Monday, July 16, 2012

When Is A Life Fully Satisfied?

When I was in college, each semester it was compulsory to take one humanities course for credits. These humanities courses introduced students to the major questions of life by studying issues of social, moral and aesthetic value. And they covered the fields of history, philosophy, literature, and the arts, as well as related studies in the physical, technical and social sciences. Some of them were very interesting, some were mind-numbing, and some were downright weird.

I took four of these courses during my studies, but I only remember one that was titled “Death, Death, Death”, which – you guessed it – was all about death and dying. The reason I remember this class so well is because our teacher touched upon a topic at one point that I still wonder about today. He told us in one class that a baby who died at three months of age had lived as full a life as someone who died at 100.


Needless to say the uproar that ensued in the classroom as the students tried to digest the ‘irrationality’ of this.

“How can you compare the two?” We asked. “An infant cannot possibly live as full a life as an old man.”

“Yes, he can.” Our teacher insisted. “In three months, that baby has experienced as full a life as the old man has at 100.”


For the longest time, I completely rejected my teacher’s view on this, and it took me years to finally ‘hear’ what he was saying, which is that at three months of life, a human being has experienced all that can be experienced in those three months. That in three months, the human experience and potential has been reached, or rather, achieved. And that even though it’s a short life, it’s fully satisfied, fulfilled.



So, I fully grasped his point of view, ultimately, and although I could see the rationality behind it, I could not accept it. How can I when I’ve lived way beyond the age of three months, completely and utterly aware of so many more things – many of them wonderful - that can be experienced as the months and years go by?



This unusual course and the teacher who taught it came to mind when I ran across graves of children on my photoshoot at the Cataraqui cemetery not too long ago. No matter what argument my teacher used to explain his logic about death being equal for all no matter the age, all I could feel is despair as I stood over the graves of these children, most of them infants and toddlers.



Children who would never ride a bike. Or go to school. Or be in a play. Or sing Christmas carols. Or delight in Halloween treats.



Children who would never fly a kite. Or ride the roller coaster. Or eat cotton candy. Or learn to play an instrument. Or have a best friend. Or enjoy an ice cream cone.



Children who would never grow up. And have birthday parties. And go to their prom. And fall in love. And perhaps have children of their own.



Children who would never experience many of the milestones that most of us have already gone through. And take for granted.


I cannot accept that a life is fully lived when it’s cut short. When death is premature. When people who are left behind face the most profound grief that comes with the loss of a child. Which is exactly what the parents of this little boy must have been feeling. And almost certainly still do.



This little boy’s tombstone touched me so deeply because you can clearly see the intense grief of his parents, and how much he was loved.

This is one of the saddest things I've ever run across. It broke my heart.

So my question once again is: "When is a life fully satisfied?"

Surely not at three months of age.

26 comments:

  1. Your post really touched my heart today, Martha. Maybe because I just finished reading "Heaven Is For Real" which is a true story about a 3 year old who leaves his body during emergency surgery and meets God, Jesus, his miscarried sister and others during his brief visit to heaven before he is sent back "home" to his body. Anyway, I really like your post this morning and found it very poignant. Thank you.

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    1. That would be an amazing thing to experience. I could well imagine how thrilled I'd be seeing my brother and my father, even for a few minutes. The book sounds very interesting. I will have to look into it.

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  2. It's so sad looking at all these baby tombstones. It must be one of the most heartbreaking experiences for a parent to endure. Three months is nothing, really. I have just watched a programme on people who lived to be over 100 and most of them seemed satisfied with their lives. Mental and physical health seemed to be a dominant factor.

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    1. Three months is definitely nothing after you've become aware of life and all that you can experience. But health is the most important part of all. There's no point living to a ripe old age if you're not healthy.

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  3. What an amazing concept - that a human life can be fully experienced in 3 months. I suppose one could make that statement if the child was not your own. And I also suppose there is a difference between experience and potential, but still, what can be sadder than the loss of a child?

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    1. There is a lot of food for thought on this one. I think that's what he wanted us to do -- really think about this. Every period of your life reaches its potential, but there's always room for experience. I can't imagine anything sadder than the loss of a child. No matter wants to outlive their children.

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  4. A very moving post, Martha. I felt tears spring to my eyes looking at those tombstones. Such beloved children, such heartbroken parents. I'm sure it would be difficult for the parents to see their baby's far-too-short life as full, when their arms and hearts feel so empty.

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    1. Very well put, Beth. A parent's heart is heartbroken and empty when losing a child, and nothing can make it okay.

