Friday, December 12, 2014

Getting Ready for the Big Change-Out

© Charles D. Hayes

If you were to die in the next ten minutes, are there  things your surviving family members would need to know but would have no way of figuring out? Are there things that you would really want them to know? If your answer is yes, please read on.

For nearly four decades I worked in the Alaska oil industry. Most of my time was spent on the North Slope, although I worked in several other remote locations as well. All of those positions involved sharing a job on a shift rotation schedule with equal time off. Sharing a job in a high-stress work environment required extraordinary cooperation in learning how to assume responsibility for the actions of others and to communicate effectively.

As long as both parties were competent and sincere in their efforts to share accountability, the emphasis focused on communication skills. The end of one shift and the beginning of another, when alternates met to change places, was referred to as change-out day. Invariably, even with the best of intentions, change-out would occur with the employee who left the job having forgotten to share something important, something the person coming on shift would really need to know. This oversight was so common it was to be expected, in spite of two weeks of intensive note-taking and a concerted effort to cover everything that you thought the alternate would need to know. The forgetfulness often resulted in follow-up phone calls to the employee at home. 

Keep this in mind and just try to imagine how many things could be overlooked when a person dies unexpectedly without having left any change-out notes. Every day thousands of people die from cardiac arrest, traffic collisions, and myriad accidents and ailments that leave no time for putting one’s affairs in order. The absence of effective communication leaves a gaping void that others must struggle to fill without any knowledge of the deceased’s intentions. The survivors will have infinite questions they wish they had asked, but the opportunity is forever lost.

In preparing for my final change-out, I’ve had a good example to follow in my grandfather, who was born in 1889 and died in 1982. He was sixteen years older than my grandmother, and when he reached his seventies, he began preparing my grandmother for his demise by frequently going over and over the things she needed to know and the things she would need to do when he passed away. Even so, there is still a great deal I would like to know about my grandparents, but it’s too late to ask. The opportunity is also lost for their great-great grandchildren to know as much as they could about their distant ancestors.    

Death is a subject that most of us avoid for understandable reasons, but if you’ve ever been with someone who had to put the necessary pieces together after a family member has died unexpectedly, or if you’ve had this experience yourself, you know how hard it is to answer questions when there is no one left alive who can answer them.

All of us know we should keep records, lists, and personal notes to keep our affairs in order, especially as we age and our memory becomes less reliable, but does anyone else have that information or know where to find it? Let me suggest a simple way to keep your data for yourself and your family, just in case this information is needed someday. Create a written file—it can be hand-written, on a computer, or even on a cell phone as long as those who should have the information know the file’s name and location and can attain access.

For many of us an easy way to do this might be to work on the data a few minutes every day, week, or month until the file is in good shape. It’s likely that you will always be a little behind and there will always be more things to add or details to update, but just imagine what a difference your change-out notes can make if they are needed someday.

Needless to say, security is of paramount importance with this kind of information and every effort should be made to make sure it cannot be hacked via malware or be subject to being read by anyone unauthorized to do so. One method you can use is to print a hard copy of the basic file, fill in the sensitive material by hand, and keep the copy under lock and key or simply save the file only on a thumb drive.

I’m offering my initial template list here to serve as a guide for your planning. As with any change-out, I’m sure I’ve forgotten some things, so I would very much appreciate your thoughts and suggestions based on your own experience. As the list improves over time, I will post updates.    

Practical matters — location and pertinent details for the following:

  • your will
  • life insurance
  • burial or cremation preferences and wishes
  • Social Security number
  • auto insurance
  • driver’s license number
  • health insurance
  • hereditary medical history
  • tax documents
  • computer passwords
  • A narrative about your computer files
  • deeds, titles
  • debts and payees
  • bank accounts and investments
  • preferred charities
  • addresses and telephone numbers of people to notify
  • personal property disposition
  • photos and keepsakes
  • an obituary draft or notes to include:
    • education
    • military service
    • work history
    • parents’ names
    • career achievements
    • proudest moments 
      How you wish to be remembered
  • your aspirations for others
  • special things you would like to share
  • favorite foods
  • favorite colors
  • favorite subjects
  • hobbies
  • fondest memories
  • favorite movies
  • favorite books, quotes, literary passages
  • favorite music
  • reading suggestions
  • regrets
  • life lessons
  • things you wish you had done
  • apologies  
    Final wishes
    If you have a choice, where do you want to spend your last days—in a hospital or at home? With others around you or alone? What music would you like to hear? Would you want a visit from the clergy?  
    Advance Directives

