July 29, 2014
“A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” – Montaigne
There are two feelings the title may provoke, and one may be of fear (e.g. I don’t want to think about that) and/or bitterness (e.g. finally, yes, now I can escape). On the other hand, there may also be a feeling of gratitude (e.g. yes, this moment is as good as any other moment to be on my way).
The former appears to be rooted in the preoccupation with control and the latter with the acceptance or harmony with one’s space-time. Endings do not always need to have negative connotations, though many last moments do seem to carry much suffering. Those last moments are one of the things I have personally been exposed to from working with terminally ill patients as an x-ray tech for years.
I always come back to thinking about one particular terminally ill patient. She was relatively young (in her 40s) and warmhearted despite all her pain. She would never miss a wave goodbye after every examination, and even did so on her last day alive, which would have likely taken the last dangling string of strength to do. Despite all her suffering, this woman managed to appear grateful instead of bitter. She may have physically been dying, but her heart remained lighter than a feather on Osiris’s golden scale.
How did she suffer so, yet not allow herself to get consumed by it? The inscription upon Hell’s gate in Dante’s Inferno comes to mind: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Though the immediate interpretation of the sign may denote doom’s inevitability, one scholar had a different view. Professor Ronald B. Herzman of Dante’s Divine Comedy lecture series (The Great Courses) noted that the inscription may not be solidly for damnation, but a key out of hell. The antidote may be to surrender so that one could finally free oneself from the suffering. Oftentimes it appears that pride in our ability to change what may be unchangeable keeps us in hell.
This idea of abandonment of hope (surrender) may have a striking resemblance then to the idea of repentance, but perhaps the deeper meaning is not always observed. The idea of God is not necessary if sins are taken to represent shadows/repressions (evidence of strays away from our own personal intent/will) that need to be reintegrated back into the psyche to approach closer our life’s intent/will.
So if the question of death right now frightens or provokes bitterness, perhaps there are some shadows to face that feed off the ironic limitation of an overabundance of pride (inflated ego) in being the controller. In Dante’s Inferno, the very flapping of the devil’s wings (from the desire to escape) caused the air to cool and keep the ice frozen, which kept him trapped. How long, how many vicious circles must go on till we can fold the cards? Knowing when to retreat is a warrior’s skill in Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the mark of a sage in the Tao Te Ching. What image, then, bares so much more inevitability than that of death? Might as well embrace and even think often, even, of death, for death may approach at any second. It can be a serendipitous thing, for death is letting us be, for now. Hmm.