What "they" are saying about us
A mother’s final, best lesson: Part 5

Meditation on Mortality: Part 1

category_bug_journal2.gif NOTE: Some of you who come across this series will not like it. You will think it too morbid and that is fine. I’ll leave it here so you can come back one day when you are ready for it. - RB



“Today is the first day of the rest of your short, brutish existence as a sentient creature before being snuffed out into utter nothingness for all eternity.”

    - The Simpsons creator, Matt Groening

That is the crux, isn’t it, of the fear of death - that no part of our personality, none of our sense of self, survives.

I came to this meditation by means of my cyber-friend Tim, known in some circles as Hamlet, when he left this comment on Part II of the series about a mother’s final, best lesson:

“The thing I like least about entering middle age is that I now not only know people who have died, but also people who are dying. And it becomes so painfully clear that I, too, will die. It's not that ‘it all comes back to me,’ but some of it does. I won't deny it.”

It is all about “me,” Tim, for each of us, each in his and her own time. Unless one’s faith in an afterlife is unshakeable, knowledge of the certainty of our own death, when it first strikes, is a terrible, horrifying thing to behold. It struck me hard the first time when I was 11 years old.

Death was one of the two big-deal ideas I rolled around in my head at night, in those days, after Mom or Dad had told me to turn out the light and go to sleep. The nature of eternity was the other and although they are related, I dwelt mostly on death, on the impossibility of it applying to me. Intellectually, I knew it did, but the fear of it made my mouth dry and my chest heave and took my breath away. The only escape was to shove the idea away, bury it deep, deep, deep and think of something else. But it always returned the next night or the next week. Always.

A decade later, in the early afternoon of my 21st birthday, I strolled alone along the seawall where I then lived, in Sausalito, California. It was an important occasion, a life passage of consequence. I could now legally drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes and vote and sign contracts. I was an adult now for real - in the eyes of the law and of society and I wanted to mark this event with some private accounting of who I was, where I’d been, where I was going, what I believed or didn’t believe.

Part of that inventory was wondering how much longer I would live meaning, of course, when would I die. I found it no problem at all to hold two conflicting beliefs: I knew I would die someday and I also believed I was the one earthly immortal. I concentrated on the immortal part, because the fear from thinking about the dying part had diminished not one iota from ten years before.

Because we must get up and go to work and pay the bills and clean the house and see the dentist and do the taxes and blog and all the rest, there is not a lot of time to think about death, our own deaths, with any frequency or attention. And that is a good thing – some of the time.

But the fear doesn’t vanish for being ignored. It lies there beneath the surface of everyday stuff tingeing life a little bit grayer than it needs to be, ready to erupt when you are not expecting it - for instance, Tim, when a friend becomes gravely ill or some old lady you know only from cyberspace breaks the taboo against talking about it freely.

“To not think of dying is to not think of living.”

    - Jann Arden

…to be continued…



NOTE: I hesitated to post this now because two series at once might be confusing particularly when the two subjects are difficult for some readers to address. It makes sense, however, that A Mother's Last, Best Lesson series has raised this other issue and I want to set down my thoughts while they are fresh. I have pondered the mystery of mortality all my life, but this is the first time I have written about it. Besides, I've never been any good at small talk, so here are two series that may end up complementing one another.


Comments

I can clearly remember the first time I realized I would die one day. At times I still feel the horror you described when I allow myself to truly realize what it means. I learned an antidote from my friend Denny, who encouraged me to relish each day that I'm alive. And that's what I try to do. I appreciate your taking on this topic that is avoided by so many others, Ronni. I admire your courage.

Being obtuse as well as morose during much of my life, I have mostly had a love/hate relationship with my mortality. For much of my youth, I was obsessively suicidal, verily self-destructive, volunteered to go to Vietnam to have Charlie do what I was too chicken to do, lest I wind up in some hell forever and ever; until my early 30s, what I wanted most was to not exist. Even over the last 30 or so years, I have at times wished I could pull the covers over my head so tight I wouldn't wake up the next day, an artifact of depression yielding to despair perhaps. Yet, on the other hand, I am most actively engaged in living my life, as clueless as I am about if often, to the fullest, to be as active in experiencing the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly as I can. I'm also immensely curious as to just how it -- my life -- eventually turns out. It surely has not been boring. I'm not so much afraid of death, but like Woody Allen, I just don't want to be there when it happens. I pray for a quick MI, like a couple of dear friends have departed this earthly plane of samsara. Living like your Mom, or like my Dad did the last several years of his life with Alzheimer's, is definitely what I fear more than death itself.

Yes, Ronni, thank you for challenging us with this most essential, ultimate question, as Hamlet entoned, "To be or not to be . . . "

I can't remember when the last time I had that clutching-at-the heart feeling that I'm going to die. The thought of a long and painful dying is far more frightening to me.


Death could be one of three things, I thought. Death could be a nothingness so you wouldn't feel or sense anything at all. Or Death is simply a dispersal of molecules back into the earth, air, fire and water in which case, the physical becomes part of everything that remains. Or Death is a passage where your consciousness, or life energy or soul survives the physical body. To me, one of the great consolations of aging is the time one can spend contemplating the larger questions, all of which are mysteries. Tending to a dying mother can bump you right up against some of those mysteries. How and why did fatique and resentment suddenly leave you and be replaced by the deep pleasure you write about in Part 5.

Whether one uses philosophy or religion, to grow in greater consciousness and awareness is what we are about. Living more fully and richly and growing in wisdom is what we can look forward to as we grow older

I've been meditating on my mortality to give up visions of immortality and I happened on your posting. How are you doing with the thoughts now that it's been a year? have you opened yourself up to the possibility of more than just death? it's just that my faith in Jesus has made such a difference in the way I think of death and life.

Cheryl...

I've meant to get back to the next parts of this mortality meditation for, as you noted, a year. It is the biggest "problem" there is, I think, for humans individually. And I will follow up eventually, but probably not too soon what with selling my apartment and all the thousands of details of moving to another part of the country.

As to religion, that is the one topic I do not talk about publicly except in the most glancing manner if I'm certain it applies to whatever I'm writing. But even then, only in general terms, not personally. I've always felt that way, but in recent years, as religion has become a political football with so many people wearing their faith on their political sleeves, I am even more convinced that religion is better kept private, or among those with whom one shares similar beliefs.

However, the mortality post was always meant to be a series, and I will get back to it one of these days.

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