Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

21-11. On Certainty

I was going to give this post the title, ‘Death and Taxes’ but I guessed many of my readers are getting a little tired of my obsession with death, and who wants to talk about taxes. So I called it ‘certainty’ instead, as in, nothing is quite so certain as death and taxes. (This quote yet again attributed to the prodigious Benjamin Franklin, though he himself likely borrowed it from the general memes of the times, likely in this case begun by Daniel Defoe.) 

I had good cause to talk about death, or more aptly, grief, that great consequence of death, and then also taxes. As you know, Bonnie met her demise at the hands of The Grim Reaper’s veterinary agent, aided in the betrayal by Judas Jordan, trusting devoted poodle that she was. I was surprised at the blue funk I fell into over the subsequent two weeks, I thought I was inured to grief and I had easily rationalized the necessity of letting Bonnie’s struggle with pain and immobility end humanely. (Curious word that: humane.)

Despite the certainty of the having to do my taxes, I had procrastinated on filing my 2020 tax return for weeks – I’m not late, I have the privilege of being self-employed and so have till June 15 to file, which is of small advantage as one must still pay taxes owing by April 30. But Bonnie’s dying and my subsequent funk brought me very close to the deadline. My 2020 vision of timely filing was becoming myopic. Moreover, I also had the [self-imposed] looming deadline of posting my semi-monthly blog post on the 15th. I was stressed, I didn’t sleep well. I didn’t do anything about it.

I’ve never really enjoyed doing that burdensome chore, filling and filing the tax forms, but the latent clerk, or penitent, in me somehow drew a sort of perverse pleasure in the task. For many years this deeply personal administrative task was done by hand of course, and then the last 20 years or so with the aid of tax software. (Maybe that’s why it’s so stressful, finances is personal, with lots of implications.) I had an annual ritual, taxes were done on Good Friday. Sometimes Good Friday fell in March, well ahead of the due date. I would hope for rain, a suitable gloom for the double significance (for me at least) for the day. I’d get to my desk by 9:30 (it was after all a religious holiday and I was entitled to luxuriate a while in the morning Globe and indulge myself in a second cup of coffee), and then start in, collecting all my documents (Ha!), and open the forms, or software. The task got harder and lengthier when I became self-employed in the ‘90s, and longer again when Marlene had returned to the workforce and had to file her own taxes. Again, Ha! She was intimidated by forms and was very good at delegating. Five or six hours later I was be done, exhausted, and stressed out to here. The kids cleverly made themselves scarce. In later years I swear they even resorted to getting themselves married and avoided coming over on Good Fridays. 

It’s amazing how we put off doing what we know we must, somehow hoping to buy time and maybe a miracle. It’s certain we have to do our taxes. (Though maybe not for everyone – I’ve heard of people who avoided filing tax returns for years, maybe even know some of them, and I’m pretty sure it’s not because they have no taxable income.) It seems just as certain we have to accept our own demise too (though maybe those serial avoiders also know something about certain death the rest of us don’t).

I suppose the only remedy for the certainty of taxes is the certainty of death, though even in death your executor has to tie up all the loose ends you left and file one last return; how sad for her or him.

It’s paradoxical, our attitude to the certainty of death. Death may be certain[1] but we are rarely prepared. That may be because we are not sure exactly when that dread day will come. And as a consequence, we put off preparing properly for it. Of course in death we fear for the loss of our future but I’m not sure that is the greater fear. It’s the ‘not knowing’, for sure, what comes after death that troubles the mind; maybe it is the horror of uncertainty that keeps us avoiding our obligations. I oft recall Woody Allen on death: ‘I’m not afraid of death, I just got don’t want to be there when it happens!’ 

I’ve read a lot about death, and all its philosophical, religious, and emotional aspects, even long before I came face to face with it with Marlene’s end of life, not to mention all the dogs. We have strong attachments (see here for my reference to attachment theory) to the ones we love and I think dogs have reciprocal feelings; when it comes to feelings, dogs may be as ‘conscious’ as human beings, just not prescient. Bonnie had no idea what was about to happen to her, but Marlene surely did. We (Marlene and I, not Bonnie and I) never really talked about her inner-most fears, but right up to almost the last moment of her consciousness she likely believed she would still recover. Luckily for her, her last eight days were in a coma. 

But since we know death is certain, why do we put off making arrangements? We ought to face up to it and be prepared, even to the point of scheduling our own final hour, as I did for Bonnie. But really, when it comes to it, will I really be prepared for that much certainty.

