Photo by NASA
Photo by NASA
Photo by NASA
Photo by NASA
A n d W o n d e r i n g
Do you ever wonder about all of the lives out there? As in outside your very own singular life? Which is the only life you actually know. And I don’t mean in an ‘of course I wonder about others’ lives, so I read and watch documentaries and travel and ask good questions and buy foreign foods’ kind of way.
I mean. What do I mean?
I mean do you ever just sit down and, I don’t know, try to think about each one of the eight billion other people alive in the world? Individually. One at a time kind of. And wonder, ‘what is this person in, say, Dunedin feeling as they open their eyes after too short a night’ maybe? Or ‘what is the six-year-old in Qaanaaq feeling about going to a new school today’? Or ‘what is the Yahgan man feeling as he holds his first born? Or ‘what part of my neighbour’s body hurts her most as she goes off to sleep each afternoon’? Or ‘what exactly is the priest in Rome saying to the little boy he will soon, ever so cunningly, rape’? Or what is the person thinking in Kaesong as they give a data stick to their friend’? Or ‘how is the woman at the check-out counter checking out the 200th grocery shopper in Whistler feeling about her job’? Or ‘what is the surgeon in New York City considering as she poises the scalpel'?
I’m not talking about holding people in your thoughts to help or heal them or keeping them in your prayers, important as that is. There is nothing to accomplish here. It is just thinking about them. About lives. Each one.
And then, after thinking as concretely about as many individuals as you can in the little bit of time you have for this admittedly unusual practice, have you ever tried to ‘see’ all eight billion lives as if each had just come alive for a second on the screen of your life?
I was just wondering because it’s really hard even to try. I mean, you can only try, and when you do try, something kind of magical happens inside you. But you haven’t, of course, actually come even an itty-bitty bit close to doing it. Obviously.
Yet it is a lovely thing to do. To try, I mean. Even for five minutes. Or one.
Because maybe it is true that connection happens even when we only think about each other. Even when we don’t know each other at all, or ever will. Even when we are guessing like maniacs, trying to imagine each other.
Maybe it all matters, even a little.
We are all dying.
Great. Anything else you want to say?
Yes. More about that.
But it is great.
Listen to me for seven minutes.
Then you can roll your eyes for the rest of the day.
But I’ll bet you won’t.
I don’t bet; I’m a Quaker.
Too bad. 7 minutes.
Here’s the thing.
You think you know you will die. Which you will. But you don’t really think you will. As in will. It’s not that you think you won’t. It’s that you toss the ‘will’ around, sending it into the next neighbourhood as fast as you can when it edges up.
And that really is too bad. Tragic. Because each time you hurl it, you think you are flinging a menace, but it actually is a thing of beauty. A thing of purity. Life’s singular ‘without which nothing’. And therefore, life itself, you could say.
That is the magnificent point: in order to live, things die. Constantly. No death. No life. Which means that life is death. They are one.
I don’t know why nothing gets to live unless it ‘agrees’ simultaneously to die. But that’s the way it is. It’s a package deal.
And given how glorious life is, death is ipso facto, glorious, too.
In fact, when we decide to conceive a life, we decide to kill it. By fertilising, we destroy. But we don’t think of that. We don’t take in the reality that when we hold our newborn in our arms, we hold a living and dying being. We don’t look tenderly at our tiny daughter and give thanks that the wondrousness of her living includes the right-now fact of her dying. And that it has since she was conceived.
She herself doesn’t yet have the wiring to know that since the fusion of the two cells into the one cell that eventually became her, she has been growing cells and killing cells (through apoptosis) in a great squall of becoming a human being. But she has. And she will keep on doing that until it is over.
She can’t know that yet. And we won’t let her know it after she can.
That’s where the trouble starts. We celebrate the bringing of a life into the world, but not the bringing of its death. We don’t say, ‘Let’s make a baby. Let’s make a living thing that is dying’. And yet, if we are a parent, that is exactly what we have done. We have created life, and we have created death. It isn’t cruel. It just is.
