Death is an enormous taboo. It's difficult to discuss death without people giggling nervously, becoming entirely too somber, or saying something like, "Death? You're going to talk about death? Such bad taste!"
Death is a friend of ours; and he that is not ready to entertain him is not at home.
When I tell people that in this chapter we will explore the idea that death is a friend--a joyful, freeing process--they're liable to think I'm mad. Well, I've been thought mad before--by experts. I figure in 1,000 years, we'll all be dead. What difference does it make what people say about us today? So why not enjoy ourselves while we're alive?
That's precisely the point of death.
In our culture, death is unmentionable. No one ever dies. People pass away, pass over, are gone, asleep, at peace, at rest, expired, or departed (dearly).
Many people feel "icky" thinking about death--so they don't. Who, after all, wants to feel icky? They begin to associate icky with death. Then they know that death is icky. One should, therefore, not think about death, because there's lots of time to feel icky after you're dead.
Thus, thus, it is joy to pass to the world below.
One of the situations in which everybody seems to fear loneliness is death.--In tones drenched with pity, people say of someone, "He died alone." I have never understood this point of view. Who wants to have to die and be polite at the same time?
This is about as much logic as most people apportion to death. The problem is, if we don't consider death, we are not fully prepared to consider life. Which brings us to our Pop Quiz on death:
Who said this? "We need to be reminded that there is nothing morbid about honestly confronting the fact of life's end, and preparing for it so that we may go gracefully and peacefully. The fact is, we cannot truly face life until we have learned to face the fact that it will be taken away from us."
Answer to Pop Quiz (with commentary):
Gandhi said about death, "We do not know whether it is good to live or to die. Therefore, we should not take delight in living nor should we tremble at the thought of death. We should be equiminded towards both. This is the ideal."
Woody Allen wrote, "Death is one of the few things that can be done as easily lying down. The difference between sex and death is that with death you can do it alone and no one is going to make fun of you."
Thomas Mann pointed out, "The only religious way to think of death is as part and parcel of life; to regard it, with the understanding and the emotions, as the inviolable condition of life."
Mark Twain, near death in 1910, wrote, "Death, the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose refuge are for all--the soiled and the pure, the rich and the poor, the loved and the unloved."
Charlie Chaplin (you thought I was kidding? Would I kid about death? Sure. But would I kid about Chaplin? Never.) said, "Beauty is an omnipresence of death and loveliness, a smiling sadness that we discern in nature and all things, a mystic communion that the poet feels."
Vladimir Nabokov told us, "Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one."
Emily Dickinson, a full twenty-three years before her death, rhymed,
Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me--
The Carriage help but just Ourselves
JOHN KEATS mised death and courtship when wooing Fanny Brawne. On July 25, 1819, he wrote her, "I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute." (What woman could resist?)
Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other.
Death is just nature's way of telling you, "Hey, you're not alive anymore."
BULL NIGHT COURT
The answer, then, to our Pop Quiz is (E) Billy Graham.
Why, then, if all these great people had nifty things to say about death, do we as a culture fear it so?
Once again, we return to those thrilling days of childhood. Most people experienced another's death in childhood. Someone (or a pet) they knew as an active, warm, animated being was suddenly an unmoving, cold, silent corpse. This death stuff did not look like much fun.
"Why is he lying in that box? Why are they going to put him in the ground (or burn him)? If he's gone to God, why are you so sad?" In the grief, commotion, and exhaustion that surrounds dying and its aftermath, a child's questions about death are seldom properly answered.
The more people a child asks, the more conflicting the answers may become. Children are little curiosity machines. They know how to ask all the "right" questions--the ones most adults haven't yet figured out for themselves. In the dialogue between children and adults, only sex is shrouded in as much mystery, embarrassment, and confusion as death.
If the person (or pet) who died was close to the child, then he or she will associate death with the intense pain of life's first significant loss. Death, then, is associated with hurt. The child also sees how the adults behave at death: weeping, wailing, suffering. This death thing must be pretty terrible.
If, in childhood, the death of another took place after a long illness, all the disagreeableness of the dying process--hospitals, infirmities, unpleasant sights and smells--is associated with death itself. To a child, seeing someone gradually get sicker and in more pain seems to mean that, after death, the sickness and pain will worsen.
This description doesn't even include the hell-is-waiting-for-you, burning-sulphur, fire-and-brimstone religious training some children get. A child, hearing a list of sins, soon realizes, "If this is all I have to do to go to hell, I'm going to hell."
Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas, Ease after war, death after life does greatly please.
It's little wonder that children put the subject of death on hold. Like homework, if they don't have to think about it, they won't. Many people stopped thinking about death in childhood and haven't sincerely considered it since.
This means that many adults hold a child's view of death. Let's see if we can reeducate that part of ourselves--to mature about death.
Of course, one's belief about what happens after death falls into The Gap. There are, however, only three major beliefs about death in the entire Gap. One of these views fits almost every religious, spiritual, philosophical, agnostic, and atheistic group in The Gap.
