity of all life on the planet. Machines don’t care if they hurt feelings, destroy the environment, skip out on responsibilities, or play on their phone all day. When I see kids who are physically unable to put their phones away, I can’t help but to picture a tree that’s wrapped itself around a telephone pole. At some point their hands will grow skin around those damned things, and they’ll have to plug themselves in at night.
Think about dying. It’s not enough to not be scared. You have to come to acceptance. Iraq made me do that. I saw all kinds of people get all sorts of dead. I’m not saying it doesn’t bother me to think about, or that I’m personally in a rush to die. What I am saying is that if you don’t accept death as inevitable, then it’s much easier to allow yourself to be controlled by the irrelevant. When you come to terms with being finite, you prioritize. If your doctor told you that you have 6 weeks to live, then I bet you’d spend less time liking memes on facespace or instaham, and more time telling grandma you love her. Well, I’m here to tell you the doctor already gave you similar news and we’re all just working out the details. The moment you were born you jumped out of the airplane, and the only thing you don’t know was how high that plane was.
There are humans and there are machines. Institutions would prefer machines over humans because machines are programmable and replaceable. It’s why we teach sex education and not philosophy or some form of spirituality in public school. Better to learn about the plumbing than explore what it means to be human. You’ll be told that students need education because there is a danger in them not knowing about AIDS and condoms. There is a bigger danger in them not having the opportunity to come to term with themselves.
Humans are turned into machines when our work owns us and not us our work. African slaves were machines designed to work the fields; they weren’t given the right of humanity, namely, personal sovereignty, community, culture, and family. “Property” isn’t a specific enough term. They were machines. Given enough time of having a master, and having that master demand tasks of you, you will lose your humanity. I’ve never seen a survey, but I’m willing to bet factory workers on a furniture assembly line are less satisfied with themselves as people than are custom furniture builders, regardless of pay and benefits. On the assembly line, the master assigns the task and the machine performs. The worker is subservient to the apparatus. If you are assigned work, and have no option to quit that work without being penalized, you are being co-opted by machinery. You are being prepped for college and career, i.e., you are moving down the conveyor belt, assembled by other robots who were assembled long ago in a similar factory who are all being held accountable by an even bigger and colder machine. You are being taught that you have an input and an output and someone can push a button to make that happen.
In school, nobody ever asked me, Do you think about dying? Where do you think you go when you die? How do you feel about your mortality? To my knowledge, no teacher would ever ask a student that in the district I work, or any other district. It’s not in the curriculum. It took a year in a war zone for me to confront one of the most awesome and overwhelming abilities we have, something no other being on earth can do: the capacity to consider our personal death and what that means for our life. You don’t know what you’re giving up if you ignore that in your humanity.