The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, October 24, 2015
Religion ... Zen ...

I haven’t gotten around to posting anything here lately, this is my first post in almost 2 weeks. What have I been doing with myself lately? Oh, cooking, cleaning, going to work, paying bills, and thinking about life and death. I mentioned in a previous blog that I had a “direct-to-consumer” DNA evaluation done a few years ago on 23andme.com, and along with the genealogy information, 23 also gave you an assessment of your genetically-related health risks. (Since then, the US FDA has stopped them from providing health reports — 23andme still offers genealogy tests). My own results on 23 seemed fairly benign — one or two things that might eventually become an issue, but nothing all that terrible.

Recently, however, I learned that you can access your digital DNA results from 23andme and upload them onto a site called Promethese.com, and for $5 they will give you a very detailed list of how your “SNP pairings” stack up against the SNPedia.com “wiki” database of health-related genetic studies. This seemed like a good idea to me, since my health reports from 23andme were based on a pool of gene studies that appears to have last been updated in 2011 (many months before I sent in my saliva, in mid-2013; incidentally, that was only about 6 months before the FDA shut 23’s health service down). A lot of new knowledge about genes and health must have come out since them. So, I got my results from Promethease (it takes only a few minutes, actually) and have spent a lot of time pouring over them in the past few weeks. Bottom line . . . in great detail, they paint a much darker picture of my susceptibility to a wide variety of diseases than 23andme did.

In comparing some of the Promethease / SNPedia results with the 23 reports, it turns out that 23andme wasn’t always considering the full range of DNA studies available up through 2011, and in some instances, it misinterpreted them!!! For one condition involving eyesight (a particular concern to me given my family history), the 23andme report said that my DNA was favorable, i.e. that it was less likely than average for me to eventually contract the disease in question. However, Promethease / SNPedia accurately reported just the opposite!!!

In fact, this should have been clear to 23 even in 2011, based on the study reports available at the time. I’m not going to sue 23andme.com over this, as I didn’t do anything different regarding eye care because of the 23 report (and yes, they did give the usual legal mumbo-jumbo about this stuff not being for diagnosis but only for educational purposes). Still, you would think they would be more careful, given that they are dealing in people’s health!!! You can see why the FDA shut them down in 2013. (I see that they just received FDA approval to offer limited health condition testing once again directly to consumers — I hope that 23andme will do a better and more responsible job of interpreting the results for their customers!!)

Well, I intend to file another report here soon with further details about my experience with Promethease, but for now . . . I guess that I’m going to have to just live with the genes that I have, and try to do my best to keep going as long as I can. All of this has made me think about death a bit more than usual lately (although the seasonal changes of autumn, the longer nights and the chillier days, certainly do not help to keep one cheerful!). And thinking about death also makes you think about life.

Not long ago, my brother and I were out at a restaurant chatting over dinner, and in a reflective moment, I said that life is one of those things that you only learn to savor as you get older. It’s sort of like coffee and beer and wine . . . most children find these drinks (in their classic form, anyway) too sour or bitter to enjoy. OK, then come the teenage and young adult years when many of us hold our noses and chug down the stuff for its caffeine or alcohol, perhaps after mixing it with something sweet. But only later on do you really start to develop a taste for the bitter and sour, only later on do you appreciate the complexities and interactions going on whenever you take a sip. Of course, all of these beverages were part of the dinner that evening.

What I was trying to say was that even as we learn over the years that life is rough and is full of absurd, unpleasant and downright painful moments, unhappy moments that just cannot be avoided no matter how rich or accomplished you are or aren’t, we still like life all the more with each passing year. Yes, sure, there are plenty of unhappy people out there, and a handful of them commit suicide (either directly or through intentionally risky behavior). Obviously, life is not an enjoyable libation to them. But in a way, it still is; people are sometimes unfairly overwhelmed by their circumstances, robbed of the times and places and mental settings where ‘simply being alive’ can taken on its own terms. In a way, our misery and despair are often protests against the denial of the elixir of life through never-ending challenges and disparagement. And most of these challenges and disparagements come from other people — the company of others can be heaven, but as John Paul Sarte famously said in “No Exit”, hell is other people.

