The Words of Love We Lack (Or: "You Bury Me, Baby")

So anyone who's ever really thought about love knows that our techno-liberated world is pretty weak on talking about love and death.  We're either too vulgar or too vague.  It's not that relational life has disappeared, but we just don't have the words that correspond to the longings that sustain it.


Alexis de Tocqueville, in his always-getting-more-true Democracy in America, recommended that those responsible for democratic language (the "literary class") learn to read the Greek and Roman authors in their original languages in order, among other things, to write about love more precisely.  The technical and scientific words that become popularized in democratic times—such as feedback and networking—do less justice to what the human experience really is than words we can trace to Plato and Aristotle (and other "ancient Greks") such as opinion and friendship.  So who today follows Aristotle in writing about the kind of love that is the friendship between husband and wife in joyfully carrying out the responsibilities they share in common? And who today writes about the erotic tension that animates the friendship between two or more intensely gathered together to pursue the truth in common?

Anyone, as I said before, whoever is really interesed in acquiring the vocabulary required to really know the world as it actually is will turn to the classic texts and distrust flattened-out translations.

But Katy Hall has schooled me and Tocqueville on our narrowness.  She's searched the globe for basically premodern and mostly not-Western words that correspond to kinds of love we still experience but can't name.  She very instructively gives the word from another language and adds a pop cultural place where we can see the experience that corresponds to the word being displayed.

From Katy, I found out about the Arabic word "Ya'aburnee"  It literally means "you bury me."  I can't imagine life without you, and so I can't help but think I must die before you.  It goes without saying that it's possible that Katy and especially me are missing a lot of nuance here.

Her astoundingly up-to-date cultural reference is to the surprisingly moving (or genuinely sad) last episode of Girls.

Hannah agressively seduces and then plays house for a few days with a rich and handsome older guy.  This successful physician is (doubtless temporarily) lonely because he just separated from his wife.  The desperate Hannah lets him be the object of her fantasies.  She opens up to him:  I've been wounded since childhood, I'm deeply lonely, I finally admit that I want to be happy (or not just have random experiences to write about), I really believe I feel more deeply than other people, and "All I really needed was to look at someone and be, like, that person wants to be there after I'm dead."  

The somewhat confused and vain quoted words connect happiness with loving and being perfectly transparent before another person who, at least in a way, is a personal connection to eternity.  The physician, who was just diverting himself by playing house, was obviously deeply repulsed by her words.  His look suggests to her that he now wants her gone.  And so Hannah walks home more lonely and wounded than ever.  She's ashamed that she didn't know the first thing about the guy she thought she so deeply loved, and he didn't really want to know the first thing about her.

So what the show showed us again is how critical it can be of our proud pretensions to liberation or "autonomy" and of the resulting impoverishment of our relational life.  Hannah spoke the truth about who she is and what she wants.  But she lacked both the words and the proper relational context in which to pour her heart out about love.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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