Sunday, October 30, 2011
Death and the Living
In the past few months, three untimely deaths have occurred in proximity to me; that is, deaths not of people to whom I was personally all that close, but who were dear to people whom I consider close. All of these deaths were premature, seemingly senseless. Two of the deceased I had never met, and the other had never revealed much of himself to me. In this strangest of times, I'm trying to decipher this message.
Death is no stranger. Probably the hardest thing I've gone through in this life was the death of my mother, eight and a half years ago. But hard as that was, and though I had the usual regrets, flogging myself over perceived lost opportunities and unmet obligations, she was eighty, and the last expression of her final illness was brief. There's more to come, and nothing unusual in that; some of the people I care most about remaining in this world, are in their eighties, including my father.
But 2011 has been a strange year, full of illness, disaster and now unseemly death. In short sequence, one of my friends lost a 23-year-old daughter who'd just begun to manifest heart problems. Then the 47-year-old husband of one of my closest relatives died in a few months of pancreatic cancer. Then, just last week, the infant grandson of a good friend died suddenly, SIDS. None of these deaths could have been foreseen at the beginning of this year; one of the deceased had barely been conceived. The feelings of the aggrieved are not unimaginable to me, but I know I have not had them.
It is unavoidable that I quest for meaning in all this - that I look for a message. Strange that in these last few months, I feel that I do know what happens after death. Not from any teachings, but from experience. I know that my mother was around for a while after her death, then she moved on from here. I'm not the only one who's had that experience. I feel that she moved into me, in part; there are parts of me that weren't there before she died. And also that she moved on into the world, into others. Ultimately, to move on and do what she needed to do next.
I do feel strongly that we survive our deaths in this world. It seems that we come here to do what we have to do. And we come back, eventually, to do what we need to do next; that these transitions happen in eternity, not in time, and my next manifestation may be in the past of "this" world, or in another. I do not feel the Buddhist doctrine of anatman - that there is no individual self. I feel strongly that there is. Nor do I really believe in moksha, release. I share the belief of my Germanic ancestors that life is a good thing, though hard at times - and that we come back to be in this world, without the need to escape it.
Not that we're not more than our little selves, you understand. That's a discussion for another time.
Nor is this the place to discuss the way we as a species value life so wrongly - that so many of us value its quantity over its quality. That we extend the lives of our old ones into misery, that we keep alive so many who are called to die, beyond their time, and in defiance of their well-being and our own. That we have through our misguided worship of human life in the abstract, filled our world (as of tomorrow!) with seven billion, in a planet that can at best support a few hundred million once the petroleum bubble of industrial civilization is burst - soon, now. That we have in our greed and ignorance condemned billions to die, not naturally, but of starvation, famine, and war.
No, I'm just left contemplating the death of those who died, seemingly for no reason - though there was a reason, I think they knew it before they came and have realized it now. Only to us, struggling to make sense of our own lives, do their deaths seem senseless.
But there is a reason, and a meaning, for us, too. If life was eternal - if we lived as our present selves, endlessly - it would cease to have meaning. Ask Lazarus Long. Death is the darkness, the shadow that enable us to see the shapes of life. Without it, life would have no definition. We would be unable to perceive our limits. The truth is, we can't right all of our wrongs (shouldn't that word really be 'wright', as in 'wheelwright'?). We don't have time to make all the changes we would need to make, to be perfect.
Without the limitation of death, we couldn't see. Anything.
So perhaps the death of others help us to see the shapes of our own lives. And not to despair of them. The deaths of others give our lives meaning - a chance to see the shape of things before our own deaths terminate our own ability to see, to change.
Not that this makes it any easier to lose a loved one. But our lives are not supposed to be easy, even if we tell ourselves that sometimes. And in the coming dark time, few of them will be, no matter how well or how poorly we think we've prepared for our illusory futures.
Shape the future in the present, with your own hands. Shape yourselves. In some sense, you've chosen the part you now play. Develop and deepen that character. You are the universe and also yourself. How would you like to live, today?