June 21, 1999
My daughter called me yesterday, crying. Her cat had just died. Obviously, she loved her cat very much; that’s why she was crying and telling me about all of the pain that she was in.
My daughter has had very little experience with death and has not yet attained the wisdom to cope with it well. And it is a skill. Perhaps the death of a pet is one of the ways in which we learn to meet death. Since most of us cannot comprehend death itself, we learn to comprehend our own response to the loss of someone or something we love.
Yesterday my sister called me and she was quite upset. She had just found out that a young woman she knows, about thirty-one years old, had cancer. She mentioned that part of why she was so upset was that it reminded her of her own mortality.
I was talking to an old friend yesterday and I said that it was most difficult for people to cope with the death of someone young. My friend had the kindness to point out that he and I had long passed the point — we’re both fifty-two — where we could die “young.” As he put it, if either of us died tomorrow, it could be said that we died “old enough.” That made me feel much better.
To what degree do you fear this idea of death? And it really is only an idea, since we really don’t know what happens afterward. Do we really go up to some place called heaven? Have you ever wondered what language is spoken in heaven?
Do we just cease to be? Does the notion of “me” just evaporate into nothingness? Do we merge with one universal spirit? Or is it something that nobody has ever thought of? Are we reincarnated?
Is any of this really worth worrying about, especially when worrying about death is most pointedly time away from being in life?
Are some of us so out of life, so out of our own hearts, so disconnected from our souls and our environment that death might not really be all that noticeable? It might even be a much-needed improvement on our present condition.
Maybe death is really the opposite of what we think it is. Most of us think of death as having the plug pulled out of the socket, but perhaps it is the other way around. It could be the time, at last, when we are fully plugged in. In the end, we spend a hell of a lot more time not here than we do here.
I like to think of myself as swimming deeply in life — that is, being as deep in it as possible while still staying afloat. I often feel like I am part of a lake that has been frozen over. And I look up through the beautiful blue white ice and see all these people just skating on the surface of it. They either have no idea that life has more depth to it, or, as is usually the case, they are just plain terrified of the whole thing.
Occasionally, and actually all too often, these people will try to talk to me. Now, I understand them quite well, although they bore the hell out of me. Often they ask my advice. My best advice is that they should try swimming in life, not just skating on the surface.
They never seem to understand this. But I have been where they are, so I can understand them. That’s fine. I have little need to be understood by any one other than the small number of people that I genuinely know and care about.
But these people who skate above me, and like to think that they are above me, don’t understand me. Sometimes, they have a compulsion to believe they know who I am, so they project images onto me. Most of the time their image of me isn’t accurate — but that’s okay with me; I find it all kind of interesting.
The one thing that I wish I could change about myself is to have more tolerance for all of you who just skate the surface of life. Even if you never really taste most of it, smell most of it, hear most of it, touch most of it or feel most of it.
How often do you really laugh at the whole wonderful disaster that is life? How often do you let yourself roar at it, or just cry over it? Probably not often enough, I think.
It occurs to me that if I died tomorrow, Wednesday might be pretty interesting. My biggest regret about possibly dying tomorrow is that there are people who would miss me and who would feel bad. (On the other hand, I think that if I died tomorrow, it would make my sister-in-law kind of happy. I don’t mind that at all; it’s probably the least I could do for her. And actually, since she has never chosen to actually see me, she probably wouldn’t even notice.)
We owe the idea of death a great deal. Like I said, it is only a concept, an idea. For instance, if it weren’t for the idea of death, there would not now, nor ever have been, religion. All religions come out of the desire to help people cope with the suffering of life and with the idea of death. I have never encountered a religion yet in which the central tenet was not an attempt to make the idea of death less scary.
I wrote a poem a long time ago. It goes like this: “I am a wave, God is the ocean.”
That’s the poem. It’s based on a metaphor in which the ocean is life.
A wave slowly rises, crests, then falls back to the sea. When the wave disappears, we’re left to wonder whether it died or just returned to where it came from? Is it possible that our lives are the same as waves on the sea, born as small swells and then rising, bursting with energy, then slowly and quickly crashing back to sea? Some waves appear to travel to a shore and then end, while some live and end without ever seeing a shore. Does it matter, really?
Just for today, spend some time with the idea of your own mortality. You may notice that it leads to spending more and better time with the fact of your living.