Death, or the looming awareness thereof, is the ultimate sour and bitter taste to life. So, can we eventually come to appreciate even this “bitter note” of our experience of “the wine of life”? Personally, I have not reached this point. I’m not sure that very many people ever do. Many people say that they have made amends with death, that they are ready to go at any time, but only a few actually die with equanimity. My mother was blessed enough to have an extended old age, and in her final months she truly seemed to have accepted the coming of the end. When the end finally came for her, it seemed in some ways that she had chosen the moment (I wasn’t there, though, and so I can only hope that this was true). Would that we could all be ready to go like this (I remember seeing my father in his final hours struggling against unexpected heart failure at the age of 50, and it didn’t seem very pleasant).

So, given that most of us still live in fear of death (exactly why I have been so obsessed and upset recently with my Promethease results), how do we cope? I’ve spoken here already about alcohol, which is obviously used by some (or other intoxicants) to forget the future and “live in the moment”. Others like myself become Zen students and listen to constant lectures from our teachers advising us to “live in the moment”; we are guided to achieve this mind-set through the practice of meditation, a whole lot of meditation. I’ve put a lot of time in on the sitting cushion, but I’m afraid that a DNA disease report can still throw my life out of whack for a few weeks. And still others turn to the more traditional God-based forms of religion.

In a recent article in an academic psychology journal, a research team led by psychologist Corey Cook of the University of Washington-Tacoma concluded that religious believers harbor a lot of mistrust and even hostility towards professed atheists. They did some test surveys and mental experiments with a group of college students, and for the most part, those with religious proclivities distanced themselves more from atheists, found them less trustworthy, and rated them more negatively overall. The mere thought of atheism was found to stir up morbid thoughts in this group. And here’s one for the “DUH, OH REALLY?” annals — the researchers concluded that for religious types, atheists and atheism raise discomforting doubts about what happens after we die. (But OK, the study is still interesting in that it documents and quantifies just how strongly these feelings and anti-atheist “prejudices” occur, even in college students).

As I often assert on this blog, I still consider myself to have religious feelings and to at least be open to the possibility of God. I truly hope that there is an ultimately benevolent and caring Deity behind it all (although that Deity sure puts us through hell in the short-run). But even if there is a God, that God sure didn’t provide us with any conclusive proof that we’re gonna sail through death all right, that there is some sort of positive after-life awaiting us. I agree with the religious types when they claim there to be hints and clues that this might be true; but the atheists in this world “keep it real” by proving that there is no airtight proof here (of course, they also overstep their bounds by trying to prove that God and an afterlife definitely do NOT exist). As I have said before, the question of God and an afterlife are sort-of like quantum physics. There’s an inherent level of uncertainty baked right into reality, something that no amount of effort or information could ever overcome (other than by actually dying).

As to dying and death, there’s nothing much more for me to say other than what the roshi said to a dying and fearful student in one of those Japanese Zen parables: “then just die”. As to atheists and how they creep out a lot of religious people by robbing them of their fear-of-death comfort blanket, I would recommend the attitude that is voiced in a Trappist book that I was reading the other night (Monastic Practices, Cistercian Publications). In discussing the Trappist practice of reciting the Angelus three times daily, the monastic author (Charles Cummings, OCSO) says that this prayer “recalls the mystery of God’s respect for human freedom to accept or refuse his continual gift of self-manifestation.” By making this “gift of self-manifestation” an uncertain thing, by continuing to allow for and love those who take up the freedom to refuse the mystery of this gift, this alleged God might actually be doing just what you’d expect of a God.

Or not (let’s keep it real). Either way, I think that it is incumbent upon believers to put that mistrust of atheists aside and give them a break. If there is actually a plan to believe in, that plan would include those atheists, as the Trappists seem to imply. If there is a God, then God put atheists here for a reason, and God thus calls on believers to accept that reason and love atheists just like a fellow believer.

Oh, and as to dying and death, the Trappist book has lots to say about that too. A few choice quotes: “It is the fact of facing death that gives monastic life its depths of meaningfulness”. “The open acknowledgement that death is not right, that it should not be, is the first step towards accepting death as the ultimate horizon of everything”. “Monastic life is practice for death”. And of course, the de rigueur Thomas Merton quote, i.e. “a monk who does not think of death, and does not have it before his eyes . . . cannot be a true monk”.

But here’s a good finale, something that most any Buddhist teacher could endorse (given their disdain for “clinging”): “accepting death is not quite so hard for someone who has had ample practice in letting his or her unrealistic desires and ideas die without clinging to them and hanging on for dear life”. Well, I’m not going to throw out my Promethease report, and I still don’t have a taste for the bitterness of death. Nonetheless . . . a little less clinging on my part to the notion that ‘it all must be a mistake’ might not be such a bad thing.

