Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Mental models from graveyards

For some reason, most people fear death. But we're dying every minute. And graveyards offer pointers to why death may not be a bad thing.

Most people fear death. Why is unclear. Because when thought about, all of us are born “terminal". We die every minute. By the time you’ve read this far, 30,000-40,000 skin cells would have died. And by the end of the day, about 200,000 neurons in the head will die. But because there are at least 100 billion of them, the dead neurons go unnoticed. Until age catches up and manifests itself as disorders of all kinds.

The magic of biochemistry and the many nuances of it were not appreciated in college, though, when it was being taught by industrious teachers. There were other things to be done. As that cliché goes, hindsight is always 20/20.

That is why I like visiting graveyards once a while. Contrary to popular perception, there is nothing morbid there. Instead, it is much like visiting a museum. Because each grave has a story to tell.

Some lie untended. And you wonder who lies there and why does it lie untended. Then there are others with tombstones of all kinds. It tells much about the person buried below it. When were they born? When did they die? How did they die? Then there are the designs on the tombstones. It says much of what kind of families the dead lived in when alive. Some have prayers engraved upon it. Some have poems. Some have pictures of the person. Some have the names of the sorrowing living that hope to join their much-loved dead one in an eternal heaven someday.

If all this is so obvious to the naked eye, why do the living make mistakes? Because in walking away from the graveyard, a few mental models come to mind that puts things into much perspective.

This is something that came up a few days ago in a conversation with Nachiket Mor, national director for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in an altogether different context. He has travelled widely across India and the world and invested much time and effort in studying public policy. One thing that concerns him is why do people make poor financial decisions?

To cite one instance, everybody knows they are mortal, that it is inevitable age will catch up, and that at some point they will die. Why is it then that people do not opt for voluntary insurance early in life when premiums are low? Because if they do, when old and sick, the burden they place on those they love and are alive will be lower.

For various reasons, people don’t. He pinned it to a human fallacy. That most of us live under the illusion of immortality. What followed subsequently was how ought public policy ought to wrap their heads around it to mould behaviour. It will be a long while before results emerge.

But a visit to the graveyard once a while puts things into perspective. That everybody may not have wanted to be a burden. Evidence suggests the probability that there are more dead people who were a burden on those they loved because most people live under the illusion of immortality.

“If you turn problems around into reverse, you often think better. For instance, if you want to help India, the question you should consider asking is not ‘How can I help India?’ Instead, you should ask ‘How can I hurt India?’ You find what will do the worst damage, and then try to avoid it. Perhaps the two approaches seem logically the same thing. But those who have mastered algebra know that inversion will often and easily solve problems that otherwise resist solution. And in life, just as in algebra, inversion will help you solve problems that you can't otherwise handle.

“Let me use a little inversion now. What will really fail in life? What do we want to avoid? Some answers are easy. For example, sloth and unreliability will fail. If you're unreliable, it doesn't matter what your virtues have, you're going to falter immediately. So, faithfully doing what you've been engaged to do should be an automatic part of your conduct. Of course, you want to avoid sloth and unreliability."

In looking dispassionately at the dead in graveyards, it is inevitable then that a few pointers, or questions come to mind.

• Is it possible the dead didn’t know they would eventually die? 

• If they did, how many have chosen to live longer? 

• It is unlikely any of them may have wanted to suffer pain. What is the probability though that they may have engaged in behaviour that caused them pain towards the end? 

• It is unlikely as well they may have wanted to distress those they love. But what may they have neglected that distressed those they loved? 

• Is it possible they kept thought every action they engaged in or postponed, could be put away for another day, because tomorrow will come? 

• Is it possible tomorrow may not come someday?

The other thing about visiting graveyards is that it untended graves puts into perspective that we are not the centre of the universe. But us humans are wired to believe each of us is the most important. That is an arrogant assertion though.

It wasn’t too long ago that humans believed the Earth was a flat place and the centre of the universe. After it was proven to be untrue, people took a long while to figure the earth is not just round, but that it moves in an orbit around the sun. And when Galileo declared it is indeed true, he was condemned and sent into exile.

But the world had to finally come around after Newton proposed there are forces called gravity that holds everything in our universe together. It took Einstein a long while and a mighty intellectual leap to argue that space and gravity are much the same thing. And that the universe we imagine as an infinite one, is not infinite after all. It is actually a container held together by the forces of gravity and what we perceive as space.

He went to then use the General Theory of Relativity to postulate that the universe is a finite container with set boundaries. And that outside this container, multiple universes may exist. Since then, humans have been grappling with how we may explore the universes that exist outside the one that we inhabit now. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and entities like Google are investing much of their time, effort and money in endeavours like these.

When extrapolated into ourselves and looked at from a graveyard, each one of the dead once upon a time lived in their own personal universe. Everybody thought it infinite and that the answers to all questions they may have lie within. We now know that much like there are multiple universes, this is the “introspection illusion"—a much-documented phenomenon. It suggests that when confronted with a crisis, we are not best placed to find where the answers may lie.

Because, writes Stanford professor Eric Schwitzgebel, “The introspection of current conscious experience, far from being secure, nearly infallible, is faulty, untrustworthy, and misleading—not just possibly mistaken, but massively and pervasively. I don’t think it’s just me in the dark here, but most of us."

But us humans refuse to visit graveyards, repeat mistakes, over and over again. History has it documented. offers multiple pointers. It is something those brilliant minds that are Will and Arial Durant documented in that masterpiece that is The Lessons of History.

“The meaning of history is that it is man laid bare… history becomes the best guide we have to what man is and we have to presume that one of the lessons of it is that he continues to behave basically, in each generation, as he behaved in the generation before. His instincts are the same, the basic situations that he faces are the same. Naturally he makes similar responses: he makes poetical organizations, he makes love affairs, he over-eats, and so forth so that the present is the past rolled up for action and the past is the present unrolled for understanding."

Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel Publishing. His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

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