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When Things Go Missing - The New Yorker

The verb “to lose” has its taproot sunk in sorrow; it is related to the “lorn” in forlorn. It comes from an Old English word meaning to perish, which comes from a still more ancient word meaning to separate or cut apart. The modern sense of misplacing an object appeared later, in the thirteenth century; a hundred years after that, “to lose” acquired the meaning of failing to win. In the sixteenth century, we began to lose our minds; in the seventeenth century, our hearts. The circle of what we can lose, in other words, began with our own lives and one another and has been steadily expanding ever since. In consequence, loss today is a supremely awkward category, bulging with everything from mittens to life savings to loved ones, forcing into relationship all kinds of wildly dissimilar experiences.

Scientist explains the psychological function of eulogizing the deceased

Thus, eulogizing the life of another after they die is almost like upholding our part of the bargain. We need to believe that others will carry on our memory after our death in order to allay our anxieties, and so we do for them what we hope they will do for us. When you think about it this way, you can see why the eulogy has become such an institutionalized aspect of the funeral ceremony. It satisfies our deeply rooted need to manage our own anxiety and sadness surrounding death and finitude.

When to dig

As a little girl, she used to help dig a grave before winter came. “You knew someone was going to die,” she says, and if the ground was frozen, the body would have no place to go. “As a kid, you would think: That could be anybody. That could be me.”

Aubade by Philip Larkin

This is a special way of being afraid No trick dispels. Religion used to try, That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade Created to pretend we never die, And specious stuff that says No rational being Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound, No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, Nothing to love or link with, The anasthetic from which none come round.

Couples' quality of life linked even when one partner dies

In previous work, Bourassa and colleagues had found evidence of synchrony, or interdependence, between partners' quality of life, finding that a person's cognitive functioning or health influences not only their own well-being but also the well-being of their partner. Bourassa and colleagues wondered whether this interdependence continues even when one of the partners passes away. To find out, the researchers turned to the multinational, representative Study of Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), an ongoing research project with over 80,000 aging adult participants across 18 European countries and Israel. Specifically, they examined data from 546 couples in which one partner had died during the study period and data from 2566 couples in which both partners were still living. As one might expect, the researchers found that participants' quality of life earlier in the study predicted their quality of life later. And the data also provided evidence for interdependence between partners -- a participant's quality of life earlier in the study was associated with his or her partner's quality of life later. Intriguingly, the results revealed interdependence between partners even when one partner died during the study; the association remained even after Bourassa and colleagues accounted for other factors that might have played a role, such as participants' health, age, and years married.

Charismatic leaders helped by perception of mortal threats

For example, the researchers asked students to think about death or a control topic and then read statements supposedly written by gubernatorial candidates of varying leadership styles. You are not just an ordinary citizen, you are part of a special state and a special nation, the charismatic leader said. I can accomplish all the goals that I set out to do. I am very careful in laying out a detailed blueprint of what needs to be done so that there is no ambiguity, a task-oriented leader said. I encourage all citizens to take an active role in improving their state. I know that each individual can make a difference, the relationship-oriented leader said. Participants then picked the candidate they would vote for. After thinking about a control topic, four of 95 people chose the charismatic leader. After a death reminder, that candidate’s votes increased nearly eightfold. Such results, the psychologists wrote, suggested that "close elections could be decided as a result of nonrational terror-management concerns."

Lurking, death niggles

While thinking about death directly, Pyszczynski says, folks do rational things to get away from it, like trying to get healthy. It’s when death lurks on the fringes of consciousness that they cling to worldviews and seek self-esteem. "That helps explain why these ideas might seem strange to some people," says Pyszczynski, a professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "You can’t really introspect on it. While you’re thinking about death, this isn’t what you do."

The race away from death

In a new book surveying that work, The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life (Random House), Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczyn­ski argue that fear of death drives our actions to a much greater extent than people realize. "The terror of death has guided the development of art, religion, language, economics, and science," they write. "It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in Manhattan. It contributes to conflicts around the globe. At a more personal level, recognition of our mortality leads us to love fancy cars, tan ourselves to an unhealthy crisp, max out our credit cards, drive like lunatics, itch for a fight with a perceived enemy, and crave fame, however ephemeral, even if we have to drink yak urine on Survivor to get it."

We're all running away from death

One, that our awareness of death creates tremendous potential for anxiety or terror. Two, that we learn to manage that terror by embedding ourselves in a cultural worldview that imbues reality with order, meaning, and stability. Three, that we gain and maintain psychological security by sustaining faith in that worldview and living up to the values it conveys.

Havel tidies, waits for the end

Late in his life, he remarked that he was moving about his country house, all alone, a battered old man, tidying up, making sure that his table was orderly, all the books piled just so, “fresh flowers in the vases.” Why, he wondered, was he doing this? Or rather, for whom was he doing it? It’s as though I were constantly expecting someone to visit. But who? … I have only one explanation: I am constantly preparing for the last judgement, for the highest court from which nothing can be hidden.

Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer

I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight. […] This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).[…]I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night.

A name is worth a thousand photographs?

the ability of a name to bring back every single memory you have of that per-son is far more realistic and specific and much more comprehensive than a still photograph, which captures a specific moment in time or a single event or a generalized image that may or may not be moving for all who have connections to that time.

Vietnam Memorial and Woolsey Hall at Yale

The power of a name was very much with me at the time, partly because of the Memorial Rotunda at Yale. In Woolsey Hall, the walls are inscribed with the names of all the Yale alumni who have been killed in wars. I had never been able to resist touching the names cut into these marble walls, and no matter how busy or crowded the place is, a sense of quiet, a reverence, always surrounds those names. Throughout my freshman and sophomore years, the stonecutters were carving in by hand the names of those killed in the Vietnam War, and I think it left a lasting impression on me…the sense of the power of a name.

How to end well

But when her hospice nurse arrived, she asked Peg what she cared most about in her life, what having the best day possible meant to her. […]Her first goal was just managing her daily difficulties. The hospice team put a hospital bed on the first floor so she wouldn’t have to navigate the stairs, organized a plan for bathing and dressing, adjusted her pain medications until they were right. Her anxieties plummeted as the challenges came under control. She raised her sights.[…]“She was focused on the main chance,” Martin later said. “She came to a clear view of how she wanted to live the rest of her days. She was going to be home, and she was going to teach.”[…]“[…]She’d had no children; her students filled that place for her. And she still had some things she wanted them to know before she went. “It was important to her to be able to say her goodbyes to her dear friends, to give her parting advice to her students.”
There’s a word in Hebrew—malkosh—that means “last rain.” It’s a word that only means something in places like Israel, where there’s a clear distinction between winter and the long, dry stretch of summer. It’s a word, too, that can only be applied in retrospect. When it’s raining, you have no way of knowing that the falling drops would be the last ones of the year. But then time goes by, the clouds clear, and you realize that that rain shower was the one. Having a mother—being mothered—is similar, in a way. It’s a term that I only fully grasp now, with the thirst of hindsight: who she was, who I was for her, what she has equipped me with.