(But then again, my Promethease report also said that my chance of going bald is six times higher than average . . . in a sense, that prediction is correct, because I shave my scalp daily. But there’s still plenty of stubble up top to shave, making the job a bit messy sometimes . . . so I hope that the bald genes will finally kick in!)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:26 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, One thing that seems the 23andme and Promethease DNA evaluations do is that they have a tendency to subtly make people anxious. Thus, if a disease is mentioned in one’s evaluation, one tends to feel that at any moment he/she can be a goner.

    When I was your age (which I remember vividly), I too tho’t for a while that I was not long for this world . . . until I realized that just as easily I might have 20 or 25 years (or even more) to live a productive life yet. What was I going to do with that pretty good chunk of time? Spend it in anxiety and worry that any minute I might die? I decided that such a good chunk of time was valuable; I might do some good “life work” (one might put it that way) or do something useful other than worry about whether I was going to make it to the next day without coming down with something fatal that certainly runs in my family.

    I’m not saying you are thinking this morbid way, since you state you would do your best with the genes you have and keep going for as long as you are able. Actually, that’s a good approach. Yet I find myself wondering if some individuals might become anxious and worried and take the whole prediction from these groups that one might be susceptible to certain serious diseases and spend too much time making their lives miserable when they have a good, long, productive, happy time to live yet.

    As to the “unhappy people” you mention who commit suicide: I tend to think that people who are so miserable and depressed that they seriously consider suicide (some actually try it) have a much more serious problem than worry about what a DNA evaluation may predict. More likely they suffer from clinical depression. I wonder if 23andme and Promethease might predict such a mental/psychological problem. These are not something that can easily be measured by DNA testing unless someone at some point finds a gene (or more) that might predict such mental problems. From descriptions I’ve heard from people who suffer such problems, my impression is that most people who do not suffer from such issues have no clue what clinical depression actually may be like.

    As to the test that showed religious believers indicated a lot of distrust for atheists: The first question I would ask is: Are the results skewed due to the fact that the religious people were by definition so inclined to be hostile to atheists? As in: You *must* believe as I do, or you most certainly will go to hell forever.

    Actually, it seems to me that both groups, atheists and what are called “religious people” in this study, seem to be judgmental toward anyone who does not hold their particular point of view regarding religion. There are some atheists who are similarly judgmental, only in an opposite way, as in: You must be crazy if you think there’s a heaven or hell or even a life after death. When it comes to atheists and “religious people”, I tend to see them as both sides of one coin.

    When it comes to the OCSO’s: It does not surprise me that they spend a lot of time thinking about death. It’s a “given” thing in meditation in religious life – at least in the more cloistered groups. The general wording usually went something like: What would you do now if you knew you would die tomorrow? The answer was always: Keep doing what I’m “supposed” to be doing, which is not a bad approach to the tho’t of not know when death might come.

    As to Thomas Merton – and I sincerely mean this only as the simple question it is; I am not being sarcastic, even a little. I find myself wondering if the day he died so suddenly on his trip to the East, was he actually thinking that “a monk who does not think of death and does not have it before his eyes . . . cannot be a true monk” or were his thoughts consumed by the meetings he was attending and participating in? I tend to think that rather than having death before his eyes, death was the last thing on his mind when he died so suddenly. Somehow this last concept seems more real than his thinking of death as he died. (Unless there was a short period of time when he had a realization that he was dying.)

    I do not think that it’s so much a matter of being able to taste the “bitterness” of death (and learning to like it) as it is a matter of simply being aware that when it comes, it comes. As long as death has not come, we still have a life to live that demands we give it our full attention and careful living – and maybe throwing a little happiness and joy in there might be a good idea too.

    One last thing: I learned many, many years ago that anyone (doctor, nurse, priest, whoever) who has anything to say about when someone will die or will not die is full of “it”. I’ve seen too many people die who never expected to die; I’ve seen too many people live years after they were told they had a few weeks to live. The simple fact of the matter is that perhaps we chose to keep the “when” of our death in an “unaware” part of our consciousness because we need to live a full and productive life until our time comes. Thus, when we die, we do; when we do not, we still have life to live and should do it willingly and with sincerity and gladness, trying to make whatever small contribution we can yet make to life. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 25, 2015 @ 9:54 am

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