Interestingly, none of these beliefs has much bad stuff to say about death to the average adult follower of that belief. If there is any nastiness after death, it's going to happen to them (the nonbelievers), not to us (the believers). To a child, certain aspects of some beliefs might appear terrifying, but to an adult, there's nothing to fear. (In fact, in many cases, death is rather appealing.)
Although I stay away from Gap matters as a rule, I will make this one suggestion for you to follow while exploring your Gap: Live by what you believe so fully that your life blossoms, or else purge the fear-and-guilt-producing beliefs from your life.
When people believe one thing and do another, they are inviting misery. If you give yourself the name, play the game. When you believe something you don't follow with your heart, intellect, and body, it hurts. Don't do that. Live your belief, or let that belief go.
If you're not actively living a belief, it's not really your belief, anyway--you're just kidding yourself. If you're not actively involved in getting what you want, you don't really want it. You probably really believe something else, but may be afraid to admit it to yourself.
As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death.
LEONARDO DA VINCI
Immortality consists largely of boredom.
Let's take a look at each of the three beliefs about death from an adult point of view. If, as a child, you were told you'd know more about death "when you're older," I offer this one thought: you're older now.
Life is purely biological. Once the brain stops working, our sense of aliveness is no more, and that's it. As Dr. Albert Ellis, a proponent of this school of thought, pointed out with his characteristic candor and clarity, "When you're dead, you're f---ing dead!"
The idea of "being no more" may frighten a child. Children associate nothingness with the dark. The dark usually frightens a child. Therefore death is frightening.
Many adults can probably agree with William Hazlitt:
Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern--why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? I have no wish to be alive a hundred years ago, why should I regret and lay it so much to heart that I shall not be here a hundred years hence?
If this is a purely biological life, then who would want to live forever anyway? Imagine living forever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever. If you got bored reading all those "ever's," imagine how quickly you would become bored with an eternal life in a finite universe.
Think about it: if you had infinite time but finite space, eventually you would have explored and experienced every "thing" there was to explore and experience. And then you'd get to start over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over.
If you've ever gotten bored with anything you once found fascinating, you understand the problem. Given enough time, you would become bored with everything in life.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.--For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
Infinity is enough time.
After enough time, you would find yourself agreeing with the person who, in 1990 B.C., wrote,
Death is in my sight today
As when a man desires to see home
When he has spent many years in captivity.
It's from a poem called The Man Who Was Tired of Life.
Or, as Mark Twain explained, "Whoever has lived long enough to find out what life is, knows how deep a debt of gratitude we owe to Adam, the first great benefactor of our race. He brought death into the world."
I end the exploration of this portion of The Gap with the words of Albert Einstein: "The fear of death is the most unjustified of all fears, for there is no risk of accident to someone who's dead."
When you die, you go to heaven or hell. This life is a one-shot opportunity. If we're good, we get paradise forever. If we're bad, we go to hell forever. (Catholics include a pre-heaven condition, purgatory, for those who weren't bad enough for hell, but are not yet good enough for heaven.)
This sounds pretty good. Eternal paradise. Now, this wouldn't become tiresome because, as far as I know, heaven is infinite, and, as far as I know, we are not saddled with physical bodies. This wouldn't be boring. This would be eternal bliss.
"Life is eternal," Rossiter Raymond wrote in his Commendatory Prayer, "and love is immortal; and death is only a horizon; and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight."
In this belief of death, you rest after a careworn life, but you rest not in nothingness, but in paradise. God, James Johnson imagines, uses death as a sort of chauffeur for the Divine Rest Limo Company. God orders death:
Find Sister Caroline
And she's tired--
Go down, Death, and bring her to me.
Thomas Fuller, in his 1642 Life of Monica, tells of the saint's death: "Drawing near her death, she sent most pious thoughts as harbingers to heaven; and her soul saw a glimpse of happiness through the chinks of her sickness-broken body."
The Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, has many nice things to say about death. Ecclesiastes 7:1 tells us, "The day of death [is] better than the day of birth." In 1 Corinthians 15:5-55, Paul wrote, "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"
Death is a low chemical trick played on everybody except sequoia trees.
J. J. FURNAS
In Revelation 1:18, Jesus said, "I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death." After reading that, it's hard to understand how anyone calling him- or herself a Christian could possibly have any concerns about death. The One Christians believe in says He has the keys to hell and death. If someone who loved you said he had the keys to get you out of jail, would you worry about spending any time there?
The Koran begins by calling God merciful, and at 19:66-67 asks, "Man says: `How is it possible, when I am dead, that I shall then be brought forth alive?' Does he not remember that We have created him once, and that he was nothing then?"
The Koran 29:64 also states, "The present life is naught but a diversion and a sport; surely the Last Abode is Life, did they but know." Did they but know, there would be no fear of death.
Reincarnation. According to reincarnationists, a portion of us keeps coming back again and again, living lifetime after lifetime, in body after body, until all necessary lessons are learned. How do we know when all necessary lessons have been learned? When we stop coming back.
