This has been a grim fortnight. Four people I know have died in the last 14 days.
Two weeks ago, I was on my way to see a movie when I got a call with the news that an uncle had passed away. I didn't see the movie, of course. I ended up attending his funeral.
A week ago I got a text from a friend late in the night. A mutual friend of ours--an energetic, bright, lovely lady in her early 40s--had succumbed to depression. It was heartbreaking to attend that funeral. She had left behind two teenage sons, a distraught husband and a devastated father and mother. No parent should ever have to bury a child. It is probably the worst grief there is.
[T]here is a deep, mysterious comfort available only to those, who, like Tagore, are in the deepest depths of despair.
Three days ago I heard that an old mentor who had been a great encouragement to me in my 20s had a massive heart attack and passed away. He had been in good health and had just celebrated his 67th birthday. The last time we had met was in 2004 as we worked together to help the victims of the South Asian Tsunami.
And yesterday afternoon I heard the terrible news that one of my young students had died in a car crash. He was only 16.
After the initial wave of shock had ebbed a bit, the first question that came to mind was: How will his mother cope with this kind of grief? How will his father even begin to console her? How will they talk to their other children about this?
We look for messages and patterns in the events of our lives rather automatically because the human brain is a sense-making device. That's what it does. So what was the message I was meant to take away from the events of the fortnight? That life is a journey towards death? That death is life's ultimate reality? That we never know when death comes and so we should stop stressing, start living?
But as I tried to stop thinking about it all, a fresh thought came to me unbidden, unsought. It came with such calmness and clarity that I wrote it down...
We are sojourners here.
We are passing through.
We came from somewhere.
We are going somewhere.
And how we spend our time here really, really matters.
I now believe that what lies at the end, at the bottom and at the limits of human endurance is not darkness, but the Beginning...
My mind went back to the time I lost my father 10 years ago. He was 69 and a good man. It was probably the toughest thing I had ever had to deal with. It took me a couple of years to get to the point where I could even begin to talk about it. A friend of mine wisely suggested at that point I keep a journal and pen my thoughts during the grieving process. I did, and it helped.
I managed to find that journal today and read through the entries. Two entries in particular caught my eye. The first was a short meditation by Henry Van Dyke:
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship spreads its white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. I stand and watch until, it becomes a dot on the horizon and then disappears from view. And someone at my side says, "It is gone."
Gone from my sight. That is all. The loss of sight is in me, not the ship. For, just at the moment when someone says, "It is gone," there are other eyes watching it coming, and other voices take up the glad shout, "Here it comes!"
And that is what dying is.
The second entry that caught my eye brought with it a sudden recollection of the peace I felt while writing it, which was quite remarkable, considering the circumstances under which I wrote it...
I used to hope there was a better world waiting for us...
Now I know there is one.
I used to hope that love lives on...
Now I know that it does.
I used to hope that there is Benevolence in the world...
Now I know for a fact that there is.
I used to hope fervently that this is not all one big terrible joke.
Now I know for a fact that it is not.
I realize now, over the years, something has changed in me.
I've stopped thinking about death as the Great Fullstop.
Now I consider it more of a "To be Continued'
It's more of a bridge or a doorway, as it were, from one world to the next.
Why? I'm not too sure, but I was intrigued to learn that the great Rabindranath Tagore also spent a great deal of time pondering the subject. His preoccupation with death and the afterlife went back to a traumatic event of his youth--the suicide of his muse and the love of his life, Kadambari. In his first autobiography, penned at the age of 55, he wrote:
"I had seen nothing beyond life, and accepted it as ultimate truth. When all of a sudden death came and in a moment tore a gaping hole in life's smooth-seeming fabric I was utterly bewildered. How was I ever to reconcile what remained with what had gone?
"The terrible darkness which was disclosed to me through this rent, continued to attract me night and day as time went on. I would gaze upon it, wondering what there was left in place of what had gone. ...
"Yet, amid unbearable grief, flashes of joy sparkled in my mind on and off in a way which quite surprised me. The idea that life is not a fixture came as tidings that helped to lighten my mind. That we are not forever prisoners behind a wall of stony-hearted facts was the thought that kept unconsciously rising uppermost in rushes of gladness."
In a later essay Tagore wrote,
"Death is not extinguishing the light. It is putting out the lamp because the dawn has come."
Perhaps this is what Paul of Tarsus meant when he wrote in his letter to the Corinthians of his day, 'O grave, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?"
[W]e are supported by a Strength we cannot quite fathom but which will always, always be there to sustain us.
I do not talk lightly about death. I am acquainted with its brutality. But I also know there is a deep, mysterious comfort available only to those, who, like Tagore, are in the deepest depths of despair. I now believe that what lies at the end, at the bottom and at the limits of human endurance is not darkness, but the Beginning of something beautiful, life-giving and eternal.
Somehow, I feel it's really important to believe that. Somehow, we need to pick ourselves off the ground, however long that takes, and walk again. With the awareness that we are supported by a Strength we cannot quite fathom but which will always, always be there to sustain us.
As Ray Charles sang:
When you walk through the storm
Hold your head up high
And don't be afraid of the dark.
At the end of the storm is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of the lark.
Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on...with love in your heart
For you'll never walk alone.
No, you'll never walk alone.
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