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Aging, Aspiration, and Activism

© Charles D. Hayes

If you are getting on in years and facing the reality that time is running out, you may experience an existential alarm that rings erratically and gets increasingly louder. You breeze by the aging markers of 40, 50, 60, and then, all of a sudden, it seems you are elderly. More and more, I find instances of people being described as elderly who are years younger than I am.
For some people like me, being elderly comes with an urgent call for perspective, a pressing need to be realistic about time. When we’re finally able to put aside all illusions about our mortality and fully realize that we are experiencing the final chapters of life, everything begins to look different. Many of the myths we have grown up believing are shattered by the clarity of oblivion.
A large body of evidence in existential psychology shows clearly that the prospect of death affects us deeply at both a conscious and unconscious level. Although the most common strategy in the past seems to have been to deny one’s approaching demise, recent research suggests that a straight-up acknowledgement and overt conscious awareness of one’s forthcoming death can add greatly to the quality of day-to-day experience by forcing us to see more clearly and allowing the things we really value to stand out.
The realization that time is short can seem like a meaningful civil comeuppance in that it tends to cut through all of the platitudes and clichés we’ve heard about the ideological nature of freedom that comes with being an American citizen and with having grown up in a country where people are accustomed to thinking of themselves as being free in the greatest nation on the earth.
The prospect of an abbreviated future exposes the idea that genuine freedom is different from popular opinion. To be truly free one has to have the ability to see through illusions, to defy the herd’s desperate need to conform, and to enjoy the privilege of using one’s time as one chooses. It means being able to pursue one’s interests and treat the important things in our lives as if they really matter, regardless of what others think, say, or do.  
Once you begin to think like this, you may find it hard to believe that you ever bought into the notion that time is money, because you can’t buy more time. If you have enough money, you can spend what time you have as you please, but such thinking reveals our culture to be a social arrangement that indentures millions of its citizens to a life of poverty. This situation has grown out of an arbitrary use and abuse of power based on counterfeit assumptions, lip service about values, and an imagined sense of tribalistic superiority that thrives on advantage and strives to maintain advantage with arrogance, contempt, and a willingness to go to any extreme necessary to prevail. 
As Americans we grow up being taught a history so whitewashed, so egregiously out of sync with the realities of the past, that it’s little wonder the stories we wind up believing about our past are mythic fantasies. History shows that we are easily distracted, routinely duped, and so effectively manipulated politically that we spend little time paying attention to the things we should. Politicians in both parties routinely practice bait and switch.
Our future depends on high-order technology, while the real political power lies in the psychological manipulation of poorly educated citizens by shifting the blame for inequality to the least powerful among us, those who are without echelons of paid lobbyists to rig an advantage—those who are unable to effectively represent their own interests. Scapegoats offer antagonists a reliable distraction that works nearly every time.
By any objective criteria, moneyed interests have hijacked the original aspirations of America as a democracy driven by the attributes of meritocracy and the idea that citizens require some measure of leisure in order to become active participants in their own governance. That America has become a plutocracy is undeniable, and claims to the contrary are disingenuous by any standard. It’s surprising how clear this reality becomes when one’s future is small.
