The Meaning Of Life In A Dog’s Death

Mercutio Mathews, RIP (years ago)

When our dog was dying, I asked the vet if our dog was dying. He said, “as long as you’re shitting and eating, you’re fine.” I think about what he said often. It’s the closest I’ve come to the meaning of life.

I think about children, how you immediately have to feed them or they disappear. I remember assiduously monitoring my babies’ poops and pees to make sure everything was being processed correctly. Now I’m sitting with slowly dying relatives, seeing diapers on top of the almayrah while attendants try to feed them. It is what it is, this is all life is. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, it just passes through us. It’s cute on the way in and sad on the way out, but it’s the same thing.

Despite their obvious importance, there is little philosophy of food and even less of shitting. But just wait till either of them gets interrupted, then it’s all you can think about. These are our real, simple connections to life in general and we ignore them for them for complicated, disassociated abstractions. Descartes says ‘I think; therefore I am’ when the truth is closer to ‘I stink; therefore I am.’ As much as we think we’re ‘higher’ than the animals, we’re all just a bunch of walking intestines.

Eating is our point of contact with other lifeforms. Almost everything we eat (except salt) is living. We have to be constantly shoving other life forms into our mouths to continue existing. We are just temporary custodians of our lives and, as such, our core job is to take out the waste. Life (as we know it) is not some magical abstraction, some ephemeral spark, it’s this very real circuit of eating and shitting. Life is a process, not a person. A person is just a place where this phenomenon happens.

What happened to the dog — who I considered a person— was that the temporary bubble of energy that we call a life form finally popped. Like foam on the ocean, he went back to the deeper waves. We all came from the oceans long ago — from little cells forming and popping in the primordial seas — and I think that’s what’s still happening on a grander scale. Going further back, this entire universe is probably just a bubble itself, a bubble among bubbles, a multiverse of ‘black’ holes consuming everything and then farting new universes into being somewhere else.

It goes on and on, above and below, within and without us, and we only find the process mysterious because we look at it with such narrow minds. We (generally) consider eating and shitting beneath our attention when, in fact, it’s where we should be focusing. Whenever I’ve been on a mindfulness retreat they always tell us to be mindful while eating and going to the bathroom, which I never really understood until now. I always found this to be extremely difficult and just gross. I could understand focusing while trying to reach some higher goal in meditation, but while I was masticated food? While I was squeezing out a turd? Couldn’t I be left alone for a minute? Did I need to bring the Buddha to the bathroom? But my teachers were right. These moments were precisely where ‘I’ was or, more precisely, wasn’t. Where we habitually avert our eyes (and our attention) is precisely where we should be look.

There is obviously no one sovereign self because you have to shove a dozen other selves in your maw to keep going and then require a million other selves inside your gut to digest them. This is obviously obvious if you ever catch a reflection of yourself straining on the porcelain throne. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of myself, middle-aged belly over my legs, and think ‘wow, this is humiliating.’ But I’m missing the point. This is the human condition. Even if you don’t kneel before a deity, we are all compelled to squat before our digestion. We are compelled, every day, to take sacrament with our mouths and testify with our butts and we don’t listen because the sound is farts and not trumpets. But they actually sound quite similar, don’t they?

Linguistically, it’s telling that we say ‘shit’ and ‘oh God’ for the same situations. The sacred and profane — the words that come to us most compulsively and explosively — are really discussing the same phenomenon. Shitting (and fucking) are our points of connection with other life forms, ie with life in general. Thus we proclaim epithets to our bodily functions and higher beings interchangeably. Because they — once you get past a parochial human perspective — are of course connected. Unconsciously we proclaim the truth all the time, but we can’t face it because it’s too ‘disgusting’. But this is just narrow-minded. Why would the gods be disgusted by the bodily functions of an ape any more than we are perturbed by the exhalation of a microbe? There’s obviously bigger things afoot. Waste is in the eye of the beholder and to the gods, who behold all, nothing is disgusting.

The main point in meditation is breathing, which is literally the process of breathing in farts. Oxygen is a waste product, the farts of microbes and plants. That which gives us life and energy is a generally toxic and highly flammable emission from photosynthesis. The whole process is solar waste passing through the body of a plant or bacteria and forming oxygen waste that we receive like manna from heaven. And then we produce shit full of nitrogen which is manna to plants again. Gut bacteria, of course, gets its tithe before the stuff even leaves your colon. The cycle continues.

The ‘grossness’ of waste is thus really a matter of perspective, not an inherent quality. One creature's shit is another’s sustenance. To understand life in general, one needs to take a perspective above the repulsions of your own species, to understand what might be attractive to another.

We laugh at farts (and burps), but these are really the voices of the higher beings inside our guts talking to us. Everyone laughs at farts because they trigger something unconscious in us. What is laughter but a paroxysm of perception, a feeling that comes out unbidden? Any philosophy that is serious and polite misses the great insight in fart jokes, and thus misses the point of existence. The point is eating and shitting, as the vet said, that is our deepest communion. Everything else is just debating how many angels dance on the head of a pin. The truth is that all living creatures have to stop dancing at some point to eat something or take a shit. Therein is the meaning of living, if you can get above your delicate sensibilities to see the sense in it.

Our dog did die, eventually. He wouldn’t eat anymore and couldn’t move about much, thus passing from the living. Old Mercutio lay on the grass and shat himself as his last will and testament. I cleaned him up and sat with him for a while, under the gathering rain. Not long after, I held his chest as he passed away. In human terms, Merc didn’t know shit, but humans literally don’t know shit and we’ve no right to dismiss him. Any dog sniffing a butt is plumbing depths our philosophers are completely missing. Merc ate and he shat and he was just as connected to the great energy cycle as you or me. That’s all it is. That’s all life is. The truth is hidden in what we call profanity, and everything else is just vanity.

Eating and shitting are the gods breathing through us — taking in energy and expelling ‘waste’ — which, as I’ve said, is just a matter of perspective. High or low, rich or poor, single-celled or multiple-limbed, we’re all part of the same energy cycle, which is neither created nor destroyed. We’re just custodians of it for a while, before we shuffle off the mortal coil and get recycled. So I sit there watching the flowers fall on old Merc’s grave while a new dog tries to eat my hand. I learned everything I needed to know from watching that old dog die, and hearing the vet say “as long as you’re shitting and eating, you’re fine.” We go on and on about the meaning of life, but when you’re actually facing death, that’s all it comes down to. Is the energy flowing through you or not? That’s the meaning of being alive.