Power is out in our fair city of Minneapolis, and these words from the sage Lao Tzu are most fitting for the day.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Toward the end of my graduate career, I enrolled in a philosophy course focused on exploring concepts related to death, dying, and the greater significance of human life. While a number of students were undoubtedly enrolled in the class to fulfill a general university requirement, I chose to take the class as a means of clarifying my own understanding of what it means to live authentically when faced with one’s own mortality. One of the critical objectives of the course involved challenging students to reconcile, in some fashion, the fact that we will all, as individuals, someday die. A lofty goal for a course that was 11-weeks long, but it was without a doubt one of the most challenging and fulfilling courses I have completed as it left me with a number of questions that have helped me clarify how it is that I hope to live.
One of the first texts that we we were assigned to read was Leo Tolstoy’s short piece, The Death of Ivan Iliych. The main character of the text, Illych, falls ill unexpectedly and throughout the dying process comes to realize that he has not lived well. In fact, he comes to recognize that he has lived a lie his entire life, following cultural expectations and living a life of propriety rather than pursuing endeavors that were, on a personal level, so very rewarding. In his final moments, he attempts to live in such a way that is true to himself, and mend all things so as to die without any significant regrets. While the narrative accounts for his physical death, it also, on a much deeper level, accounts for the death of this great lie - the identity, career and persona that have created an inauthentic Ivan Iliych.
The question, “Have I lived right?” continues to lurk in the back of my mind, not in a threatening sense, but as a friend that reminds me to ask myself if what I am doing is in fact an authentic expression of my passions and values, in addition to being that which grants me a sense of purpose or personal fulfillment. Many definitions, beliefs, expectations, and assumptions (some my own, some belonging to mother culture, friends, or family) come into play, and I admit that I remain rather confused as to what constitues “right and authentic living”; however, the reading of and subsequent reflection on the power of this book leaves me recognizing that I need to define this for myself, and live according to my own principles. Living with an awareness that I will someday die, I believe that a measure of living well involves acting in such a way that will, in the end, leave me with few regrets. It is all still a half-formed thought, but in time, I hope to craft a more explicit and defined understanding of “the right life” and how that best sustains me.
I question the existence of an afterlife, namely an afterlife as described by many contemporary or historical religious traditions. I openly admit that sometimes thinking that “this is all there is” (referring to the physical world surrounding me) is frightening; however, this thought leaves me feeling as though I must make the most of my experience as a living, breathing entity. Though this type of thinking often feeds into my neurotic state of being, or is perhaps a product of such a state of being, I believe that this thought and larger uncertainty is ultimately beneficial, in that it challenges me to continuously assess my being in this world and live with greater intention.
To discuss death or the process of dying often seems “inappropriate” or “depressing” to many people in American culture. I happen to live in a society that has detached itself from aging and acknowledging the end of life, and it’s easy to see this play out on a daily basis. We (the general populous) use products designed to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and “rejuvenate” the body. Plastic surgery is a business that continues to thrive. Care centers for the elderly, or even hospice care, keep those that are nearing the end of life away from our day-to-day routines. We keep the recognition of our mortality at an arm’s distance. I also believe that a handful of our religious institutions attempt to combat death through the promise of an afterlife, so much so that select communities restrict the ability of individuals to live fully aware, engaged and present while living in this world. Shane Claiborne, an activist and organizer of the “New Monastics” once commented that there is such a thing as life before death, but that it goes unrecognized by a number of individuals. Certain Christians and persons of faith, Claiborne noted, look at the world in which we live, believe it to be broken beyond repair, and subsequently neglect the opportunity to engage with the here and now, as they look forward to a life less broken once “this life” has ended. I understand why some my pursue this route. The promise of an existence free of pain, filled with contentment and perhaps those whom we’ve lost seems almost perfect. And yet, I feel as though this softens or perhaps minimizes the reality at hand. Again, a half-formed thought that will require additional time to tease out and clarify.
We humans have developed these “practices” or “attitudes” because we, as people, are afraid of the unknown. We can imagine and wonder, but we cannot know, with exact certainty, what will happen when our lives come to an end. The cessation of consciousness is simply a phenomenon that cannot be experienced and then discussed after the fact. Contrary to my previous comments on detachment (as influenced by the thoughts of Shane Claiborne), we become so deeply attached to the physical world that we deny the possibility of ever having to leave it. The thought of no longer being connected to loved ones, walk through a forest, or gently caress the soft fur of an animal is saddening and to some extent terrifying. I also believe that we are eager to fight against or deny death because they are afraid of the ways in which they might die. “Will I succumb to Alzheimer’s disease and lose my memories and identities?” “Will I die painfully?” “Peacefully?” We (myself included) wonder if we will die not having reached our full potential. Such questions leave us feeling as though we are waging a futile war against death, and so we begin radically denying that death can “rob” us from the things to which we are attached. Living, Albert Camus proposed, is an open act of rebellion against death, and yet, we all eventually die, sometimes sooner than we would like.
A number of questions begin to emerge with respect to the fairness of life, or perhaps the cruel nature of death (personifying death to be some sort of an enemy against whom we must fight). Some argue that God (for example) has a plan when someone unexpectedly dies or is diagnosed with a terminal illness, which I believe is sadly inappropriate and misguided. We lack ways of truly justifying or rationalizing why someone dies, and I believe that the only honest answer we can provide to one another involves recognizing that our life cycles naturally ends, in some situations more painfully or sudden than we would have anticipated. I do not mean to approach this from a care free, emotionless vantage point. It is truly sad to lose individuals whom we love, and it is existentially damaging to lose our abilities as we age. And though our natural response to something that causes us pain or harm is avoidance and/or combat, I believe that we must (to a certain degree) accept death and dying as a part of our reality. We should not fear death, but live in recognition of it, so as to live more intentionally and meaningfully with the time that we have left.
Author’s note: I do not claim to have all of the answers, and do not present my beliefs or attitudes as definitive truth. I would love to hear other’s reactions to this material, and would appreciate additional dialogue on this topic in hopes of better understanding how it is that we, as wonderfully complex beings, live more authentically.
“Remember your name. Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found. Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped to help you in their turn. Trust dreams. Trust your heart and trust your story.”
~Neil Gaiman from Instructions
Photo by Eric Vondy / Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0
A mentor once asked me, “How are your personal expectations preventing you from enjoying your life?”
One year later, I admit that I am still mulling this one over, and that I have been learning quite a bit about myself.
There is a strange yet welcome sensation that washes over me whenever I walk on a clear night and gaze up at the stars. I encounter a similar sensation when I visit the Oregon Coast and watch as the tide rises and falls. Or when I observe individual grains of sand slipping ever so delicately through my fingers. And when I find myself in the middle of a forest, stopping to listen to the sound of the wind passing through the trees.
Moments like these remind me of the fact that I am incredibly small. Not necessarily insignificant, but so very little in comparison to the size and majesty of the reality that surrounds me. Even though I wrestle with understanding my purpose in this life, I take comfort when recognizing that, whether or not a divine presence is responsible for my being in this universe, I belong here in this magical and mysterious place. I am at home.