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  5. What a thought and visual provoking post, Martha.
    I think the definition of a life is one that is born and one that dies. I think the age or length of that life is not what defines a life. When we accidentally step on and kill an insect, that is the end of that insect's life.
    This opens up lots of emotion, of course. When my brother died at 19 we were overwhelmed with the grief and the fact that if he had lived he would have done this and that. He didn't...he died. And that 19 years was his life.
    Funny your post is about death because I was recently reading something by Thich Nhat Hahn, a Zen Buddhist Monk, who was addressing the whole born/death thing. He claims we were not born and we do not die because we are ALWAYS alive!! Try Wrapping your head around that one! Another story for another day. lol

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    1. This is a very deep topic, and I suppose our teacher simply wanted us to really think hard about what life really means. But we were all quite young, and our reaction was mainly anger. At the age I am now, I could really sit down and have a very intense conversation about this. I do believe there is a beginning and an end -- of the human body. But because I believe in reincarnation and a spirit world, I believe the soul lives forever.

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  6. O Martha. What a heartbreaking post. That one with the bear... It makes me think of Mark Twain's eulogy to his daughter. She died at 24, but it is no less heartbreaking.
    Warm summer sun,
    shine brightly here,
    Warm Southern wind,
    blow softly here,
    Green sod above,
    lie light, lie light,
    Good night, dear heart;
    good night, good night.

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    1. It was a very heartbreaking discovery at the cemetery. I don't think anything touches me as much as seeing the tombstones of children. I didn't know Mark Twain had lost a daughter at such a young age.

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  7. You may have experienced it fully but you haven't lived it. I am in my 40s and I have yet to live my life to it's fullest.

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    1. I don't think we can ever finish experiencing life, no matter what age. There is always something to do, somewhere to go, someone to meet, etc... It's a neverending process of living.

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  8. Oh! this made me cry. That inscription.

    I don't think life is ever fully satisfied. How can it be? And how can we ever know what lies ahead of us, if we die at 3 months or die at 103 years? Both schools of thought are unsatisfactory to me.I want to live and I want to experience everything but I know I never will..that's impossible. You've really got me thinking now...

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    1. That's exactly it; life is never fully satisfied. There is always something up ahead.

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  9. Very interesting post Martha. I agree with you that a life that ends so soon can not possibly be fulfilled. That is why it is so heartbreaking when someone so young dies. It is the hope of a bright future and the chance for a wonderful life that has been snuffed out. When researching my ancestors, I came across huge families of 8 - 12 children. It was so sad to realize that many of those children never lived past age 5. I can not imagine how hard it was to lose one, two, three, or more children.. sometimes year after year. We have been so removed from the process of death now (hospitals etc.) that I think it is even harder for us to process this in our minds and souls. Bye the way, your photos are stunning and you can see how much love the families put into the markers. Diane

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    1. My maternal grandparents lost 5 children, all quite young. It was very hard during those days. Many women died in childbirth, and many children died too young. I can't imagine how the parents handled so many losses. Perhaps they were used to it; it was a way of life. Now, things are different. You are right when you say we are so removed from the process of death. And more fearful of it.

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  10. These tombstones would have made me so sad, thinking of the pain and loss of the parents.

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    1. That's how I felt, Kay; very sad. I could imagine how intense the gried of these parents must be.

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  11. The photos are beautiful Martha. Death has always a tough subject for me, as I am petrified of it. When you talked about the "weird", I immediately remember this class I took in college called "Mediums and Healers." It was an amazing class, but it was so weird to be talking about our NDE and other paranormal subjects with other students. Or I could talk about the Psychology of Women class where we got to watch an "education" sex movie. It was super porn. I even closed the computer and went into the living room, because I felt I was doing something SO wrong kkkkkkk

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    1. Hahaha...that is too funny, Ana. I can only imagine what type of class that was. We had our fair share of weird courses in college, but I don't remember anything that strange!

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  12. I wonder if he meant that, in the babies cases, ignorance is bliss? They never knew what they'd missed and during the short time they lived, they would have experienced a full spectrum of physical experiences: hunger, satiety, touch, warmth, cold, pain etc. The death of a child would be a heartbreak like no other.

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    1. That is something I thought about, too. I'm not sure at what age we become aware of life and death. Perhaps an infant does feel fully satisfied simply because all its needs are met.

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  13. Oh, man, you made me cry. I had the same thought as Jane...that the ignorance of what your missing makes the joy of everything else you are experiencing that much more pure. And the potential to experience grief as you live longer...that will never be an actuality for them. Those poor parents...I wish this never had to happen to anyone.

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    1. This, by far, has to be one of the worst things to happen to any parent. I do not wish it on anyone. And no parent should have to go through it.

      Yes, ignorance is truly bliss...

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