And through all of our conscious lives we internalise that death is bad. Necessary, inevitable, but bad. But that is not possible. Anything which is necessary for something good cannot be bad.
Yet, we grow up thinking that if there were any way to prevent death altogether, we should. We know we can’t. But we are supposed to want to. We’re supposed to hate death even as a concept.
And so, when we begin to die forever, we don’t say, ‘I have some wonderful news: I am experiencing the ultimate version of the thing I have been doing since I was born.’ And then expect that people will applaud and be with us admiringly, fully.
Christopher Spence, whose understanding of death has been an inspiration to me for more than forty years, said it this way, ‘Dying is not something that happens to us. It is something we do.’ And as Helena Dolny says, it is a ‘doing’ that deserves both dignity in the act of it and welcome as the honouring of it.
I think that the reason we can’t seem to grasp the happening-right-now fact of dying, is that we conflate two things: death and grief. We know we will miss whoever dies, and so we hate the dying. But it is not the dying we hate. It is the missing we know will follow.
I wonder what would change for us if we could separate these two. If we could feel the built-in rightness of death and mourn fully the loss that it produces, how might we regard death itself?
To answer this we probably need, just for a moment, to suspend belief in life after death. If there were, for example, no spirit that keeps living after the body dies; if there were only the physical life imbued with death and ultimately extinguished by it, could we rejoice in the oneness of death and life? Could we praise the incomprehensible but right-here reality of life as a perfect melding of living and dying, and ultimately of dying for good? Could we let ourselves feel as much awe at this observed feat of nature as we do at the believed feat of spirit?
Regardless, we need to let in the fact that death is happening now; it is enmeshed in life.
Again, there is really no such thing as life. There is only lifedeath. Maybe that is the answer. ‘Lifedeath’ is what we need to see. Maybe if we used only that word to talk about life, we would finally grow to know that life and death are one. And if we love life, we don’t get to hate death. We have to love both. Because they are the same thing.
A few weeks ago, thanks to my astute and attentive friend Vanessa, I first actually, for a flash, felt that death is always here in a rapturous duet with life, two inextricable voices, It was a jolt. Of joy. A physical experience that was entirely different from mere acceptance of death’s inevitability.
It was being inside its oneness with life.
The joy is fleeting. But I can usually make it happen when I try. It is, of course, always exhilarating finally to feel the rightness of reality and no longer to have a desire to hide it or deny it or walk away from it. So maybe this joy is only that. But it feels bigger than that. It feels like being made whole.
And it merits celebration, a concept rarely juxtaposed with ‘death’. Actually, I do occasionally see ‘celebration’ and ‘death’ together. In my circles, for example, people no longer say, ’the funeral of…’. They say, ‘the celebration of the life of…’. That’s fine. It’s not an obfuscating euphemism (like ‘passing’ for ‘dying’).
But it falls short. Why don’t we say instead, ‘the celebration of the life and death of…’? Why don’t we celebrate this glorious, irreplaceable, natural, fully-entwined, catalytic twosome of nature?
A doctor said something useful to me once: ‘Old age is not a disease, and death is not a failure.’
I would add, ‘It is life.’
I wish we could know that. I wish we could live it.
Yes, lifedeath. That’s what I wanted to talk about. Thank you.
Each morning for many months after my twin died I asked him, ‘What do you want me to know today?’
He had been my go-to person for things like God and faith and spirit and generally anything you had to choose to believe because there was just no proving it, ever. Things not even the longest equation on the longest blackboard in history could describe. Of course, I didn’t really exactly 100% believe he was there, listening to me and answering. But I wanted to.
It was early days. I was still inconsolable, and it felt like healing to be ‘in conversation’ with him. Even if I didn’t know for sure that it wasn’t just wise old me I was listening to. Or his memory. Which it probably was. I really didn’t care. It felt like him to me.