The angst that comes with age is both a curse and an opportunity, a dreaded feeling and also a clue that there is something to get beyond, something that can be improved. As we age, nostalgia—if it doesn’t itself become a habit of excessive distraction—often presents itself as a method of fixing something wrong in the present by comparison with something worthy in the past, although care has to be taken not to judge the past with selective memory.
For millions of our citizens, real freedom is little more than a cliché. There are myriad ideological excuses for America’s growing inequality, some of which are very sophisticated and sound convincing, but none of them are good enough to justify it. None, zip, zero.
That a significant number of our population can spend a lifetime of hard work at wages that guarantee poverty while a few individuals loot America’s corporations under the phony guise of excellence is ludicrous. What’s even more preposterous is that so many people can be persuaded to accept such contrived inequality as adequate living conditions and be so confused about the real essence of freedom.
The tactic of using the virtue of hard work as a divisive cultural weapon is rendered sterile and infantile by the reality that much of what is done that we called work has an enormous negative economic effect on our citizens and the planet. To claim that a significant percentage of our population is devoid of the virtue necessary to earn above-poverty wages is patently absurd, and to indenture generations to financial institutions to pay for college to qualify for jobs that won’t pay enough to retire the debt is a national disgrace. 
When the decades have stacked up behind us like cordwood, it doesn’t take a lot of reflection to acknowledge that many of the things we were taught to accept as truths were really distractions manufactured to keep order by those with enough power to make people believe that freedom is the ability to switch from one low-paying job to another instead of having enough economic equity to have the time and leisure to learn to become fully vested citizens.
But then, how else could you create a society in which executives could run companies into bankruptcy and yet walk away with enough largesse to live freely and never work again without citizens taking to the streets in protest? Speaking for myself, a lifetime of study reveals that history is one longsuffering attempt to justify the power of those with the authority to write it. 
Unfortunately, the majority of magazines and websites for seniors these days are so superficial and so shallow in their content that, if anything, they add to the angst of aging. So the bottom line here is that the last chapters of life are where the whole book of one’s life needs to end with a perspective which allows for the possibility that one’s existence will have made enough sense that something of value might be shared with those who will survive us.
Imagining what life could be like if we tamped down the contempt that results from tribalistic pretention is much easier to do when we remove ourselves from the equation and consider the possibility of achieving the kind of civilization where it would be commonly accepted that everyone’s life really matters, not just those who have mastered the ethos of greed.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, argues that many of the economic problems we face occur because the people making the decisions have no skin in the game, so to speak. In other words, they have nothing to lose. Then contrast John Rawls’ Theory of Justice advocating creation of a society in which the people cutting the economic pie do so under conditions that bar them from knowing which piece they themselves will get.
Now keep both of these notions in mind as you consider how objective we might be in offering feasible advice for a society that we won’t be alive to see. In other words, imagine you have no life in the game except through your kin and progeny who will live on after you. If this kind of objectivity can’t be trusted, what can?  