I believe in MAID and fully intend to act on it when my time is closer to certainty, assuming nothing accidental happens in the meantime. (Curious acronym, MAID (Medical Assistance In Dying), I guess MAD was felt inappropriate, even though many think it apt.) And in the meantime, I should have all my affairs in order: my banking reserves sufficient to meet all my obligations; my funeral arrangements made, including music; a note to my executor so she can locate all my necessary documents, and passwords! But I know I am not as prepared as I should be.

So, certainty. The human mind craves certainly, it abhors ambiguity and uncertainty. I said ‘mind’ out of habit, memes, cultural vocabulary. We suffer under the illusion that we have a mind, that somehow our ‘minds’ are magically separate from our brains. But how can that be? What is mind? What is that ego-sense we have that we are in charge of ourselves, that there is a mini-you inhabiting your brain, a homunculus calling the shots? It is one of the great mysteries of the universe. Whether you believe in ‘mind’ or merely ‘brain’, in either case uncertainty is the enemy. If you are out of your mind, your brain’s architecture, its billons of neurons and trillions of synapses nevertheless churns away at its biological purpose; it is a memory and predictive machine; it processes environmental stimuli, compares it with existing mental models (or not, often it skips this step) and acts/reacts. If it took correct action it moves on to the next step; if not, it tries something else, less familiar in its repertoire, and assesses what happens. If it was a positive outcome the brain learns from its own experience[2] and files it away for future reference. (if it gets it seriously wrong of course it’s game over.) The memory of the stimulus, and the action, are associated with a ‘feeling’. And the feeling causes an action when the same or similar stimulus occurs again. In this way the brain deals with uncertainty: it is compelled to act. Even if it ignores the stimulus, the lack of action is a sort of action, and may have a consequence; it also generates a ‘feeling memory’. Lack of action to the stimulus may momentarily resolve the uncertainty for the brain but the uncertainty problem itself also gives rise to a feeling, or feelings. For the non-conscious brain the price of uncertainty is anxiety, but the solution is to act. (I imagine your brain hurts now after having read, even re-read, that paragraph. How do you think I feel? I had to write it!)

If the notion of a non-conscious brain is too upsetting for you you can always fall back on your conviction that your mind is more than your brain and it is up to ‘you’ to assess the situation and take, for you, some sort of action. Your mind seeks certainty and acts to reduce uncertainty. From its lived experience your mind evaluates the situation and takes considered action, or not. In deciding what to do your mind is somehow calculating risk[3]. (And some people have a higher risk tolerance, and capacity to evaluate risk, than others.) The course of action you take may not be fully rational but it is your choice. Or so you think.

But this uncertainty, this trouble we have of calculating risk, and deciding on what action to take, including taking no action, drives so much of our neuroses, and sleeplessness. We wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat, toss and turn for a while, maybe a long while; we write down on a note pad what we’re going to do about it in the morning and so trick our ‘mind’ into leaving us alone so as to get back to sleep. Samuel Johnson has famously said, the prospect of one’s own demise concentrates the mind wonderfully, but I’m not sure he’s right; for some it may make them even more frantic about the uncertainty that is coming. On the other hand, as Julian Barnes said in his wonderful book, Nothing to be Frightened Of, death is nothing to be frightened of; but what does he know, did his dad send him a card?.

So why are we so frightened? Death and taxes, it’s the uncertainty of it all.

You may be relieved to know that I did finish and file my [2020] tax return on Saturday. You may also be churlish enough to smile at the information that I owe Her Majesty’s Government $15000. Now that’s a certainty to be frightened of. My ‘mind’ knows I had the ability to deal with this problem differently but ‘I’ didn’t heed. The question now is, has it learned anything? ‘I’ certainly doubt it.

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata Ontario

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing

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[1] The certainty of death begs the question of the what comes after death; that may be the topic of a future post.

[2] though even some of this ‘knowing’ many actually be inherited, imprinted in our DNA, our brains already programmed for some actions improving our chance of survival. For this reason people are innately xenophobic, and have a fear of snakes.

[3] (In current usage the word risk has lost its meaning, it now is a synonym for danger, whereas, statistically speaking, risk is the product of probability of an event happening, and the consequences if the event happens. Something of high probability but low consequence (positive or negative) is low risk; it is also low risk if it has low probability and high consequence, but many people don’t see it that way.)

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