Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

In the light of Death

Some more of the email conversation re: facing death:

The SKS alumna writes:
I understand the value and importance of service. For me, to serve
another is to serve God. It could be holding a person's hand on his
deathbed, building a house for Habitat, or simply cooking a meal for
another. I agree with George: it's all about intention and focus on
doing good. And I would choose B.
But that's still not what's bugging me.
Maybe Mr. See would have died at the exact same time even if he hadn't
crawled down the hall toward someone, but the fact that he didn't die
until the housekeeper's arms were around him still strikes up something
I can't communicate. Even if we spend our whole lives serving others,
serving God and claiming to have faith in life after death, will we be
able to die at peace?
I think about my grandfather who was one of the most devoutly Christian
men I've ever known, and, yet, he struggled to stay alive for 3 hours
after they took him off life support. Eyes rolling back in his head,
muscles tense, wheezing, fists clenching. It wasn't until my grandmother
put her hands on his cheeks, touched her nose to his and said "Jim,
we're going to be fine. We're all going to be alright. You can go now.
Go to God." that he calmed down, relaxed his breathing, closed his eyes
and passed within 20 minutes.
Then I think about Treya Wilber in Ken Wilber's Grace and Grit who
died at utter peace, ready to face it, and on whose face a smile crept
after she passed. Of course she struggled through sadness,
frustration, fear, anger, all of it at some point.
Common denominator in all three is that they died with someone next to
them. Mr. See and the housekeeper. My grandfather and his family. Treya
Wilber and her family. What does that mean? Must we spend our last
breaths with someone there, showing us that they care? That our lives
meant something to someone? So we can see our legacy at the moment of
our death? Maybe it's not for the man who's dying, but for those he
leaves behind. We think we need to comfort him.
I am not saying that I don't care about my life meaning something to
someone else. I absolutely do care. That's one of my 'things' approval
and identity determined by outside sources. But if we toil all our lives
to serve and have absolute and honest faith that death is not the end,
why do we need someone there at that very moment? Can we have absolute
certainty about death without going through it?
I feel as though my questions would send me back to remedial
spirituality class (ha!) but this is the first time I truly feel that
I have to know the answers. I've asked them before and claimed that I
wanted to or already knew the answers, but I didn't. I realize that I
have no freakin' idea about any of it.


My response:

Rose wrote a poem, "Truth", which contained the lines:

Ah, Truth is a wonderful thing,
But a longely thing

The poem ends with the lines:

But here it is, night . . .
And Truth is too thin a blanket.

We come to the search for the Truth with all sorts of preconceptions about what the Truth will give us. We think the Truth will bring us happiness...or if not happiness, at least peace. We think that the Truth will innoculate us against suffering. We think that the Truth will protect us from all the human fears that we have about being alone . . . especially in the face of death.

But Rose and other spiritual teachers explicitly warn us against carrying these preconceptions about the "payoff" of the Truth. Truth is a thin blanket: it will not necessarily spare you from grief and fear, even grief for yourself and the ending of your own life. (I say, "not necessarily", because, who knows? Maybe it will. And then again, maybe it won't.)

So I'm not entirely sure it's a reasonable expectation to assume that you will face your death with utter equanimity. The Buddha promised an end to _suffering_, but that just means you are no longer identified with experience. There will still be _pain_, including emotional pain.

Also, I don't think a consistent desire for human companionship at the end of life is in any way an indictment of one's spiritual preparedness. You might think, "Oh, if I was spiritually fit, I shouldn't need any hand-holding, I can face death alone." But, really, think about it: in the light of Death, you have a chance to see things as they are. Trivial things appear trivial, and important things appear important. In that moment, _what_ _else_ on this planet would seem important to you, except connection to other human beings? Dying people look to other people, not because they lack a spiritual perspective, but precisely _because_ they have a spiritual perspective.

The best illustration that exists for all this is the end of Tolstoy's _The Death of Ivan Illych_. Ivan Illych's epiphany, and his final peace, comes when he makes that last connection with his son and his wife. Read it again -- my God, I've read it a hundred times and it never ceases to amaze me.


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