A Death Cafe event is currently the safest place I can think of to talk about the most frightening thing in the world. Death.
Even the word itself is almost too awful to say, never mind to contemplate. The concept is rarely discussed openly in Western society.
Outside of family it is only within the culture of organised religion where questions about death are addressed but the limits here are that it can only be interpreted through the lens of that particular religion’s dogma.
It is almost socially unacceptable to mention a lively interest in it in public. Even when the subject is addressed philosophically, it is awkward to assume an objective position, the irony being the inevitability of it for everyone. No matter who you think you are, what you have become, how much material wealth you have accumulated, no amount of money will stop it from happening. It is difficult, nay impossible, to distance ourselves from it as we are committed to doing it by the very act of being born. There’s a feeling of, ‘But I didn’t agree to this, it’s not fair’. It is almost seen as a punishment for living, but what if it isn’t? What if it’s the opposite?
We don’t live in the midst of death in the Western world any longer. Our modern culture of ease and comfort means we are naturally healthier and live longer than even a century ago. But there is a growing feeling of ennui and a sense of something missing that no amount of material possessions can fill. We seek more, expecting that when we have the right things, everything will fall into place and we will find peace and happiness. But it doesn’t happen and we are left grasping at thin air, numbed to the needs of others and encouraged to consume. We continue frantically filling our lives up, but what if we just stopped? Would we be better off letting it all go, starting again, relearning what it is to be human?
What’s happening is that we are almost sleepwalking on the surface of life and in failing to live more deeply we are denying our chance to die well.
Is it by denying thoughts about death and treating conversations about death as morbid that we somehow think it won’t apply to us? We can push it away? That it will somehow keep passing us by, won’t pick on us too soon as long as we don’t draw attention to ourselves? Or even worse, to try to outwit it? Are we in fact meant to try and outwit it at all costs?
But no, no one gets out of here alive. Although our culture expects us to assume there may ultimately be a way found and that we will submit to any process that gives us ‘more time’, have we really agreed to this? The reality is that death is now usually seen as a failure of medical intervention rather than the natural ending of a well lived life.
Think about that, or don’t, it’s too frightening.
As is the way with thoughts, anything frightening and left unexamined only increases its power over us as our imagination feels the need to fill in the gaps of knowledge. At this point, overwhelmed and exhausted, subscribing to a religion offers comfort and easy platitudes, you can relax, its all sorted, no need to worry about it any further. You have been reassured that someone else knows what it’s all about. But they don’t, do they? Not really. Even with the best of intentions they don’t actually know do they?
The fact is that no-one living does. What happens at the end is natural magic and will ultimately be revealed as one of the laws of the Universe yet to be defined where religion and science may meet. Interestingly as modern science evolves, using our ever more sensitive technology to measure and observe, quantum physics is starting to sound increasingly mystical. Quarks both strange and charmed inhabit multiverses. Computers extrapolate dry mathematical theorems towards ever more bizarre conclusions, discovering eternal spiralling patterns in nature of staggering beauty and complexity, an elegant framework that underlies reality itself. A breathtaking web of infinite possibilities in space and time is starting to emerge for every single particle observed, no matter how brief its existence. The numinous it seems, is very real.
Too often these questions are left until the end. So it’s only when we are faced with our own mortality, as time evaporates, that insights and answers start to crystallize, although of course by then it’s too late to do anything about it.
‘no one gets out of here alive’
We live in a sanitised culture where death is screened from us as though it may contaminate us and spoil our living. Nothing could be further from the truth – instead of living fully in the glorious moment despite or because of being in the shadow of death, we thrash about pointlessly, blinded by our eternal artificial light and deafened by relentless white noise. Eventually our connection to the universal web weakens, allowing neglect and atrocity to take root in our world.
Our poor connection means we are really unable to see, feel or hear the dancing resonant beat and ancient rhythms that hold our bodies of clay and stardust together. Like badly-tuned TVs the picture is unclear, unfocused and distorted, relaying chaotic energy. We find we’ve stopped dancing and are merely spinning in ever decreasing circles. All that is required of us in the mad world we have created is to be born, consume, and die.
The futility of it all becomes overwhelming. So we play and make a loud noise rather than face the fear. We call that fear death, but that isn’t the fear, the fear is what happens next. Separation? And so we spend the very end of our lives in a state of wretched anxiety.
Whereas death itself is only the natural inevitable result of being born, of being a part of the cycle of life where renewal always follows death and decay. Nothing is wasted, no energy is ever lost, it is always recycled into brand new life. That much is plain to see in nature all around us. So what do I, as a thinking being, capable of choice, want to do with my own wild and precious life?
Simply, how do I learn how to live well? How do I make my life, and therefore my death, count? One answer is to procreate and for some that will be enough, but what about the rest of us?
As we go through life the question becomes more pressing until one day we realise no one else can tell us: we have to work it out for ourselves. Don’t leave it until the end to do this. Do it now whilst you still can. It’s life affirming. Really, stop everything and listen.
Silence. Listen harder. Feel the shifting edge. Look over and into the black abyss of becoming and unbecoming and realise you are a vital part of it and know you can’t fall: it will hold you.
To understand even a fraction of what you see is enough to begin a glorious sea change, a paradigm shift in your perception of reality.
You can now feel the presence of the two most important questions taking shape on either side of you. Death on one side, asking ‘Do you know why you are here?’ Destiny on the other, asking ‘And are you doing what you should be doing?’
Only you can answer.
Julie Adrienne Troup