02 March 2014
What we talk about when we talk about death
Today at a beautiful opening session of a workshop, I led a session that I called “what we talk about when we talk about death.” I have found that different people mean different things as they talk about death, and that we can miss each other if we think we’re talking about the same thing just because we use the same word. I am curious about these connections and disconnections. So instead of asking people to think and talk about death, I wondered about thinking and talking about life. I asked people to think about incidents in their lives that brought to their mind/heart the preciousness and brevity of life. I wondered whether these would be heavy with ideas about death—are we talking about death when we talk about life?
My first discovery was that each time we touch that sense of how precious and fleeting life is, it is beautiful. Every story was a jewel, some similar, some really different. The majority at least touched death: the renewed sense of urgency when someone dies unexpectedly early, a near death experience, the sense of generations passing in the space of an outbreath. But there were moments that had nothing to do with death: delight in our children, the joy of love. Each of these stories wove together joy and transience. We began to wonder about whether you could have a sense of real connection to joy without a sense of the ephemeral nature of it.
Yet it’s in that space where fear lies, too. Fear is when we see how ephemeral our joy is and we try clench it tightly so it will never get away, or we run away from joy because we know it’ll leave us. Fear, I am discovering, is when we are so afraid of loss that the future pain takes over the delight of the present. And despair, I think, is when we have a deep connection with the brevity of life without an equal connection with its beauty.
This morning at dawn I walked to the beach and stared out into the grey distance. And there, like a benediction, was a pod of dolphins, playing in the surf. They swam back and forth in front of me, as though promenading for my pleasure. Sometimes they’d hug the crest of a wave, sometimes ride it, and sometimes disappear under the surface for an impossibly long time. I don’t know if the dolphins have a sense of the brilliance of each moment, or whether that delight is tempered by the threat of sharks and fishing nets. But I know that my joy, upon seeing them, was pure as sunlight and, like sunlight, held all the colours together, refracting and shifting with the air. It is astonishing to live on this planet. It is astonishing to love, to laugh, to weep, to watch dolphins, to feel fully alive. What we talk about when we talk about death is, necessarily, life I think. And when we weave our talk of death and life together, we have something magnificently bittersweet and whole and true.
As the philosopher Susan Christ wrote, “This whole is the earth and the sky, the ground on which we stand, and all the animals, plants, and other beings to which we are related. We come from earth and to earth we shall return. Life feeds on life. We live because others die, and we will die so that others may live. The divinity that shapes our ends is life, death, and change, understood both literally and as a metaphor for our daily lives. We will never understand it all. We do not choose the conditions of our lives. Death may come at any time. Death is never early or late. With regard to life and death there is no ultimate justice, nor ultimate injustice, for there is no promise that life will be other than it is. There are no hierarchies among beings on earth. We are different from swallows who fly in spring, from the many-faceted stones on the beach, from the redwood tree in the forest. We may have more capacity to shape our lives than other beings, but you and I will never fly with the grace of a swallow, live as long as a redwood tree, not endure the endless tossing of the sea like a stone. Each being has its own intrinsic beauty and value. There will be no end to change, to death, to suffering. But life is as comic as it is tragic. Watching the sun set, the stars come out, eating drinking, dancing, loving, and understanding are no less real than suffering, loss, and death. Knowledge that we are but a small part of life and death and transformation is the essential religious insight. The essential religious response is to rejoice and to weep, to sing and to dance, to tell stories and create rituals in praise of an existence far more complicated, more intricate, more enduring than we are.”