Death. Demise. Passing on.
The words generate fear and feelings of helplessness in just about anyone. Over the past year, I have had several conversations with people who fear death and wonder when they will go.
A 58-year-old accomplished professional and a single male parent told me that death doesn't seem to be too far off. He often links the 'deadly' day to the end of a chapter in his life — when his daughter completes her post-graduation and his obligations of funding her education ends. A 30-year-old PR professional told me that death has occupied his mind for many years but he has no idea why. "I fear it. There is so much to see and life seems so short," he said. Another close friend, in his 50s, told me his father died at the age of 43, his grandparents went soon after, and most recently, his brother-in-law passed away. "Death is a reality but it is also scary for people like me who have responsibilities," he said.
Around a year ago, when I was visiting London, I got caught in a conversation about life and death — the time we have, how long we live and how death has no hierarchy. It was the realisation that the old can see the young go before their eyes, that parents can see their offspring's demise — a reminder that the pecking order we live within workplaces, families and society at large, had no relevance when life is snatched by something more powerful.
We live with this conflict where we fear death and at the same time refer to it as the soul's liberation.
I am 48 and I have already witnessed the death of my maternal grandmother when she was a little over 60, my father who went at 53, and then my brother who passed on around six months before he turned 51. In each instance, the people my family lost were very young. They all had more to offer, we thought and took our time to embrace the realities of their demise.
We live with this conflict where we fear death and at the same time refer to it as the soul's liberation. We talk of a 'better place' and why the soul needed to be freed. Considering how important freedom is — and if we are to believe the soul exists — then this freedom should be celebrated. But it is rare to see such a celebration or any kind of festivity around the barriers that death breaks. And, discussing this is almost taboo — even 20 somethings consider it improper to chat about the end of life.
I personally seem to be more comfortable with the idea of death as it is a reality that maybe lurking around the corner or could be years away. As the Greek philosopher Epicurus said, when death comes, we no longer exist. Which means all the pain and suffering that we have while living will be gone when death comes. Of course, even the pleasure and happiness associated with this empirical world will go. The pain, if any, sticks with those who are alive, feeling that sense of loss, just like the sense of joy that a newborn gives us.
I ask myself — what have I done in life. What difference have I made to those around me or to those who are afar.
This is what bothers me most — the emotions, the bonds and the resultant helplessness that many may feel once they know the person they loved will never return. What also worries me are the responsibilities one has towards one's dear ones — who fulfil them when I am gone?
Yet, the journey between being born and dying is what it is. In the case of the 58-year-old, there is probably a missing purpose in his life after ticking off all his responsibilities he had towards his daughter. The younger PR man is most likely driven by a desire that is more about himself and the experience of seeing the world — a purpose nevertheless. And for my close friend, it is all about the inter-dependency and responsibilities his family lives with.
Almost 49 now, my greatest concern is what I make of life. Admittedly, like the 58-year-old or the 30-year-old, I am privileged. I not only have a home, but I also have the option of eschewing a 9 to 5 job and pursuing things that nourish the soul. The same soul that will be freed one day, I think. I ask myself — what have I done in life. What difference have I made to those around me or to those who are afar? What is my purpose and what is the meaning of my life? Am I good enough to die?
The Dalai Lama says: "Begin with death, start from there, and you won't go far wrong."
The Dalai Lama says: "Begin with death, start from there, and you won't go far wrong." In short, accept the end to make sense of the beginning and the journey. It is a dispossessed manner of looking at life. It is the ability to free yourself of the structure and discipline that society expects of you. It is about freedom given at birth and how you explore it beyond yourself — beyond the weakness of loving your life so much "that you're incapable of doing anything with it," as singer and songwriter Bono has pointed out.
Maybe, many of us who are privileged and have limited responsibilities are at such a juncture — fearing the inevitable which makes all material wealth and fame meaningless. We are not born with these realisations or, maybe, even have the time to reflect on our journeys. But when we do, we must realise the need for a purpose beyond the present and the visible — that nourishes the soul and ultimately makes the empirical immaterial.