Wednesday, April 6, 2016
Thoughts Concerning Mortality
"Dying is easy, anyone can do it."
The subject of mortality has been on my mind lately, a subject I don't consider morbid, rather just something that naturally occurs to us at various times in our lives. It isn't a subject often talked or written about and I don't think we should shy away from it as much as we do. After all, what could be a more interesting question to the mortal beings that we are? Discussion of the subject seems a healthy impulse, if it's treated with sensitivity, and above all honesty. Furthermore, as we enter an era of increasing turmoil and confront the alienation of an increasingly crowded and competitive world the really serious questions in life are forced more into the forefront of our consciousness.
Obviously I can't address many aspects of this question here at any length, but something in me occasionally feels the need to examine my beliefs about life and death. It's always seemed strange to me that although our existence is shrouded in the most extreme mystery we don't often talk to one another about that mystery. Of course this question is the reason many people go to church, to search for - if not answers than at least some feeling of communion and the knowledge that we are not alone in that search for understanding. Aside from such religious ceremonies (which as George Orwell pointed out few of us truthfully believe, a fact readily demonstrated by simply looking at how seriously we avoid taking the Lord's name in vein, as compared to say, being hit by a truck.) The one is grounded in certainty while the other is not. Ceremonies surrounding death are essentially impersonal. They are held to comfort the survivors, not to celebrate death as would be the case if people truly believed in Heaven. And if there's one thing we can say with certainty about death it's that nothing could possibly be more personal!
Most educated people see these ceremonies as symbolic and not grounded in literal truth, and many of these can find little comfort in such ceremonies surrounding death. Neither can they find comfort in the essentially soul-less insights offered by science. (I am not saying this to impugn science. BTW. At times this aspect of my thoughts has been misinterpreted as seeing science in a negative light. Science is a very fine thing and reason is certainly a very fine thing and a necessary thing, but when we see these things as the only way to valid form of understanding I believe we make a terrible mistake.)
On the other hand it should also go without saying that much of what passes for spiritualism in popular culture is pure nonsense. Tarot, crystals, channeling, fortune telling, and a host of other such chicanery were debunked by rational thinkers a very long time ago. But just because these things are false spiritualism, created to fleece the naive, so it is also naive to think the scientific method, or applied science, or even reason itself holds the whole truth of existence. If it did we might just as well cease to exist and hand the world over to machines, which are mush more capable of such functions as we are as human beings. If the human spirit does not exist than people have less and less reason to exist. Even joy itself can only be seen in the light of the human spirit to have any meaning or even to exist.
For me then one of the most important questions concerning the human spirit is: What will really matter when we finally confront death?
I recently had a heart attack, one of those brushes with death we all must face at one time or another, and as a result of that experience, as well as other such experiences in life, I've come to regard death not as something to fear, but as the greatest liberation - not because I don't love life in its season but because I see the final limitation of life to satisfy the deeper aspirations of our spirits. Ultimately it seems that this physical world is too limiting of the potential of the human spirit, or at least it seems so to me. Imagine the prospect of never dying, or never being able to leave this place! Never! In that context death doesn't seem so scary, it seems instead to be, in its proper time, a blessing. Those who have grappled with the meaning of survival in the food chain, both the physical and the psychological order of the survival of the most aggressive, have a clear insight into what would be the nature of eternal life on earth.
In my personal struggle with this question I've come to a definite understanding through demonstrable phenomena, of two separate worlds interacting within this world - in the clash of which, like the first spark of a sun, is created and illuminated our reality. Our existence here is built entirely of duality, of conflict and paradox. Here the physical world of survival, of natural selection, is in opposition to and often pitted against the higher force of love. We must live in the one but we are drawn with all of our hopes and desires to the other.
Some of these and related ideas I think are beginning to gain currency even in the scientific realm. People in medicine and those involved in hospice are, for various reasons, becoming more inclined to see the human spirit as something demonstrably real.
In facing death in various ways in the course of my life I would say that when you strip away everything else that is what matters. What matters is our aspiration toward something higher than survival in the food chain, an idea celebrated in out Darwinian notion of financial competition. What matters is human relationships - is love. That may seem to some to be maudlin, and a bit of a cliche, but in most of our time on this planet we live in a kind of self-delusion, induced by the necessity of survival in a competitive and often ruthless world. There seems no reason to enshrine such struggle in false glamour by asserting it is also the object of our dreams and higher aspirations.
This seems to be the exact opposite of everything our deeper spirits tell us about the true nature of those higher aspirations. It is a delusion preventing us from connecting to the existence of a genuinely higher order of existence conceived through our recognition of the intangible, but very real, higher forces within our world. If we did not have these things, and the hope they hold for our spirits, then life would be unendurable, and we might as well turn our world over to the cold, dispassionate machines, we have created out of fear engendered by the struggle to survive. If we are anything at all we are more than that. When confronted directly with death, in my experience, what matters is love. It is the deep connection we feel with in connection with kindred spirits - it is human relationships and our relationships to the spirits of other living things. Without that death is victorious and life has no meaning.
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
*Image Eugene Delacroix, Public Domain