A family friend once said that he believed there was nothing a person could not be conditioned to accept. He based his theory on his career in the military, where intense training taught him to react without thinking, to ignore the danger and heed the command of a call as needed. He truly believed that a human could be conditioned to respond or accept anything in life, with enough time and intense training so nothing would come as a surprise or shock to the person.
Of course he never put the theory to test, although I saw glimpses of his theory in his children, or rather how he and his wife raised them. His children learned to sleep alone, in a dark room, at a very young age. Night lights were not an option because the children should be conditioned to not require that type of false comfort. Instead the children should be conditioned to accept and enjoy the darkness, which would encourage a deeper sleep.
When his children were learning to ride their bicycles they were conditioned to expect to fall, scrape their knees, get a little bloody and so on. After all failure is part of the learning journey. I didn’t see much more of the children as they were growing up, mostly because I had gotten on with the business of getting on with my own life.
A few days ago I received a text message from his youngest son, asking if I could meet him and his brother for a chat. They had questions, and given my area of study, they felt I might be able to answer their questions, or at the very least point them to someone who could help them out. He didn’t say what type of questions they had; he didn’t provide anything other than a location, date and time. I guess he assumed that I was conditioned to expect working with knowing only what someone felt I needed to know. (Clearly he didn’t know me too well, but I didn’t make an issue of things because we barely knew each other, what with all the passing years.)
It turns out that the man was dying and he felt ill-prepared for death. He wasn’t sure what was expected of him, what customs or rituals should be performed and what words should be spoken. This then was why the son had asked to meet with me. To sort out these issues and the issues the boys had themselves, such as what were their responsibilities as their father was in the process of dying.
Very few of us will have the luxury to be prepared for death, to meet death on our terms after we’ve tied up all our loose ends and such. Death often comes for us before we are fully ready for it. I told the sons this very thing and asked questions around faith and beliefs. Evidently faith and beliefs around rituals, religion and such were not something that the boys could really speak of. They had no idea what religion their father might have been comfortable with. And the nature of the questions (and the way the questions were being asked) by the boys indicated to me that they had no real concept of what they would like or not like in a way of helping them deal with their father’s death.
When I expressed to their father that I had no means to prepare him for death, I also expressed to him that no matter what he did, it would be the right thing for him given his circumstances and ideals. He seemed to accept that as an answer he could work with. His sons came to their own way of coping with his death process, based on their own ideas and what they know of their father.
Perhaps with enough time, enough detachment to the material and physical world, we can become conditioned for everything. We can be fully prepared and able to accept things as they come. But perhaps in order to be conditioned for death, we must first admit it would require giving up a lot of things we aren’t really ready to give up yet. (And no doubt we’d each be forced to confront our own fears of death, how brief our lives really are, and what it means to actually die. I somehow think most of us would rather not contemplate these things.)