Indulge me with a birthday blog. A bit of self-indulgence on our birthdays is ok, no?
However, my birthday blog is not really about birthdays at all. It’s about the other end of life. I hope you’ll read on, and trust that I’m not suicidal.
Why am I thinking about death?
Why not? We all should, really. We plan for everything else. Schools these days are very concerned with making sure toddlers are ready for preschool, preschoolers transition properly into kindergarten, elementary school students to middle school, middle to high school, high school to college, college to the work force. But after that, we mostly stop preparing for what will, eventually, come next.
(I couldn’t resist inserting this “Why?” photo I took in a cementary in Berlin…¿Warum nicht?)
In this sense thinking about death is not really a divergence from my work in education. We might educate ourselves and others very differently – and live very differently – if we really, truly, fully, grasped the fact that we all will, someday, die.
How would we treat the people on this planet, and the planet itself, if we viewed all life as precarious, and precious?
How would we live each moment if we knew that whatever words we say could be our last ones, or the last ones our loved ones heard from us?
Let me be clear. I do not think young people should have to wonder such things each morning when they walk through their school doors.
But I do think that schools do a disservice to young people when we suggest that if they keep their heads down and put all their attention on their futures they will live happily ever after.
I often hear students (and faculty) saying things like, “I can’t wait until the end of the semester!” “Two more years, and I graduate!” “Just have to push through to the end of the quarter…”
Would we say this about our lives? (“Almost at the end! One more push to the finish line!”)
Sogyal Rinpoche’s interpretation and elaboration of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying) offers a refreshingly different perspective on life and death than the dominant “denial” that permeates modern western culture. Rinpoche suggests how “hollow and futile life can be, when it’s founded on a false belief in continuity and permanence” (p. 17). He describes the way most people live: “Hypnotized by the thrill of building, we have raised the houses of our lives on sand. This world can seem marvelously convincing until death collapses the illusion and evicts us from our hiding place” (p. 16).
He quotes Chuang Tzu:
The birth of a man is the birth of his sorrow. The longer he lives, the more stupid he becomes, because his anxiety to avoid unavoidable death becomes more and more acute. What bitterness! He lives for what is always out of reach! His thirst for survival in the future makes him incapable of living in the present. (p. 17)
My children encouraged me to read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. They understand more about what really matters than I surely did at their age, when I was busy trying to “get through” college, establish a career, raise a family, get tenure, write a book, build a life…rather than just living the one I was in.
Thinking about death doesn’t have to be morbid – except in the literal sense of that word. Nor do I mean to diminish the pain we feel at the death of loved ones – a pain that is felt deeply around the world right now. Embracing this moment also doesn’t mean we should close our eyes to the work that needs to be done to make life better for more beings on the planet both now and in the future. It doesn’t mean we stop all preparation for what could lie ahead. But recognizing our own mortality can help us to take less seriously the things that don’t matter, and more seriously the things that do.
So as my birthday gift to readers, I wish you a day full of wonder, grounded in a deep recognition of the impermanence of all things. I hope you will be fully present wherever you are. Kiss your children, tell someone you love them, put a pause in your plans for the future, take a deep breath and remember that this day, this moment, this juncture of the time/space continuum, is a gift, not guaranteed.
I leave you with the words of Mary Oliver, in one of my favorite poems of all time:
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn,
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending, as all music does, toward silence
and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.