This week’s selected media, June 16, 2024: In My Time of Dying and The Law

June 16, 2024 by Joshua
in Tips

This week I finished:

In my time of dying: How I Came Face to Face with the Idea of an Afterlife, by podcast guest Sebastian Junger: Sebastian and I have met a few times in Manhattan and become friends. His book Tribe influenced my book tremendously, in fact I read it the morning I unplugged everything in my apartment, beginning living off the grid in Manhattan.

I was predisposed to like the book. It begins gripping. After some background on his family’s history, including with some of the great twentieth-century physicists, he dives in, sharing his experience nearly dying from an aneurysm.

While that story is engaging, he isn’t the first person to confront death. We all do, or can. I wondered if he was going to go over what college students wonder in dorm hallways: what if we’re really imagining everything and we’re really dreaming? Is there an afterlife? Was he going to conclude we could die any time so should live to the fullest?

If so, I would be bored. I’ve heard and pondered those questions before. But he did more. It occurred to me that I hadn’t come across someone seriously considering these questions and writing up something comprehensive. Maybe he was onto something. One thing that makes something art to me is when it says something I always knew but had never seen expressed before. I asked myself: has anyone considered these question comprehensively, with sophistication? If so, I didn’t know of it. So I got curious where he’d go.

I also compared it with When Breath Becomes Air, which I read last week and also dealt with dying. When Breath Becomes Air reminded me of Ikiru and The Death of Ivan Illyich, two masterpieces I felt it didn’t live up to, though still a worthy book. In My Time of Dying reminded me of Siddharta and it did live up to it. The last page of Siddharta blew me away and changed how I viewed life, death, and the universe.

To my great surprise, In My Time of Dying achieved as much. It hit me when Sebastian described results of recent experiments in quantum entanglement. Look, I have a PhD in physics. He talks a lot about oddities of quantum mechanics that I studied even before majoring in physics, with the (in my opinion great) philosopher of science David Albert. I know the science and have considered the mind-bending stuff in two-slit experiments, quantum entanglement, Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen stuff, many-worlds interpretations, Schrodinger’s cat, and all that stuff decades ago. I didn’t expect to hear anything new in it.

But Sebastian dove in. His father was a physicist. His father also appeared to him in the hospital when he almost died. If you’re picking up on rhythms and symmetries, so did I. The book unfolded to me more like a fugue or symphony. The book’s composition, recurring themes, voices coming and going with rhythm, color, timbre, reference, self-reference, phrasing, and other elements of all art revealed themselves.

As I neared the end of the book, the first part I recalled as gripping. It made me curious. However beyond my personal experience being so close to death was, his experience felt accessible. No, I doctors haven’t saved my life by entering my body cavity through my jugular with minutes to spare, but we’ve all been close to death, even if not as close or as many times as Sebastian. But we could die in the next second, which he realized, so he couldn’t claim unique knowledge or experience there.

But that part of the book was just exposition, introducing the characters, or voices. He was creating context from the play-by-play to jump into the color commentary. I won’t try to describe the second part, but he deeply researched near death experiences, medical procedures, quantum mechanics, and some history of science, which he wove into his post-near-death-experience trauma and recovery. He kept pushing limits of things like connecting consciousness to cosmology through quantum mechanics enough to challenge me, but within bounds so I’d think, “he’s pushing it, but let’s see where he goes.” Beyond the research, he reflected and introspected to connect these reflections beyond his experience to universal human experience.

The path to universal human emotions and experience is through vulnerability. I’d never seen some of his considerations written before, despite the otherwise worn territory.

His juxtaposing the recent physics experiment implying causality going back in time with our fundamental inability to tell how much we’re living a dream, or if consciousness is part of the fabric of the universe, and other thoughts that in other hands could be platitudes, but in this book resonated made the end of the book soar like Beethoven’s ninth.

Sebastian wasn’t trying to answer questions nobody can, or at least haven’t for several millennia. I read him as creating a work of art based on ideas the way Beethoven created symphonies based on musical phrases. All the voices came together at the end, revealing the composition of the whole book, connecting those pushed limits.

Everything I’ve described so far would seem to me like pushing the limits of what this book was about until just after the juxtaposition I described above. I’m not sure many people would have understood the significance and bizarreness of that experiment’s results, nor am I sure Sebastian explained it accurately, but he communicated its meaning relevant to his trying to understand life, consciousness, death, the cosmos, science, religion, coincidence, history, experience, existence, non-existence, and more.

Then, suddenly, like Hesse’s Siddharta, on the last page he returns to family, love, humility, surrender, age, death, and life. What and how he wrote led me to appreciate greater meaning and purpose to my work on sustainability leadership. I think you will feel something similar. He got me thinking of my relationship with my father, who died less than a year ago, his love for me, and his inability to express it in ways I could understand. That Sebastian connected reflections on the universe to me considering my relationship with my father in new, meaningful ways I hadn’t before was the art I’m talking about. On my father, I never felt understood by him so rejected him. I worked hard to make myself independent but ultimately lowered my ability to express myself even to myself, crippling my development.

I can revisit that relationship even after his death. That I could feel that way just after Sebastian’s crescendo of the physics, philosophy, and accident led me nearly to applaud the book when I finished it.

After reading the book, I listened to and watched all the reviews, podcasts, and articles on it, and there were plenty. All treat his near death experience. Some cover the quantum mechanics. A couple touch on his family, but I don’t think any of them saw the book for the artistic performance. Sebastian describes himself as a journalist seeking to report truth, but nearly all reviews note his use of language. I think they miss the full performance. I recommend reading the book that way.

You’ll find some videos here (interspersed with Led Zeppelin) and articles here. I listened to Sebastian with Sam Harris, Dan Harris, Tim Ferriss, Simon Sinek, The Daily Show, the Franklin-Covey podcast, and a few other shows, some big, some small. I read about his book in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and bunch of other places too.

The Law, by Frédéric Bastiat: I hadn’t heard of Bastiat, but one of the Leadership Institute classes recommended it. This book blew me away as much as Sebastian’s. I don’t remember the last time I finished two books back-to-back that affected me this much. What a week!

Bastiat lived 1801-50, so died young. He reflected on the French Revolution and the rise of socialism. Classical liberals seem to come mainly from the UK and US, but he was French. He opposed socialism, which he saw as undermining the protection of life, liberty, and property. John Locke’s second Treatise on Government influenced him.

He described non-consensual redistribution of property as legal plunder. People long before me have seen pollution as socialized losses and privatized gains. His book and its attacks on socialism apply nearly across the board to pollution. The problems he describes coming from too great a concentration of power, using law to plunder are happening today.

If I tried quoting him to show how his book applies today, I’d end up quoting the book. It’s under 20,000 words, so a quick read.

I’ll have to figure out how to incorporate The Law into my book, which will be hard because it’s passed final copy edits. I’ll see if I can work something out with my publisher.

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