Grappling with the Spectre of Death

Our current pandemic is tragic—both the death and economic suffering it has wrought. And yet, somewhat confusingly, COVID-19 has had many positive side effects. It has reduced car accidents, air pollution, overfishing, and carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions; it’s expanded the range of wildlife; it’s built new forms of solidarity and revealed just how important and underpaid our essential workers are; and it’s created a liminal moment in which we have a chance (possibly our last one) to redesign society to be more just and sustainable, and thus cause far less death and economic dislocations down the road.

But perhaps most importantly, the pandemic has obliterated the illusion that death isn’t always right around the corner. Since my dad’s sudden death at 57, I’ve recognized that I, too, could die in a moment, and that has certainly shaped how I’ve lived my life. But not to the same degree as the pandemic has. Before COVID, in my mind, if I were to die ‘too soon’ it’d be from cancer or perhaps a heart attack in my 50s, like my dad—both of which increasingly affect younger people. But now, thanks to COVID, the timeframe of ‘suddenly dying’ has been escalated to weeks.

This leads to a deep disquiet, as death tends to do. But when I dissect this anxiety, a large portion of it stems from my longing to see my son grow up. I read this comic recently and it brought tears to my eyes. I think many parents will relate.

Baldo-may-3-2020

However, in moments when I recognize that seeing my son grow up is not promised (he too could die, as horror-inducing as those words are to write), it helps me be more present—to spend time playing and reading, hiking and biking, and practicing karate with him (and even do ‘formal schooling’ with him, which is neither of our favorite activity).

Now this is in some opposition to an earlier essay I wrote on recognizing that at the end of life we return to Gaia, so that should be calming—like the promise of an afterlife is for so many. The Buddhist concept of non-attachment is also comforting. And reminding myself that I will return to Gaia, as all other life does, and it is my “clinging” to life that generates the fear (including my false entitlement that I get to live to be an old man), these help calm me down again. On the other hand, deep down, I want to live! As all life does. Instinctually animals cling to life and avoid death whenever possible, unless they make a noble sacrifice for the collective or are in such great pain that they embrace death.

The point I’m trying to make is that the heightened salience of death is a good thing (although certainly not the tens of thousands of deaths that could have been prevented with better policymaking). We so mask death in our culture, pretending it won’t reach for us, that we spend our days focusing on/distracting ourselves with trivialities, whether that’s consuming media, or manicuring lawns, or making ourselves look pretty. It’s been nice these days to see my mother and neighbors with the gray hair they’ve earned rather than dyed hair (colored with chemicals that are toxic to them, to the beauty salon workers, and to Gaia).

Diseases, ultimately, play the role predators play for most species. And until deer learn to shoot, it will be humble little viruses and bacteria—which, most likely, will visit more regularly in decades to come—that will keep us more conscious of death and hopefully thus living lives filled more with meaning and less with trifles.

Calvin and Hobbes

Earlier this week I attempted to make death even more salient for myself and a few others in our “Quietly Co-writing in Case COVID Makes us Kaput” session. In it I wrote the most banal set of instructions on how to access my computer files, where things are located (it’s only intuitive to me at this point), and so on. I also started writing notes about my hopes for how Ayhan is raised (specifically continuing to connect to Gaia and to learn martial arts—which for me is part of the Gaian Way). Others in the group started their “samurai” letters to loved ones, that is, the letter that samurai would write before going into battle to be read in case of their death, and written in the frame of mind that they were already dead. Imagining that you’re not coming back really puts things into perspective.

I didn’t get it all done—and have not yet gotten to my own samurai letters, but the knowledge that my family would struggle with dealing with the aftermath of my death in unnecessary ways was weighing on me, I admit. I worried that if I died suddenly my wife would posthumously curse me for being so messy (a researcher tends to attract clutter, offline and on) and worse, make it difficult for her in her time of mourning. So, it felt good. Particularly as there were others there to keep me typing, to share the exercise, and to transcend the internal resistance of grappling with my own death.

The good news, if that sounds like something you wished you had joined, is you didn’t miss your chance! We have one more session this Tuesday (June 9th) at 4pm Eastern. Please join us if this would be of service to you.

Go with Gaia,

Erik

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