September was not a kind month. Let’s take a moment to consider what all happened, in no particular order.
At least 70 known deaths from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston, Texas area. This doesn’t count the deaths in Louisiana and Mississippi nor deaths that occurred after the storm as a result of injuries sustained in the storm.
At least 75 deaths from Hurricane Irma all across Florida. Again, this isn’t counting deaths that happen well after the storm.
At least 320 people died as a result of two massive earthquakes in Mexico. Rescue efforts have largely been halted, but more bodies could still be found.
More than 1,200 dead from Monsoons in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. Due to the nature of the flooding, actual fatality counts are impossible.
641 people were killed in various terrorist attacks around the world.
Human rights groups report 3,055 deaths in Syria’s brutal civil war.
And there’s nothing close to an accurate count of the hundreds, possibly thousands of Rohingya Muslims slaughtered in Myanmar (Burma).
So when we woke up Monday morning to find that October was starting with a new record, the new worst mass shooting on American soil, our hearts sank. The one-year anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, which claimed the lives of 40 people, was just this past June 16. As I’m writing, 59 have been confirmed dead in this horrible event. The numbers will almost certainly go up, quite possibly as high as 70. Whose heart doesn’t break when things like this happen?
Late night talk show hosts have become the voice of America’s conscience in many ways and this time it was ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel who seemed to find the words so many were wanting to say. Take a look:
I no longer have the strength in me to be angry when things like this happen, not because I find any justification or fall into a well of apathy, but because the repetitiveness of running on this treadmill has left me exhausted. The pattern remains the same. An event takes place, in our pain, we focus on our anger, and then, as the pain normalizes (it never really goes away because we don’t deal with it), we move on to other things. Not only does the problem remain unsolved, we never actually attempt to address the problem at all. We just argue about it on social media using the exact same platitudes we did with the last mass shooting. Politicians wait out the mass hysteria and then continue to do nothing because they know we won’t hold them responsible for their complete lack of activity.
And here we are again, mourning the loss of innocent people, people who had almost certainly saved their money and looked forward to their trip to Vegas for months. As the names of the dead are confirmed, notice how few are from the Las Vegas area. They’re from all over the US. Teachers, nurses, police officers, attornies, single moms, loving dads, all of whom were there enjoying the music they loved, and then they died.
Over and over and over again this past month, people have died in large numbers and for anyone with an ounce of compassion, our hearts are ripped apart every time. Our emotional wounds don’t even have time to heal from one assault before we’re blindsided with another.
And then, Tom Petty died.
Sigh. Big, deep, heavy sigh.
My late father was of the opinion that one of the reasons we are so horrified by moments like this, events that yield large numbers of dead, is because they force us to confront our own mortality. Who among those killed in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey or Irma had planned to die? Of all the people in Mexico City who were crushed under the buildings they assumed were protecting them, did any have time to prepare for their death? The people of Syria have lived under the constant reality of war for many years, but when a child is caught in the crossfire do his parents mourn any less? We see these things happening around us and are frightened because we realize that so often when death arrives at our door we have no warning. Life is just over. Done.
We react to horrible situations like these out of fear, fear that we might be next and that there may not be a damn thing we can do about it. We react because we don’t want to be the next one to lose a brother, or sister, or child, or parent or spouse. We fear our death because we are, despite all our alleged faith, not convinced of whatever comes next. We fear the deaths of those we love because we don’t know how to conceive of living without them.
Saying goodbye to life is hard because we view death as an end rather than the beginning of whatever comes next. We see a finality to death because we can’t imagine existence beyond the confines of our human bodies. We fear death because we count it as a loss rather than a transition.
Kahlil Gibran, in the final chapter of The Prophet, gives us some wise words regarding death:
You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.
In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honor.
Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?
Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?
For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
Struggle with this as I know you will, let me challenge our view of death. Killing people is a weapon only as long as we treat death as a loss. Yet, what is it we are losing? The very phrase to “lose my life” is a deception. I cannot lose my life; it isn’t going to fall out of my pocket as though it were loose change. I cannot “give up” my life because there is no one person or entity to accept it as terms of surrender. A life doesn’t “expire” like milk past its use-by date. Life does not end but simply transitions and moves on to the next thing.
We have so heavily bought into the notion that beyond death lies a place of punishment and pain that we will do almost anything to avoid that possible outcome. Never mind the religious activities that we hope might save us from that horrible doom. We still fear death because we’re never quite sure that we’ve done enough to escape hell. We like the concept of a salvation that cannot be removed from us, but at our core, we still don’t trust it, we worry that there is no heaven, or that we might not actually make it.
Strip all the centuries of mythology away, though, and look at death as a transition. Place on the other side of that transition whatever existence makes you feel better, but don’t make it something worthy of your fear. Rather, put on the other side of that transition a point of hope. Call it Heaven, Nirvana, or a Collective Consciousness; whatever works for you and your belief system, but embrace that and let it replace your fear.
I like Gibran’s very last line: “And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.” Think of what it would be like to always be tied to something, to have your arms and legs tethered so that you could move, but you couldn’t leave; to be anchored in one space that is yours. Then, just imagine what it would be like, after years and years of being tethered, to suddenly be let free, to be set loose. That, Gibran says, is what death does.
You’ve wrestled with this concept before, though in a different form. Think Shakespeare and Hamlet’s soliloquy. You know, the one that starts, “To be or not to be …” Jump to the end of that one and we find some interesting words:
To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
The respect that makes calamity of so long life. Shuffling of “this mortal coil” frees us from the bonds and limitations of the vessel in which we are contained. Whether we sleep or, perchance dream, and whether those dreams are a reality on a different plane of existence, we transition into another level of existence that causes us to look back upon this life as a calamity for having been as long as it was.
