This past year, the reality of death has been present in very real, tangible ways for my family. After officiating the funerals of two grandfathers who died within the space of nine days from each other, my family has done its share of grieving. In the midst of family members battling cancer and friends who have lost loved ones unexpectedly this past year, my thoughts have been traveling down the road towards the Shadowlands, that great unknown that stares like an abyss at us all.
And here is what I see: both a beginning and an end, both despair and celebration, both pain and ugliness; sorrow and anger, to be sure, but also just a whisper of something at work from before the dawn of time.
For in death, there is and always has been life, just as in life, there is and always has been death.
We mourn the one because we cling so desperately to the other. We cling with bloodied fingers to this thing called Life with all of its horrors and tragedy, oppression and injustice because we believe, somewhere deep down, that it might just win out in the end. We fight with every last breath to hold on because we hope beyond hope that somewhere in this chaos and brokenness we call living there might just be something worth living for.
Yet here is the reality, the great truth all around us if we only had ears to hear and eyes to see: death, that one great thing we fight so hard to avoid, is the only means to life. This is not just a religious trope; it is woven into the fabric of nature itself.
I’m certain, were we to ask them, every caterpillar would tell you that it was living just fine doing its caterpillar thing, going to its caterpillar school, making its caterpillar money, hanging out at its caterpillar bowling alley, watching Caterpillar Idol. If we were to say, “Yes, but you were meant to be a butterfly,” the caterpillar might ask, “Well, how does that happen?” to which we would respond, “First, you must go into a deep dark place and lie there for time beyond end. You must undergo what surely must be a painful process, where you will be torn and stretched and broken, and, at long last, you must give up all that is ‘caterpillary’ about you.” Our rational caterpillar (governed by self-interest) might say, “Oh, that all sounds very nice and good, and perhaps I will get to it someday, when I’m older and done living the good life, but for now, I think I’ll just enjoy another leaf with my friends.”
In other words, no argument of logic, pathos, or ethos could convince our dear caterpillar friend to “die,” yet die he must, for caterpillars are meant to be butterflies. In not choosing death, he chooses, not life, but something less than life; he chooses, in effect, to remain dead to his own fully realized self.
Nature is replete with such examples: the seed dies to become the stalk of wheat, which must also die to become the loaf of bread which, ultimately, gives life; the acorn must die to become the oak tree; the snake sheds its skin, spring follows winter, and on and on. It seems that this ritual of death and life are played out in ten thousand places if only we have ears to hear and eyes to see.
The problem, as I see it, is that so few of us every really choose life; we choose, instead, to merely avoid death. We numb and medicate and entertain ourselves ad nauseam to avoid, like our friend the caterpillar, the harsh truth that, in choosing to avoid death, we have become death, the living dead, the true undead. We spend our lives in absurd routine, engaged in petty relationships, living shallow, hollow lives, pursuing with every fiber things that have no real value, when all around us Life beckons. It whispers and shouts and sings and calls, but we choose profit or position or power, thinking that these things are life, when they have always been nothing other than death. Only the one who chooses death can ever really choose Life.
So what does it mean to die? I believe it is to accept the knowledge that Life does win in the end. That death never truly has the last word. That what, on this side might seem like death, is always Life breaking forth.
It is so at the beginning of life for each one of us. Were an intelligible conversation to be held with us while we were in our mother’s wombs, it might go something like this: “Listen, there is a great big world full of mountains and sunlight and stars and oceans and butterflies and love and pancakes and hot coffee and snow skiing and Christmas mornings waiting for you, but first, you must be forcefully removed from your cozy place of warmth and nourishment, savagely disconnected from your source of life, and have the tie to the world you now inhabit cruelly severed.” Few of us, were we given the decision under those circumstances, not knowing what “Life” or “Death” really meant, would ever choose to be born in the first place. And yet, to not choose “death” we would, eventually, even in the comfort of our mother’s womb, die. In “dying” to the womb, we are born into Life. And such a life! One beyond the reckoning of even the most intelligent mind to imagine, comprehend or dare believe possible!
So, too, I think, with “Death” and “Life” now. We don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear that Death, far from being the enemy, is but the means to Life, and it has always been thus. Therefore, in the pain and the suffering and the tragedy of it all, death is always at work, opening doors for Life to enter.
This is the secret to life, woven into the universe from before the dawn of time: that death is but the means to Life, and this Life (which death can no longer touch) does, I believe, win out in the end beyond the reckoning of even the most intelligent mind to imagine, comprehend or dare believe possible!