On death

We had our third book club meeting on Friday night at Jason’s place, discussing Barry Unsworth’s excellent (and long) book, Sacred Hunger, over takeout Indian food and Saveur‘s divine pound cake. After a while the discussion shifted to our own lives, and we started talking about death. Lisa (not me) was wondering how we deal with the knowledge that all of us are temporary, that we ourselves and those we love will one day die. Jackie, Jason, Erik and I had also talked about this earlier this summer, when a couple of us were going through existential crises over this very question. My views on death have changed in the past year, so I wanted to answer Lisa’s fears with my own thoughts, but I couldn’t marshal them into any coherent articulation. So Lisa, this is for you — and once you’ve seen how long this is, you’ll understand why I couldn’t explain this all on Friday!

I am afraid of death, and always have been. Mine and others’. As Vicky Austin, one of my favorite fictional characters, confesses in A Ring of Endless Light: “I’m afraid of annihilation. Of not being.” In many ways my greatest wish has always been to not die before my time is up, and for my loved ones to live out long, fulfilling lives too. I’m not sure whether I think “old people” are more accepting of death than we the young, but I know dying young has always seemed to me like the worst thing there is. I like to think that after I’ve lived a long, rich, fulfilling eighty-so years, I’ll feel “ready to go” the way old people always seem to in movies and books. I used to pray every night for the long lives of myself and all my loved ones.

On death as my worst nightmare
In recent months I have been thinking about this a lot, wondering whether maybe in some cases willingness to die might be a better choice than running from death. I’ve been taking in ideas from Harry Potter as well as real-life stories of heroes and humanitarians who risked their lives for a greater cause. I’ve been very inspired by these stories, and they’ve made me wonder what, if anything, I would willingly sacrifice myself for. Truthfully I am a little afraid to think about it. It boils down to one very strong, simple, primordial gut feeling: I don’t want to die. The feeling is so strong, I worry that I hold my physical being much too dear, that I’m deep-down selfish when it comes to placing myself at risk. I’ve spent all my life protecting myself and being careful. But I don’t know. Frankly, all my recent reading about people who willingly risk their lives has disturbed me quite a lot, because they all seem to be ordinary people. I’m not sure who these non-ordinary people are whom I expected to risk their lives, but I obviously thought they existed, because reading about the ordinary-people heroes has thrown me into such a tizzy. The more I read about them, the more I am forced to consider that there are, perhaps, causes worth the risk of bodily harm and death. I’m still not sure I could do it, which is why I’m not ready to go off and do human-rights work in Pakistan or anything like that. But the idea is on the table now, and it never, ever was there before. So now, having accepted the possibility of death as a choice, I have to reconfigure my view of death as the worst possible outcome. Clearly, willingly accepting the risk of death means acknowledging that there are things worse than death. I’m not there yet, but someday I might be.

On early death as my second-worst nightmare
The other side of fearing my own death involves the long list of possible fates that includes cancer, blindness, loss of limbs, that kind of thing. When I used to pray for myself and my loved ones, I think what I was really asking for was that none of us be afflicted with any of these. As I’ve been reading more cancer and disease memoirs, though, and doing more yoga, I have started to lose a little of my terror of these things. I’m still scared, but I now accept that it’s possible sometimes to move through life-changing afflictions with grace. Of course, that’s only on a good day; most of the time, the thought “what if I found out tomorrow I have cancer?” still reduces me to a blibbering panic, at least for a few seconds until I firmly refuse to think about it any longer. But somehow reading about people who’ve faced these things down (sometimes surviving, sometimes not), I’ve realized that we are all dying, and the only difference is when. And so the important thing is to live, which, on a good day, reassures me. Leaving grad school has actually helped me with this, because at least now if I die tomorrow, I have the knowledge that I’ve spent the last year of my life doing something that I wanted to do — albeit hesitantly, lumberingly, confusedly — instead of something that only made me miserable. I guess what I’m saying is once I started trying to really live every day, and move my life closer and closer to its ideal, I’ve feared early death just a little bit less. If it happens, at least I can say I tried… maybe not 100%, but even 75% is something.

On the death of loved ones
By now you’ve noticed that I’ve only been talking about my death and not the deaths of others. I didn’t totally realize until I started writing this that the two are different in my mind; when I say I’m afraid of death, I’m really saying two things: I am afraid of my own death, and I am afraid of the loss of those around me. They are not the same thing.