Is it possible for us to not fear death? Is it possible for us to turn goodbye into “congratulations on your promotion?” Can we see death as a stepping stone, not a stopping point?
We do not minimize the value of this life when we elevate the value of what lies beyond this life. What we do here does not mean any less if what happens next is even better. Love is love on every plane of existence and love itself is eternal. We are fond of the saying, “you can’t take it with you,’ and that is absolutely true of the material and physical pieces of a life tethered to this dust. But then, why would we want to take anything from here? If we break free of our bonds, do we stop to gather up the ropes that tied us down? I don’t think so.
Love is not one of those bonds, though, and the love we cultivate in this life, the things we do selflessly for others, the goodwill we forge simply by being nice to other people, all that is a positively charged energy that attaches itself to us and where we go all that love and peace and comfort continues right on into forever with us. As long as we have this life we have the opportunity to generate the love that carries with us to the next. What we do here is not wasted, but what we do here is not the limit of who we are.
Perhaps, just maybe, the reason it is so difficult to say goodbye is because that’s not what we’re supposed to be saying at all. And if we take away death’s ability to scare the bejeezus out of us we also take away the ability for madmen and terrorists to use it as a weapon against us.
What if, instead of mourning what we perceive as a loss we celebrated the elevation of our friends and loved ones to something better, shuffling off the bonds that limited their existence? What if, instead of holding funerals we held parties, complete with cake and champagne, or at least a very old scotch? Would that not be better than the torment we put ourselves through every time nature or insanity releases a number of us from our confines?
This is a difficult conversation to have even within me. Religious philosophy has so dominated our societies for so long that trying to reimagine death as merely a transition feels a bit like trying to put a coat on backward and inside-out. Yet, even within the confines of religion, where one believes that a better place awaits, do we not prove ourselves unbelievers if we let our fear of death send us into mourning? Should we not rejoice that great-grandma has left her pain and suffering behind, escaped the imprisonment of her body and transitioned onto her Heaven, whatever that may be? If paradise is what we believe waits for us how incredibly stupid are we being when we are afraid of reaching that milestone?
There is a Christian hymn written in 1898 by Johnson Oatman, Jr. that I grew up singing but never really understanding the insight of the words. While Oatman was obviously Christian and was making reference to that expectation of a Heaven, if one strips away the religious connotation and looks at it simply as about the transition from this life to the next, we find a solace and even a yearning that leads us away from fear.
My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay;
Though some may dwell where these abound,
My prayer, my aim is higher ground.
I want to scale the utmost height
And catch a gleam of glory bright;
But still I’ll pray, ’til heaven I’ve found
“Lord, lead me on to higher ground.”
Those lines, which are actually part of the second verse, are some of the most common-sense poetry one might find. Fear, doubt, worry, trouble, are all inherent to this earth-bound existence but if they do not exist outside these carbon containers we call bodies then why would our aim not be that “higher ground” of which Oatman writes?
If we stop looking at death as an ending point we can also do away with all that nonsense about sending “thoughts and prayers” to those devastated by disastrous events. That part has never made a lick of sense to me. Thoughts and prayers don’t put food on anyone’s table, doesn’t rebuild the home they lost, doesn’t replace the clothes swept away, and doesn’t improve anyone’s life in any way. What thoughts and prayers do is assuage the guilt that comes from sitting on one’s ass and doing absolutely nothing in the face of someone else’s need.
Rather, if death is a transition point, then perhaps we can start having honest conversations about quality of life issues and easing that transition rather than allowing people to lie in bed for years, connected to machinery, unable to communicate, to perform any willful function, and suffer until their body erodes to the point that even the machinery can no longer keep them alive. If we accept that there is no loss but gain in death then perhaps we can adjust our concept of war and how it is waged. If we stop looking at death as a personal affront to our existence then maybe, just maybe, we can reconsider why we are so damned obsessed with weaponry, its size, and its firepower, in the first place. Remove our universal fear of death and perhaps we’ll stop acting so fucking stupid.
I don’t like saying goodbye, even when I know there’s a hello coming around the corner. I get anxious every time the Young Woman leaves the house, whether she’s going to work or to visit her parents or hang out with a friend. I worry she won’t come back through no fault of her own. To be in this world puts one at danger from the carelessness of others and the inevitability of nature. One never can be quite sure when either might interrupt our lives.
Yet, if I try to set aside the gut-wrenching pain that comes with yesterday’s tragic news then I am perceived as cold, unfeeling, and unsympathetic. I like to think that I can feel empathy for those whose loved ones were senselessly murdered in Las Vegas, but am I being disrespectful if I drink to the transition of those souls rather than mourn their departure from this physical realm? What if I say “Congratulations” rather than, “Goodbye?” Would you be offended if it were your loved one?
Centuries of philosophical tradition and religious teaching are not set aside and replaced in a moment even if they were adopted in that way. I cannot, however, avoid the feeling that all our grief and anger and hostility happen because we are not yet enlightened enough to see the reality of what, if anything. waits on the other side of mortality. If we can find a way to set aside our fear of what comes after death then it stands to reason that we will see less death and with it a solution to the overwhelming disasters we’ve faced the past month.
There is no benefit in yelling and screaming at politicians, tilting at the windmills of changed policies. Rather, may we render terror ineffective by embracing death as a step forward, reaching the top of the mountain so that we might begin to climb onto higher ground. This may be the first step toward finding Peace.
And there, in Peace, may you abide.
-The Old Man