My Books and Essays on Amazon
New Fiction: The Call of Mortality
My Other Blog
Follow me on Twitter @CDHWasilla  

Sunday, January 12, 2014

We’re All Born to Deny Reality

© Charles D. Hayes

If you doubt that we’re born to deny reality, you’re actually proving the point. The evidence is indisputable that we human beings have built-in reality buffers. We smoke, drink, overeat, waste resources, and engage in every possible kind of risk-taking activity, oblivious to or disregarding the likely results of our actions.
At the core of our tendency to deny reality is the barefaced inevitability of our own death. Unless we are threatened with imminent annihilation or given a short time to live, we are predisposed to perceive of the future as something open-ended and unlimited, regardless of our age. We are loath to admit our existence is finite.
 Some of us are so sensitive about the subject of death that people or practices that appear to be different from the familiar give us pause. We reject otherness, change, and uncertainty because they represent the possibility of our demise. Thousands of religious belief systems exist throughout the world, and yet the adherents within each of them resolutely believe that theirs is the only correct worldview. Similarly, conspiracy theorists prefer to believe in string-pulling manipulation by powerful forces rather than accept the frightening prospect that no one is in control.    
A recent entry in examining our pronounced ability for deceiving ourselves is Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower. These authors contend that the ability to deny reality is the very psychological mechanism that has made our survival possible and that optimism is indeed a strategy for denial. Physician and writer Abraham Verghese has called this "the most exciting idea in evolution since Darwin." Yes, it’s exciting, but it’s certainly not new.
Back in 1974, Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for The Denial of Death, an examination of our propensity for self-deception about our own mortality. And before the ideas of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett gained prominence, we had the work of John F. Schumaker. His Wings of Illusion and The Corruption of Reality took the subject of belief and self-deception to points that other theorists are just now beginning to discover.
Looking deeply into our existential predicament is a sobering experience. Our sun is a second-rate star in a modest galaxy, where no one thing or location can be deemed more important than any other—with the exception of those upon whose light and gravity we depend. The earth is hurtling through space at thousands of miles per hour and appears to be headed nowhere in particular.
The same analogy applies to our lives as individuals. We represent an amalgamation of biology, culture, time, and place, with no particular significance attributable to any of these components. The only thing that is special about any of us is our uniqueness with regard to others, which is only a matter of degree.
 We come into the world with biological predispositions, and we absorb cultural biases and beliefs as readily as plants photosynthesize sunlight. These factors make it impossible for any single individual or group to claim title to precisely the right place to be, the right things to believe, or the right things to do—although you would never know it by the proliferation of pretense all around us.
Dig deep enough into our ontological dilemma and the evidence of cosmic chaos is overwhelming. In the face of it, people find comfort in an illusion of permanency, which seems highly preferable to any objective recognition of how much our lives are influenced by chance. In a universe where disorder rules, our lives amount to nothing more than a posture we assume, and yet, as individuals we feel that our lives represent the ground zero of meaningful experience. In one sense, what we do means nothing, but in another sense, it can mean everything.
In his book An Appetite for Wonder, scientist Richard Dawkins writes about how, because of timing, something as simple as a sneeze can have a domino effect on the future. A personal example brought this home to me recently. I intended to call a friend one day, but I didn’t. Some hours later, that friend was killed in a traffic accident. Now, I’m reasonably sure that if I had phoned him as I’d intended, he would still be alive because he would not have been at the intersection at the moment the accident happened. A matter of a few seconds would have changed the outcome.
Imagine how different life might be for us now if, in November of 1963, President Kennedy’s motorcade had not driven by Dealey Plaza in Dallas. We can speculate ad nauseam, but trying to mentally reverse past events is both futile and counterproductive. If I had called my friend as planned, it may indeed have changed the course of his behavior and avoided the accident. When we begin to reason like this, however, questions persist. For instance, was it the last time I did talk to him that somehow set him up for his misfortune? Such lines of thinking are seductive, but they always reach a dead-end and encourage magical thinking.
 I’m not in any way suggesting that we are responsible for unknowable future events. Only in hindsight can events appear inevitable. The present is rife with chaotic possibilities. To the contrary, thinking through hypothetical situations can help us inoculate ourselves against comforting illusions that shelter us from seeing just how precariously our lives depend upon luck.
 My sense is that everything does happen for any number of reasons, but nothing can happen in the lives of human beings that cannot be altered by chance. We are bound together in a chain of chaotic events so seamlessly connected that they appear tranquil right up to the moment when reality crashes the party. By design, our brains impose a sense of order on a world driven by mayhem.
Subjectivity is the substance we are made of. Our worldviews represent our social bonds steeped in emotional experience. Our mortal fears surface when our beliefs are seriously questioned, because the process threatens to raise a window on reality that most of us would prefer stayed closed. Yet, in a cosmic wink, we will all be gone, centuries will pass, and what is commonly believed today will someday be thought quaint if not absurd.
 Ecologists tell us that a sustainable population of humans on our planet is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 billion people, but by the end of this century, the world’s population is estimated to be almost fifteen times that amount. This statement alone should remove any doubt about our being deniers of reality.
John F. Schumaker says we need to determine an optimal level of reality distortion that won’t exact the price of civilization. In his words, "The impossible challenge is to face the truth without panic, to derive all meaning from where we are and what we are." Illusions aside, this is all we’ve got.
It’s easy to appreciate how illusions have helped us survive. Evolution equipped us for self-deception in part so that we would readily take risks without calculating our chances of success. Obviously this approach has worked.
In centuries past, illusions have aided our survival, but now we’re speeding forward without questioning our assumptions.  Because of our burgeoning numbers, the future, if we are to have one, demands that we trade our illusions for objectivity. What helped us thrive as a species in the distant past now threatens our very existence.

My Books and Essays on Amazon
New Fiction: The Call of Mortality
My Other Blog
Follow me on Twitter @CDHWasilla