It matters here to say that this was no get-over-yourself separation pain. This was finito separation pain. As in living completely without this being who had been ‘next to me’ since I was only one cell. Bill was the only given in my life. Until he wasn’t. So this forced forever-separation was big.
Different from the ‘going to separate kindergartens and high schools and colleges type of big; different from the ‘just living completely separate lives as grownups’ kind of big; and different even from his 'flying in and out of Viet Nam’ kind of big (which as far as I was concerned, was the hurtling of twin molecules over eight thousand sure-to-die separated miles).
No. This time, this last ever ‘miss-you-pain’ was unspeakable. Not sentimental. Fundamental.
So one particular morning when I asked him, ‘What do you want me to know today?’, he said, ‘We are not separate. Nothing is separate.’
I could not move. Nothing is separate. Nothing is separate.
In the read-a-lot-of-science part of me I knew that every quantum physicist would agree.
But in my heart I did not know that. At all. He was there (or not), and I was here (definitely). But I knew I had to figure out how to know it.
How, I wondered, would I have to rearrange myself so that my heart most of all, but even my mind, could know that 'nothing is separate’?
Jeeeze. Any tips?
Who are you anyway?
I hurried away from that idea like a true believer in not believing. And really, there is only just so much you can ask of a person. Even if they have just asked you for the impossible and you delivered it.
Even today, 20 years later, I keep wanting to farm this one out. I could, you know. There are some people in my life who are stillness junkies. They hardly move from morning to night. You know, internally. They somehow got the serenity ticket to enter the planet. Lucky them.
But they kind of freak me out. I sometimes stare at them and wonder what they do with the indisputable evidence that we should be indefatigably tense all of the time. I wonder whether they have wound down so much they don’t have a clue about our desperate world. And just to confess, I have to apportion my time with them carefully so that I exit before I scream.
Anyway, ho hum. Stillness. Is that really the only way to understand that ‘nothing is separate’? Or to know the real source of those ‘messages’?
The problem is that I am kind of embarrassed that I am revisiting this wisdom all these years later, as if it dropped into my life this morning. It’s been 20 years, and I only just realised I forgot to be still.
So it looks as if this do-nothing thing is going to take some doing. It’s hard, though, because I can’t help thinking about how not still we are every second given that as part of the planet we are spinning at 1000 miles per hour all of the time, and orbiting the sun at 67,000 miles per hour, and that even the core of our planet goes through 70-year cycles of speeding up and slowing down. There really is a certain sense in which being still is a nutty idea. But I get it that this is an internal thing, a state of mind which apparently does not obey the laws of gravity and motion. Beats me why.
Anyway, I think of myself as an experimenter, a kind of liberal arts, tag-along, make-believe scientist, so I guess it’s time for me (even though time never stands still and doesn’t even exist apparently) to get on the non-stick and do this non-doing thing. Try it. Experiment with it. And just see. I can do that. One second at a time. Or something. I promise not to be weird, though. I don’t want to have to exit from myself.
It might help me to remember that I had come across this idea ages ago, before ‘Bill said it’. I remember it from Sunday School. ’Be still and know that I am God.’ The teacher quoted that from the Bible, I think. And it was on a banner over the window. I think Bill had a better teacher than I did. Somehow he got it. Never mind, of course, that he was exhaustingly tense all of his life. Sometimes his tension left me in the dust looking nearly yogic. But inside somewhere he got it. And if there is a there, he’s there now. Knowing it, as in knowing it.
So maybe the thing is to be un-tense about being un-tense. Just let it slowly catch on inside me, let it slowly seep in, slowly becoming my self. Slowly has to be okay. And anyway, because there is no time, there is no slowly. Just reiterative conscious intention and practice.
I can’t yet trust what Bill could trust. But I can trust him.
I will. I’ll try it.
And happily, twenty years from now, I will either have mastered it (unweirdly), or laugh ‘with him' about how intention and practice do count for something. And that ‘mastery’ is pretty much made up anyway.
‘Nothing is separate’. What a wonderful thought.
Okay here goes.
I’ll be still.