No one leaves here alive, but we behave as though we will.
We know people die and one day we, too, will stand at the abyss, but we ignore that fact until it beats us over the head until we can’t pretend any more. But by that time, we’ve spent a good part of our life hiding from it, resisting it and we never have get the chance, as Tennyson wrote, to “live life to the lees.”
Instead, we go through life with clenched jaw, hunched shoulders and knotted gut, looking over our shoulder, checking for a guy in a hooded robe carrying a scythe.
We must learn to see death as he really is so we can go willingly into the field of all possibilities when the final dance song plays.
The Sufi poet, Rumi, might have been a tad over-enthusiastic, but he had the right attitude. “My death is my wedding with eternity.”
Or as mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, “We go down into death for refreshment.”
That’s why many people who have gone 10 rounds with a serious disease or peeked into the abyss say it was the best thing that ever happened to them. It taught them how to live. They realize that life and death are entwined, that the white and dark of the tai chi symbol flow into and encompass the other.
It is the arrogance of our time that we think – or choose not to think – about death, that we imagine we can avoid the final tango, that we can forget with whom we must do the final waltz. Remember this song? “You can carry on, go and have our fun … but remember who’s taking you home, in whose arms you’re gonna be, so, darling, save the last dance for me.”
We pretend. We turn on the radio, the TV, stuff music into our ears when we go to the gym, do anything so we won’t hear the siren song of silence and be forced to address the energies of the cosmos or the myths bubbling up from our unconscious that seduce us away from watching Survivor or another repeat of Friends.
We can meet death head on while we’re still alive (if you die before you die, you won't die when you die) or it can sneak up on us. The important thing is not worrying about when death comes, but how we will be when it does. Tibetan philosophy suggests that how we accept death mandates what happens after we die and that it’s better if death finds us welcoming rather than hiding and fearful.
But ready or not, it’s coming. Poet Emily Dickinson put it this way:
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
San Diego Zen master Joko Beck likens life to a whirlpool.
“We want to think that this little whirlpool that we are isn’t part of the stream (of the river of life). We want to see ourselves as permanent and stable. Our whole energy goes into trying to protect our supposed separateness….
"The energy of life seeks rapid transformation. If we can see life this way and not cling to anything, life simply comes and goes….Yet we spend most of our energies creating stagnant water. That’s what living in fear will do. The fear exists because the whirlpool doesn’t understand what it is – none other than the stream itself…. What we call our life is but a little detour.”
We’ll find out whether it’s a detour, and if it’s a dead end, it won’t matter, but we will have lived a life of courage rather than one of fear. Otherwise, we’re like the fish searching, seeking, asking every other fish where the Great Ocean is. The fish in the know simply laugh – well, whatever passes for a laugh if you’re a fish.
Our perspective changes if we can pull back from the worm’s eye view and get an eagle’s – or a Zen master’s. Then, we’ll be able to appreciate that we’re a sentient version of sub-atomic particles that pop in and out of existence; the only difference is that we think and see life in the narrow existence of 80 or so years.
Let’s play pretend.
Imagine ourselves not born (where were we? And who were we?).
- Imagine sperm hitting egg;
- imagine ourselves in the womb (What were we doing? Were we there from the first second of conception or did we show up in time to make the grand entrance?);
- imagine being born, growing up, growing old.
- Now, imagine ourselves dead, disintegrating under the assault of time and worm.
From that perspective, from the view beyond time, imagine how unimportant the trivial things that consume us are, how irrelevant our fear of the Grim Reaper. We are energy which is never destroyed, it simply changes form. In the transition, we might lose a few memories, but we forget anyway.
Our ego, the operating system that runs our brain, doesn’t like to contemplate death, so maybe we should do as some and ignoring our repetitive thoughts, the ones we’ll think them again tomorrow.
Our lives would be simpler, easier and certainly less painful if we ignored that running commentary about everything that’s is happening around us – Who did her hair? And that shirt… He’s leaving early again – those thousands of repetitive thoughts we have every day, today much the same as yesterday, this ceaseless chatter.
If we were wiser, we would accept what people say — whether it’s take out the garbage, or you’re an idiot — and ignore the emotional context. That way, we wouldn’t spend a good chunk of our lives fabricating problems that don’t exist.
“I’m an old man and I’ve had many troubles most of which have never happened,” said Mark Twain.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.