Last week, the untimely death of a friend shattered my peace of mind. Not because it was unexpected; on the contrary, for some time she had known her days were numbered. She had accepted the fact that her death was inevitable with grace and dignity and had made the most of the time she had left. And it was the inevitability of her passing that made me want to rail against the universe and shout, “Why?” Secretly, I’d been hoping a miracle would save her.
And so, I was confronted by my own denial. It’s so easy to deny the presence of death until it confronts us. Whether it’s the death of someone close to us or our own death, we know it’s inevitable, and we search for ways to live with this knowledge. We must find ways to live with it; our lives would be unbearable if we became obsessed with our mortality.
A broader context to this truth becomes increasingly visible as well. Not just our individual deaths but the inevitable destruction of entire lifeforms, including the human race, becomes more and more obvious. I use the word ‘destruction’ instead of ‘disappearance,’ because the facts force me to understand that we humans will be the cause of this. To me, this is even more difficult to bear. And, here too, I find myself hoping for a miracle.
So we have developed various coping mechanisms to help us live with the inevitability of death and extinction. Some people become stuck in downright denial. A friend described the last year of his mother’s life as “watching someone slide into a dark tunnel, all the while grasping at the walls in a vain effort to reverse the process.” In the broader context, we see the climate-change deniers and the new trend of “alternative facts.”
Some people find comfort in images of afterlife or reincarnation. To me, although I’m aware that there is truth outside our rational perception, this does not touch the core of the issue: the joy I feel in this life, in this body, and the threatening extinction of all life as we know it.
When you witness nature, you see both the overpowering desire to survive and the quiet endurance of death. There seems to be a key to understanding here: can we passionately and wholeheartedly live in the moment and, at the same time, accept that we are a brief, vulnerable spark in an endless universe? My deceased friend did just that.
And, in the end, isn’t it about how we spend our days and what we leave behind as a legacy to the world that brought us forth and supported us? How do you want to be remembered and what does this say about your core values? Or, in Tolkien’s words, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
1975 – 2017