Pearls Before Swine – a reflection on life


My favorite comic strip that can actually get printed in a mainstream newspaper is Pearls Before Swine. http://www.gocomics.com/pearlsbeforeswine

A little while after I was diagnosed, my wife bought books of all the Pearls Before Swine cartoons. We both find this comic very funny and she thought they would provide a cheery bit of escapism.

They did. But Pearls has a dark side. It is a really funny dark side, but it is still pretty dark:

pbs-5years

I doubt that Stephan Pastis (author of Pearls) intended anything more than a bit of humour, but this is remarkably accurate. I am actually in that situation, and Pig’s answer is spot-on.

People expect you to say “I would climb the Matterhorn” or “I would write a novel” or “I would visit Paris”. But I find that the certainty of near-term death makes it hard to fully enjoy things like that.

I actually did think of going to France shortly after my treatment started, but I did not. I was very depressed, and I considered the risk too high. I might go to France, sit there being miserable and upset the whole time, and be stuck in a foreign country for a couple weeks until my return flight. Or I could come home early and spend a bundle on a last-minute flight. It could be a very expensive way to have an unpleasant experience, compared with staying home.

Rat’s speculative condition is not an exact analogy to mine: I’m not really a screamer, but the emotional impact is the same. And nobody told me I have “five years to live” — it’s statistical, and it is actually unlikely that I have as much as 5 years to live.

Only 28% of men with my diagnosis make it all the way to 5 years. (The stage of the disease I am in right now works out to about 50% survival to 2.5 years from today, for any arbitrarily chosen day.) I have a pretty high certainty of death in a pretty short amount of time. How can I not obsess over that knowledge?

It’s hard even to forget for a little while. The treatment makes changes to my body that are impossible to ignore. It’s not like Rat asked me what I would do if I had five years to live — it’s like he is asking me every single day.

I would expect that Christians would have less reason to fear death, because they believe they go to heaven. If you are not really dead, then what is there to be afraid of, right? God is going to take care of you.

At work, I told my coworkers in an email message. Among the details, I noted that I am an atheist and it would not make me feel better if anybody told me they were going to pray for me. One guy did anyway. Well, he didn’t actually say it, but he said “You know what I want to say” and I acknowledged that I did, but at least he didn’t have to say it out loud.

I don’t know exactly what he said in his prayers, but I have a friend who is Catholic and she did tell me. She prays an ambiguous (to me) prayer for God to help me and my wife, rather than asking for any specific kind of help.

Maybe the help I am receiving is that I have a doctor is willing to prescribe Xanax freely, and when the time comes, I will have easy access to opiods in defiance of the Drug Warriors. If I had a hotline to the ultimate creator of the universe, I would ask for a cure, but we know he isn’t into providing that kind of help.

Pearls has a comic strip about that too.

The day before this strip, Zebra’s son has given in to his father, left his video games, and gone outside to play. His idea of playing outside is shooting blow-darts over the back fence into the crocodiles’s yard. Of course, he keeps hitting the crocs that live there.

pbs-blowdart

I found it funny in several ways. First, it is a sarcastic comment on the society around me that is full of people who believe in “intercessional prayer”. That means you ask God to do something in the world. I never see any clear evidence that God responds to that kind of prayer, any more than God of Crocs responds here.

Thanks to my illness, I already been stuck with way more needles than Bob is here. I’m not sure I’ve had any quite as big as Bob has, but a couple have been 2.1 mm in diameter. (I use 0.7 mm lead in mechanical pencils.)

I don’t expect any god or gods to help with my problems, so, like Bob, I’m not disappointed or surprised when they don’t.

Bob’s reason is not really why I’m an atheist, though. As I’m constantly reminded by believers, I can’t prove that God of Crocs does not exist. It could be that he simply chose not to answer Burt’s prayer, or that the answer is No, or that the darts from Zebra’s son are punishment for Bob’s previous misdeeds.

I am somewhat gratified to know that all the people who have told me that over the years will follow their own reasoning and now believe in the God of Crocs. 🙂

I’m an atheist because I asked the question “How do you know that a god exists?” Bob isn’t all the way there because absence of action by a god could just mean that the god in question doesn’t do anything.

But it does give us some clues. Christians hypothesize that Yahweh (who they usually call by his title, God) is omniscient (he knows everything), is omnipotent (he can do anything), and he loves everyone.

So, he knows I have metastatic prostate cancer, he could fix it if he wanted to, and he loves me — just not enough to prevent or cure it.

Like the God of Crocs, Yahweh does not prevent bad things from happening to good people. Bob is wrong about one thing, though: It could be that God of Crocs doesn’t care about Bob’s pain and suffering. It doesn’t prove that God of Crocs doesn’t exist; it only proves that God of Crocs did not help Bob.

Now, re-considering the question of the original strip: What to do?

I am constrained by economics. I can’t afford to just quit working and go on a massive vacation for the brief remainder of my life. I still need food, housing, health insurance, etc. Eventually, I won’t be able to work, but I still can now. Fortunately, as much as I complain about aspects of my job, it is pretty good as computer jobs go.

But, I want to enjoy what I can while I can. In between the years of screaming even more, I will try to enjoy life. It can be difficult, but I find that if I work at it, I can succeed sometimes.

And for that, we have Danny Donkey as a role model:

pbs-fulltoempty

Danny Donkey has found a way to enjoy himself, and he makes no apologies to the rest of the world for it. This strip really is inspiring. Find something you like, and enjoy it. Beer isn’t really my thing, but this strip isn’t about beer. It is about Danny Donkey finding his own happiness. The people who came to his door see this, and I can too.

Damn! That’s a pretty cheerful ending for a column about dying.


A note about Pearls Before Swine: There are two types of Pearls Before Swine books. The small books are called “collection”, and the large books are called “treasury”. There is one treasury for each 2 collections. To get a complete set, buy either all collections or all treasuries.

A note about the images: I believe that my use of these images is fair use under 17 USC 107, in that I am commenting on how specific strips of the Pearls Before Swine series relates to my life.

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3 Responses to Pearls Before Swine – a reflection on life

  1. Carolyn Sienkiewicz says:

    Wow. What a wonderful column (blog, thingy, whatever). So beautifully composed.

    Pig and rat, the “god o’crocs,” and Danny Donkey, too.

    For those we haven’t told, Mark reads to me from a “Pearls” treasury (nearly) each night right before we go to sleep. It’s a great unwind, decompress, have a little laugh before you go to sleep time. Oh, and a visit with Pastis’s imaginary friends.

    Mark, as for
    “As I’m constantly reminded by believers, I can’t prove that God of Crocs does not exist. …
    I am somewhat gratified to know that all the people who have told me that over the years will follow their own reasoning and now believe in the God of Crocs.”

    it really makes me smile. Perhaps some day others will be ready to hear your message — or to hear (as Pig puts it when he decides to open “the church of cheese”) the gouda news.

    ;>

  2. Like the Jehova’s witnesses who come to our door every few months, I think most people are not ready to hear my message. But that doesn’t change reality: You can’t prove the God of Crocs does not exist.

    The gouda news can be independently verified by examining a sample of the cheese, so I think of it as more science than religion.

  3. Carolyn Sienkiewicz says:

    Hmm, yes, pass me the gouda.

    I must say though that I’m like Pig. With the screaming, I mean. You’ve heard my screaming. Paula has been an unfortunate witness to my screaming. When it hits you, it just jumps out of you, your mind shuts down and you are just all scream.

    Ahem. Please pass me some more gouda, please … and Kahlua.

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