Be careful who you are: More on the strangeness of being human

by John MacBeath Watkins

The recent death of Brunhilde "Hilde" (Schneider) Van Hout, mother of my friend Gwen Van Hout Knechtel has set me to thinking about how the death of a loved one affects us.

Perhaps we believe in the soul not so much in the hope that we won't really die as in the hope that those we love in some way continue on. And I'm sure they do. Hilde and her husband Remy, who died in 2005, were remarkable people who touched many lives.

They were Dutch Indonesian, and left Jakarta, where Gwen was born, because of political unrest, moving first to the Netherlands, then to the U.S. They helped many Indonesian immigrant families find their feet. And, of course, they shaped the character of their children, including Gwen, who became a teacher.

Hilde and Remy live on through all the lives they have touched, and all the lives their children have touched. They were kind, big-hearted, practical people who valued culture, and Gwen is like that as well, and she's had a hand in shaping a great many kids as a teacher.

And that's important to remember, because human beings live in a strange environment incomprehensible to every other creature on earth. Our minds swim in a sea of symbols that we hardly even notice, and the memes that help construct our minds are as important a part of us as the genes we pass on to our offspring. Perhaps they are more important, because we pass them on far more promiscuously than we pass on our genes. Knowing Hilde, and Remy, and Gwen, and her husband Grant, has helped shape me, after all, and I'm no relation.

I cannot say whether the soul lives on and gets its just reward in the afterlife, though if we do, I'll know when it happens. I can say we live on in spirit, a ghost that haunts every life we've touched, and the meaning we've given our lives lives on through the lives of all those who have known us. So be careful who you are, and hope you are as welcome living on in the minds you've shaped as Hilde is.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self