VARIATION: We already know all there is to know, but we agreed to forget it for a specified period of time so we can take part in this great play (either opera, soap opera, horse opera, or Grand Ole Opry) called life.
If reincarnation is your belief, you, too, have nothing to fear. Death is the great liberator, a chance to take off your school clothes (or make-up) and meet with old friends at the malt shop (or corner pub) for drinks and good times.
As the Bhagavad Gita (chapter 2, verse 27), a holy text of Hindus--the largest group of reincarnationists outside Southern California--says,
For certain is death for the born
And certain is birth for the dead;
Therefore over the inevitable
Thou should not grieve.
Death is, to us here, the most terrible word we know. But when we have tasted its reality, it will mean to us birth, deliverance, a new creation of ourselves.
In fact, nobody really knows for sure. Many who have lived after being pronounced clinically dead report the trip to "Other side, the[Other side]>the other side" as a pleasant journey. Almost all who remember describe roughly the same experience: looking down on their now-dead body, lifting away from earth, going through a white tunnel, being met by a loving Master form, having their life shown to them from the beginning, learning lessons from their life experiences, being given a choice to "go on" or to return and continue to "study" on earth, and choosing to go back. (Those who chose to go on, well, they are not available for comment.) Many report meeting loved ones who had previously died.
Some people remember all these events, others remember some of them, but the consistency of descriptions from a broad range of individuals--even people from Ohio--points to the possibility that death (or at least the transition to death) might not be so bad. (An interesting book on the subject is Heading Toward Omega by Kenneth Ring.)
If, as Walt Whitman put it, "Nothing can happen more beautiful than death," why don't we all just kill ourselves?
Good question--especially to ask while reading Whitman. That man seemed to have an affair with death. ("The sea lisped to me the low and delicious word death," "Come lovely and soothing death," "Sooner or later delicate death," "Praise! Praise! Praise! For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.") Yumm.
Suicide is always an option, of course. The option is, sometimes, what makes life bearable. Knowing we don't absolutely have to be here can make being here a little more bearable. I do not, however, recommend suicide.
Exception: When you have a terminal illness and are clearly on the way out--almost gone, in fact--then it's between you and your Gap.
If, as I propose, we are here to learn, then all life--including that which is so painful it makes us want to die--can be used for learning, upliftment, and growth. Sometimes it's only after a painful process is over that we can look back and see what we learned from the situation.
Ford Prefect: Why? What did she tell you?
Arthur: I don't know;
I didn't listen.
THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY
In fact, we seldom know it when our greatest lessons are taking place; our experience at the time is usually confusion, pain, and/or discomfort. It's like traveling--when seeing the most exotic lands with the most amazing scenery sometimes means sleeping in tents two hundred miles from the nearest toilet. It's when we get back home, we remember the magnificent vistas. As William Burroughs explained, "There are certain things human beings are not permitted to know--like what we're doing."
Suicide is not a good idea for another reason. Before we can learn life's more advanced lessons, we must learn the basics--how to talk, walk, operate a body, read, make a living, etc. That takes at least twenty years. (Some people haven't mastered it in fifty.) That you're reading this book indicates you've "done your time" in the "basic" school, and are now ready for the truly challenging stuff. Why waste all that preparation?
Sure, "the other side" is wonderful, but you'll be spending the rest of your death there. As Malcolm Forbes had etched on his tombstone, "While alive, he lived."
While alive, live.
When you don't have any money, the problem is food. When you have money it's sex. When you have both it's health. If everything is simply jake, then you're fiightened of death.
J. P. DONLEAVY
There are no emergencies, only emergences.
Lessons don't always emerge in a methodical, orderly, systematic way. The time-frame is seldom leisurely, steady, and unhurried.
In addition to lessons, there are tests. Without tests, how can your Master Teachers know what you've learned, and what you need work on next?
We are, of course, tested all the time. Our successful action means we're passing tests. Walking, speaking, tying shoes--all those things that were major challenges at age two are today's often-passed tests for most of us. By merely standing up, for example, we pass gravity's ongoing tests. (Yes, gravity is a Master Teacher. So is levity.)
When we are tested in new areas, we tend to make more mistakes--it's because we haven't mastered the new area yet. That's okay. We're not supposed to have mastered it. We're the student, not the master. When the tests happen one at a time, we can usually manage them. But when the tests emerge two, three, four, fifteen at a time: emergency!
An emergency is several Master Teachers standing at once and saying, "Pop Quiz!"
When you feel yourself overwhelmed by "problems," take a look at the Master Teachers around you. See the smiling faces of Mistakes, Guilt, Resentment, Fear, Pain, Disease, Stubbornness, Addiction, Depression, Death. They're waiting to see how well you do.
God gave burdens, also shoulders.
Do well. Consider them not a problem, but a challenge. Rise to the occasion.
Ask yourself, "What have I learned about this situation that I can use?" The answer to that question, and your successful application of it, will lead to the spontaneous emergence of achievement, fulfillment, happiness--and a gathering of justifiably proud Master Teachers.
Copyright © 1991-1996 Prelude Press & Peter McWilliams site credits