I’ve sort of moved toward coming to terms with my own mortality, but I still don’t know how I feel about others’. I have never actually lost someone close to me (knocking on wood here!), so I feel like it’s kind of presumptuous for me to even talk about this subject. But I will say that reading Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway has made me see that losing someone I love does not have to mean losing myself, which is something I used to worry about (“what will I ever do with myself if _____?”). And I’ve always felt that to love and have lost is better than to have never loved at all, as in the old saying. I’m a firm believer in love; given that death is inevitable, that loss is inevitable, I really think that love is the only thing we have in this life. Love is free and enduring; we can’t take it with us into death itself, but while we’re alive, we can hang on to it even if everything else is stripped away: our health, our possessions, even the company of others. It does terrify me to think of my loved ones dying; I can’t imagine being anything but utterly devastated. But, for me, that only means we should love with all our might while we can… and try not to think of death more than we have to.

On death’s inevitability
This is the part that’s responsible for my changing view on death, and therefore the part that’s most difficult for me to explain. What has changed me from being totally afraid of death to being somewhat accepting of it is realizing that it is not something any of us can escape. With that, of course, comes the understanding that it’s life that matters and where we should focus our energies. There were a few things I had to think over before I could come to this, though:

1. Change and uncertainty.
Change is the only constant in life; everything shifts. It is the only thing we can count on. Getting comfortable with this was pivotal for me. I no longer believe there is some endpoint I have to reach that is the pinnacle of what I am capable of achieving, some moment when I will have finished doing everything I wanted to do and can now sit back and relax. Instead, I’ve accepted the constant state of being in flux. I think I’ve learned this through making art and doing yoga. Art is the process, not the product. Likewise, yoga tells us too that “the pose” isn’t the shape we make, but also the movement of getting in and out of it. We don’t change to or change from; change is what we are. Even when things seem to be standing still, they are still changing. This means uncertainty is always with us, as it has been with me since I left grad school; I only really came to accept this when I realized that the certainty I felt as a senior and a first-year grad student was only ever an illusion. That was not a more secure path, even though it may have seemed like it to some people. There is no path. That doesn’t scare me as much as it used to; now, on a good day, it seems like a liberation.

2. Natural processes.
This one is a lot to sum up, but I’ll try. Osamu Tezuka’s manga masterpiece Buddha says that we are all part of nature, and as such must depend on it for our survival. Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael says we humans have deluded ourselves into thinking we are exempt from nature, and what’s why we’ve destroyed the natural environment and created so much disharmony among ourselves. If we would only accept that we can’t have more people on this earth than we can support with the earth’s resources, we wouldn’t have these problems… but that would also mean that humans should allow themselves to die, if necessary, to maintain natural equilibrium. Animals do. Of course, this is near-impossible for us to accept, because our very civilization is predicated on the idea that humans can evade death, through settlements, medicine, politics, government, and technology.

I’ve been turning all of these ideas over in my head for a long time now — change, uncertainty, and natural processes — and what they’ve done for me is made me realize that in some way, our discomfort with death is artificial. Not in the sense of being false, but it is artificial in the sense that it is a problem we manufactured for ourselves thousands of years ago when we chose to stop living in a sustainable, subsistence-oriented way. Way back when we were hunter-gatherers, or even in the current day in those cultures which still live like this, death was a part of life. People died! They couldn’t not; there were dangers and necessities that no longer exist in the same way for us. I don’t presume to know whether this constant presence of death made people more appreciative of life, and I certainly don’t want to go back to that way of life even if we could (and probably should). But when people didn’t have as much control over their environment as we do now — or even in areas of our contemporary world that have more limited access to the tools of civilization, like technology and medicine, than we do — more people died, and they died earlier. So I’ve been thinking about that, and in some way this knowledge has made me a tiny bit more accepting of death than I was before. We’ve never escaped death. We’ve only deluded ourselves that we have. It’s still with us, and we’re just lucky now that we can push it back as far as we do.

Whew. I still don’t know whether this makes any sense to anyone but myself, but this is what I’ve been thinking about death over the past year. Lisa, I don’t know whether this helps in any way, but this is what I wanted to explain on Friday and couldn’t figure out how to do. I haven’t exactly learned to be comfortable with death, and the thought of it still freaks me out, but I feel like at least the smarter side of me is moving toward acceptance.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com.]