Monday, November 6, 2017

Meditations on death, part I

June 13

Last night, my stepson’s fiancĂ©e called with the news that her younger brother had committed suicide.

This comes on the heels of the death of my Dutch cousin Elodie, who died at 48 years old of pancreatic cancer; she was the light of many lives. And it reminds me once again — reminds us all once again — of how death follows us everywhere as a companion.

We would rather forget about this; it seems terrifying, and every death is a small tragedy. Measured in the terms of individuals, the tragedy is intense and terrifying; yet measured against the collective nature of life and its manifestation, it is a little thing. This may sound silly to say, but the evidence is there: researchers recently discovered that a person’s attitude towards death tends to be more positive than negative as one approaches it.

Somewhere in the human soul lies an understanding that death is not so awful after all.

This seems contradictory; the sense of loss from death is so overwhelming. Yet the combination of contradictory feelings about death is lawful; if we feel real consciousness, experience real conscience, it contains all our feelings, not just the ones that we prefer or expect. Emotion is a complex blend of perception and, in its highest form, can extract all the information available in a situation, not just the information we selectively perceive with our ordinary Being.

Buried within the experience of death, hidden from public view, is the fact that it is a benediction and a blessing, and a normal part of what it means to be alive. God has blessed us with life; and if we really think that God is all-merciful, supremely intelligent, and has love towards us as His greatest intention, how can we believe that death is not a good thing in the end? It is a gift to us, like the gift of life; it makes life all the more precious and ought to focus our attention quite clearly on the extraordinary beauty that life bestows. It ought to focus our attention much more clearly on the value of love, which we constantly squander on foolishness and argument. Death has the capacity to remind us of everything valuable in life.

Anyone who has lost a loved one will be able to relate to that feeling. Death is a gift and a blessing that gives us the capacity to see who we are; to feel real remorse of conscience for the way we have treated our loved ones — and even ourselves. It bestows a kind of sobriety upon us in the midst of the confusion of our life, and helps us to see what is really meaningful. If we come in to a fuller and more respectful relationship with death, it can help us live.

This is a mystery; because of course the loss of those we love is difficult to bear. Sometimes almost too difficult. And it is a silly thing to pretend that some intellectual philosophy can correct that. We have to contend with the real struggle of our emotional being, not come up with theories about how we ought to feel better, or to not feel at all. The rational universe is a fraction of being, not the whole thing. Feeling transcends rationality and helps us to perceive the contradictions we inhabit. It can help us to reconcile those contradictions; but only if we are immersed in the whole of feeling, the acknowledgment of the conditions of life as a truth, the Dharma. It is a form of mercy, if we can only see it.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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