Most mornings, after a restful sleep, I wake up and meditate for ten to fifteen minutes, calming my mind before it starts spinning up with the ideas, opinions, schedules, and tasks of the day, the ego defenses that hide my vulnerabilities under a mask of socially-acceptable bravado. Sometimes, like this morning, like the past few mornings, I wake up with my mind at full power, because I never quite fully got to sleep.
Last night, I dreamed briefly about my late grandmother, who passed in October. Fittingly for me, it was a science-fictional dream: my family had deliberately gone back in time a few years to a New Year’s Eve party when my Grandma was still mourning the passing of her husband, my Grandpa. I remember seeing her, knowing she was now gone in my “now”, and gave her a hug, out of the blue, no explanation.
The subconscious continues to feel loss even when the conscious mind has moved onto other things. Whenever those feelings creep to the surface, though, they tend to manifest not as grief or sadness at past losses, but at the anxiety of losing people, stability, prosperity in the future.
Loss aversion affects my behavior, more than I want to think.
“Fight Club” author Chuck Palahniuk’s statement “it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything” used to give me great hope, since it meant that maybe experiencing one of my greatest fears – of losing all my money, losing people I love, of finding my dream girl and then losing her – would also be a form of liberation. That’s not how it feels in my waking life, not really. Then again, I still have so much and so many people in my life, I suppose I prefer to hide out in pretending that what I already have will last forever. Nothing does.
Recently, prompted by a friend’s illness, I found myself reflecting on mortality so I could learn how to be supportive, and what I found in that searching was that death denial is Western culture’s way of avoiding responsibility for full living. We hide from death. Much of that is due to empirical science, which for all of its benefits is still limited to experiences contained in the five senses, and to what has already been gathered.
An empirical culture believes that there is truly nothing that lingers of us afterwards, and that generates a collective fear that other, more “magical” or “spiritual” cultures do not experience. In typical Western fashion, we hide from the reality of death and dying.
We cloak it in a youth-worshipping fashion and entertainment culture while we hide our grandparents away in nursing homes, alone, often unvisited. We bury it in alcohol and drug addiction, in reality TV and the pursuit of material gains.
In medicine, we train doctors to view death as the ultimate failure, a defeat, even when the pain caused by keeping someone alive is preferable to allowing them to die deliberately, absent suffering.
We do all of this because we don’t want to think about the consequences of what happens afterwards. We don’t want to face the reality that oblivion is one possible destiny, and the only one that the science that has re-made our civilization can say is certain.
Fear of loss. What’s more frightening than the idea that I won’t exist as I am when my body stops working? Old philosophical conundrums, mind-body-soul problems. I’m not only my body. People have lost limbs without losing corresponding parts of their identities.
Taking the question away from intellect and into the mystical doesn’t satisfy reason, because it is, by definition, outside of reason, but it may satisfy me. This is what Rumi did. This is what Meister Eckhart did, William Blake, Whitman. Their ecstatic poetry showcases a world both beyond this one and intertwined with it, in which nothing and no one is ever lost….but that doesn’t help us while we’re in these measurable bodies.
What if you were aware of the limited time frame of every person you met as you were talking to them? What if you went into every business venture, every old reunion, with the certainty of your own death at the forefront of your awareness? Your conversations would go very differently.
In my exploration a few weeks ago, the most courageous words that I heard came from a Canadian documentary film called “Griefwalker”, centered around palliative counselor Stephen Jenkinson, who said words to this effect: “The dying have a job to do, and that is to set the table that will be spilled upon the moment of death, and the storytelling that ensues: that’s the feast”.
The dying have a job to do for the friends, family, and children they leave behind: that is, to show them how to die well.
In ultimate reality, we are all dying. We will all be “lost”, as individuals, as bodily creatures. That means that the job of dying well falls to all of us, because the flipside to showing everyone how to die well is that we also show them how to truly live. That means living deeply, not just indulging in the superficial, champagne-and-bling sideshow that we think is “truly living”, which only distracts us further from our connections and therefore responsibilities to the world, to each other. I mean living in connection, adding to the quality of life around you.
And any feeling of loss aversion – the kind of thing that keeps me from taking the risk of leaving behind security in order to see what is possible in my life if I just did “that” thing I’ve always wanted to do, or if I just said what I wanted to say to someone I loved or hated or feared – becomes empty and meaningless in the context of “I’m already always dying”.
If I die broke and homeless or surrounded by millions, I’m still dead. The material results don’t matter. Only two things matter, really: the knowledge that I took my best goddamn shot at living fully the way that I wanted to live; and that I expressed everything that I wanted to say to the people I loved while I was still alive, that I added to life.
As my ego persona starts to wake up as I finish these words, as I start to want to be light-hearted and talk about different things for the sake of easy conversation with my friends and co-workers, I want to end with one other excerpt from “Griefwalker”, in the hope that maybe something of it will carry into the experience of my day today:
“What about the people who say “I’m happy to be alive because I see that flower or that beautiful morning sun”?”
“And where does your capacity to see the flower come from? Until your ability to see the flower is rooted in the fact that it won’t always be there, and neither will you, how much of the flower do you see?”