Sunday, 12 July 2015

Confronting death.

This week I went to visit a relative (I call him “Uncle”) warded for a relapse of cancer. For a 69-year-old who had the night before coughed out half a pail of blood, Uncle was unusually calm, positive and even talkative. He spoke about his 6-year struggle with cancer and he told my wife these words that woke me up from my existential stupor: "As long as I can wake up in the morning, I am happy."

Uncle’s clarity for life is wisdom personified for me. It was like he had seen what truly matters in life and was steadfastly single-minded about pursuing it. For him, the only consuming thought was to savor a day, any day, however ordinary, however routine. This clarity of pursuit somehow jettisoned me from my tunnel-vision of life to a panoramic view familiar to all who watch a DreamWorks movie where the introductory credit shows a boy perched on a crescent moon and enjoying a quiet evening of fly fishing above a river of clouds.

For that moment, I felt like that boy - in careless abandon, enjoying what he loves to do. From that vantage point, high above the strife and hive of activities below, everything indeed appeared really small, trivial and insignificant. I felt a sense of otherworldly calm.

I guess the greatest fear of living is to come to the realization that one day, it will all end. It takes extraordinary courage to actually confront death. Most of us rather avoid thinking about it. And I believe the desperate means by which we keep death at bay is the cause of most, if not all, of our existential frustration and anxiety.

Charles Lindbergh, the famed American aviator, was once consumed with the fear of death. But later in life, he finally came to terms with his own mortality. His change of heart came on a visit to Africa when he wrote: "When I watch wild animals of an African plain, my civilized values...give way to a timeless vision in which life embraces the necessity of death. I see individual animals as mortal manifestations of immortal life streams...In death, then, is the eternal life which men have sought so blindly for centuries, not realizing they had it as a birthright. Only by dying, can we continue living."

I somehow understood what that "timeless vision" entails. It is definitely not a cessation of life - that is, my life when I myself will one day leave this world - but it is continuation of life through the legacy and hope I leave behind. And this legacy and hope can only be found in the meaning of what my life has been while I am still alive. As one author/doctor reminded me that “the greatest dignity to be found in death is in the dignity of the life that preceded it.”

Albert Camus once said that if we can come to terms with death, then anything is possible thereafter. I think the ancient philosophers had got it right all along when they said that the whole of philosophy can be summed up in these few words, “How to die a good death.” Or as Socrates would put it, the task of philosophy is to "learn how to die." And that night by the hospital bed, Uncle taught me just that. He taught me to learn how to live fully (or meaningfully) by embracing my own mortality. I guess I will never live the life I am destined if I don't reconcile living with dying, life with death, and my impermanence with the eternity that awaits.

I recall Montaigne once challenged us with this soul-watering thought: "Why not depart from life as a sated guest from a feast?" This challenge bends all material reality for me. It leaves me with a fortitude for conscious living by savoring the finest things in life. And the finest things in life come to me without any pretentiousness and present themselves in all its simplicity. In a sweep of eternity, they are what all our earthly striving for money, fame and power would be scarce to offer.

Consider a peace of mind. How much money, fame and power can be traded for it? How about contentment? How truly rich is a man who knows when enough is enough and admits with uncanny foresight that having more will only leave him poorer than before? And what about the joy of building relationships, the gains of overcoming trials, the gratitude of knowing your aliveness, the satisfaction of cultivating enduring virtues, the deep appreciation of a morning or a day, the sustaining pleasure of giving to another selflessly, the fulfillment of staying faithful to the object of one's marital devotion, the yearning to learn and discover without the arrogance of keeping the mind narrow and the soul in constant strife, the humility of a compassionate heart, and many more of what I would consider the finest pursuits in life. Isn’t it a reward in itself to hear these words ring authentic from the mouth of a Rabbi when he ends a memorial service: “May his memory be for a blessing”?

And isn't this the life's feast that Montaigne had in mind when we will one day depart from, but deeply sated? Isn't this the empowering legacy and hope of a life well lived?

And as a guest in this existential feast, how then can we ever deny its impermanence? For both feast and life naturally come to an end. Can we insist on never leaving and thus overstay our welcome? If there is a time for birth, can we ever stop the clock so that death is held in animated suspension? Maybe all our ailments come from one dreaded source and it is our stubborn disinclination to die or to confront death. In a nutshell, that is the cause of our existential anxiety, our mortal dread, our quiet desperation, our deluded immortality, and our ontological fisticuffs. Call it what you will, but a label by any other name would still reek the same, that is, we avoid living by avoiding death.

Ernest Becker, the author of "The Denial of Death", once wrote that "our history can be viewed as a succession of immortality ideologies." This is true of religion, philosophy, secular myths, humanism, modern science and technology. And science and technology have done more of late to elevate the immortality ideology to levels of incredulity. There is a Longevity Prize for the oldest-ever lab mouse and a Rejuvenation Prize to the one who can keep that mouse from dying. 

And then, for the price of S$200K, some organizations are prepared to keep your coffin at a constant temperature of 196 degrees below zero Celsius by topping it up with liquid nitrogen in the hope that you will one day be revived when science has finally found the elixir for longevity. For a cheaper alternative, at a price of $80K, scientists can perform what is called "neuropreservation" to freeze only your disembodied head and brain for future re-embodiment. Such forever-young industries are feeding off our anxiety of death in a highly profitable, yet no less questionable, way.

So, in the end, is our end avoidable? Is our conscious or unconscious denial of the fact of death the root cause of all our trouble?

When I left the hospital that night, I was reminded of what Woody Allen once remarked: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying." I guess the unknown will always keep us on existential tender-hooks and there is no unknown more foreboding and threatening than death itself.

While the atheists believe that death is the end, we Christians believe that death is far from it. It is in reality the beginning. We simply return to where we always belong after an unusual but necessary sojourn. Armed with this perspective, our birth ought to be a more agonizing departure than our last days on earth. And while the atheists may scoff at this wishful concoction as an act of cowardice, the believers will always rest on this blessed assurance of a home-bound journey as they brace themselves for the final transit.

For me, life is as much about living as it is about dying. They are two peas in the same existential pod. Death will come to us all. It will come in whatever form. It will come whether we are ready for it or not. Death has the timing of a broken clock – it only gets it right twice a day. And needless to say, it will always be difficult when our time comes; notwithstanding the physical pain that has to be privately endured.

But that night, Uncle quietly showed me a side of life that I am prone to take for granted. It is a side of life that mitigates against the sting of death and magnifies the joy of being alive. In fact, Uncle showed me the elegance of a life that is not afraid to confront the elegy of his mortality. And such elegance is demonstrated in how much he treasured living even if it is just for another day, another morning. Indeed, the understanding of the finitude of one’s time on earth may be a gift in disguise.

I guess the greatest misgiving of living is when we sleepwalk through life - thereby experiencing but a tenuous fraction of what it has to offer - instead of living fully from one moment to another. And in sleepwalking through life, we unwittingly trade off a deep and meaningful life for one that is perpetually restless, essentially superficial, and ultimately self-defeating. Cheerz.

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