"I'm not afraid of death, I just don't want to be there when it happens". - Woody Allen
What is death's relation to life and vice versa? It's an important question, and it sprung back into my consciousness the other day after watching a video of Sam Harris talking rather beautifully about the topic. The following is a series of fragments that arose and formed into loose constellations as I thought about death awareness and its relation to life, to beauty, and to the divine.
First, the Harris video. When I was younger I used to watch Oprah from time to time, and I can distinctly remember that every once and awhile she'd do a show where she talked to people who'd had some kind of near death experience, and had now come to see life as utterly precious. The basic message was always the same- these folks had come to realize that life was to be cherished in every moment, and by extension, we should do the same.
I couldn't disagree with the premise, in fact I found it a powerful one. I did however find it quite odd that we as a species needed to ALMOST DIE before we'd ever allow ourselves to be present to life in this eyes wide-open, gratitude filled way. But our fear of death is a powerful force, and sometimes in avoiding the recognition of our final fate we lose our connection to life along the way. In his talk Harris urges us to change this relationship, to stare into death so as to infuse our every moment with a present and potent life.
Any poet, especially modern poet, is intensely aware of the finitude of human existence, and is already invaded by death, is taken in by the immanent finality of all things, and even Shakespeare in his sonnets is full of the kind of impending sense of the loss of life and so forth, and that's what gives a particular pathos to Romantic poetry, not just John Keats'. There is one of the odes that we thought we might want to read here, which is the Ode to Melancholy. I think it's very interesting because melancholy you can characterize as a condition, not just biochemical, the kind of reductive things that contemporary psychiatry tries to reduce it to, but rather a mood in which the intrinsic finitude of human existence can come over you, and you realize that to be alive is really also to be in touch with death, somehow as a principle that's working itself out; and then you can speak about Spirit as life that runs through the death of me and so forth. This Ode to Melancholy is very interesting because he there associates the mood with beauty, or he urges himself to do that.
She dwells with Beauty - Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
In poetry death and life are often interwoven, the bittersweet recognition of transience permeating the overflowing love of glorious creation.
When thinking of death and life, I thought of Socrates, and his curious claim that the goal of philosophy was "the practice of dying and death" (Phaedo, 64). What could he mean? Here's the theologian Paul Tillich, from his book The Courage to Be:
The courage of Socrates (in Plato's picture) was based not on a doctrine of the immortality of the soul but on the affirmation of himself in his essential, indestructible being. He knows that he belongs to two orders of reality and that the one order is transtemporal. It was the courage of Socrates which more than any philosophical reflection revealed to the ancient world that everyone belongs to two orders.
Socrates lived an exceptionally courageous and fearless existence. Somehow his preparation for death had given him great strength in life. Even Nietzsche, who at times reprimanded Socrates for being life-denying (particularly in his views on the importance of rationality), heaped praise on him too:
That he was sentenced to death, not exile, Socrates himself seems to have brought about with perfect awareness and without any natural awe of death. He went to his death with the calm with which, according to Plato's description, he leaves the Symposium at dawn, the last of the revelers, to begin a new day, while on the benches and on the earth his drowsy table companions remain behind to dream of Socrates, the true eroticist. (Birth of Tradegy, 13)
[painting- Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko (1814 - 1861) 'Death of Socrates']
When thinking of death and life, I recalled the Holy Moment scene in the movie Waking Life, where it's suggested that God, the eternal, is also immanent in creation, and can be found manifesting in every holy now.
When thinking of death and life, I was reminded of Martin Heidegger, who thought that our constant fleeing from the inevitability of our "being-towards-death", was a great source of inauthenticity in our time. To escape the anxiety and fear surrounding death we often "fall into the they", we distract ourselves with others, with idle chatter, with busy doings of any sort to stay occupied and entertained. And countless diversions and distractions are constantly offered to us by our consumer society and its myriad commodities. But what does this fear based consumption cost society, cost ourselves, cost the planet? Who picks up the bill for the hungry ghosts? What happens when we escape into fantasy, into narcissism, into the architecture of fear? What happens to life?
When thinking of death and life, I could hear the voices of Michael Dowd and his wife Connie Barlow, who speak of looking at death "through deep time eyes". In this view death "is no less sacred than life", it's seen as the engine of generation and creativity in the universe. Dowd writes:
By taking the long view of "big history," and thereby nurturing an extended sense of who I am, I begin to experience a "self" that does not stop with my skin. Earth is my larger Self. The Universe is my even larger Self: my Great Self. So, yes, "I" (in this expanded sense) will continue to exist even after "I" (this particular body-mind) comes to a natural end. Recognizing that my small self will soon experience death everlasting, I find deep comfort in knowing that my larger Self will live on. More, I am powerfully motivated to be in action today precisely because I do not ignore or deny my mortality. My human self has but a brief window of opportunity to delight in, and contribute to, the ongoing evolution of the body of life and human culture. Truly, this is it; now or never.
And lastly, while thinking about death and life, I thought of the 'Griefwalker' Stephen Jenkinson, a contemporary teacher and spiritual activist who's trying to bring about a new relationship to death and dying in our post/modern culture. Here's the trailer from a recent documentary on Jenkinson, put out by the National Film Board of Canada.
"Thomas Munzer, the Anabaptist and religious socialist, describes similar experiences [to his adversary Martin Luther]. He speaks of the ultimate situation in which everything finite reveals its finitude, in which the finite has come to its end, in which anxiety grips the heart and all previous meanings fall apart, and in which just for this reason the Divine Spirit can make itself felt and can turn the whole situation into a courage to be whose expression is revolutionary action". - Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be