Hey ya’ll! This blog post is meant to accompany the latest podcast episode on on the philosophies and rituals related to death from around the world. Check that out to supplement this reading so you can be part of the whole conversation!
“The days are long but the years are short.” – Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
I hopped off the bus, watching my breath billow out in a crystalline puff in the frosty morning air as I walked the three blocks to work. We are having a sunny winter day in Seattle and as I stare out on Fourth Avenue from my office window on the 20th floor, I have a Franciscan “blue sky faith”. I also feel a tad vampiric in the true Seattleite kind of way because it takes an uncomfortable amount of time for my eyes and brains to adjust to the brightness of the sun (Hisssss).
On days like this it’s easy to understand why the ancients worshipped the sun. Why the flowers still do.
Some days, light is harder to find. Those are the days that you have to dig deep inside yourself for it, to conjure a patronus of sorts. Those are the days that make me believe that we are truly made of star stuff. Humans seem to have an absurd amount of hope in the face of absurdity. The universe is cold, but our blood beats warm. Space has no sound, but here on earth, we make music. Here, we dance. Sure, my existentialist mind believes that all things tend towards entropy, there may not be some overarching meaning and we are all here by chance and could be gone as easy, but my artistic soul relishes sifting through the chaos anyway. There is magic in the madness.
Of course I know I am about to begin a tedious day of reviewing invoices and processing timesheets and outgoing bills for my law firm. I am also trying to schedule time with friends. Make sure my parent’s prescriptions are getting filled. Working on podcast research. Staying caught up with the news. Practicing sketching. Eating if the chance presents itself. And trying not to get a headache when thinking about the fact that when I got my English degree, I never would have believed I would be spending so much time entering numbers into a computer. Sure, I have side hustles, dreams of “making it” as a writer, creator, artist. Somewhere, somehow, it’s all supposed to click together one day, right? But I look up at my wall of photos and smiling back at me are my friends and family. And me. Me smiling, in Rome, in London, at the beach, at home with my dog. I see my life smiling back. Not photographed are the painful memories in between these framed moments. But they are present in their absence, somehow. There would be no joy without the sorrow. The joy is in the striving. We are all Sisyphus pushing our own boulders of ambition up the hill. It may seem glib, to think you always have to stay hungry for the next thing, never satisfied. But, how unnerving is it on the days when you lose your appetite? Aren’t those the days you start to feel sick? Hunger is good. It means you’re still striving to fill yourself up with something. You just have to be careful of what you fill yourself up with and how.
If you listened to the latest Hard Kaur Perspectives episode “We’re Dying to Tell You”, then you heard me and Anu discuss how we came to be aware of death.
My introduction to death was not the most kind. My dad was drunk on whiskey and blunt.
“I will die, your mom will die you will die. One day everything will be gone. Done. Finished.” Silent tears ran down my cheeks.
I was 6 and devastated. My mom was working another night shift at the TPI factory in Mukilteo. No one was there to comfort me. It was in that moment I truly understood loneliness. The kind that lingers deep in everyone. The kind that’s unrelated to the number of bodies you’re surrounded by. The kind that at times forges despair and others, art.
I think I spent the next few years going through the stages of grief. I was an angry kid, a sad kid, but I masked it with sarcasm, and humor when I had to interact with people and aversion to actual contact and connection at times. My religious phase was perhaps a bargaining phase. “Please,” I begged the Universe “give me my life back.” I genuinely couldn’t remember a time I hadn’t been anxious and sad. It just became my normal. But the more I dug into the philosophy of Sikhism and existentialism, the more at peace I became.
“Jis marnay se jag daray, mere maan anand. Marnay hi te paye poorn parmanand.”
– Salok Bhagat Kabir Ji Ke
“From the death that the world fears, my soul finds peace. Only in death do I find complete peace in the creator.”
– Saloks of Bhagat Kabir Ji
“Deyho sajan assisardyiaan, jo hovay Sahib seyon mehl.” – Kirtan Soihila
“Give me congratulations my friends, for I am to join my Master.” -Kirtan Soihila (this is a hymn sung at weddings and funerals. Death is celebrated as the union of the human soul in the form of a bride wedding the eternal spirit as her groom. This definitely illuminates the way Sikhs view death. It is the next great celebration for those who have lived their best life.)
In high school, I woke at 3AM, showered, and sang hymns for 2 hours and meditated until I left for school at 6:30 to catch my bus. After a full day at school, and sometimes after club activities, I would then come home and spend another 2 hours praying and meditating. Then I’d do homework and chores and then pray again. Every day for about 8 years, I followed my regimine. That’s how much the mental discipline meant to me. That’s how much I wanted to escape death. But it consumed me.
I don’t know when I came to the acceptance part. Maybe I haven’t yet.
I think I entered a new sphere of consciousness the day I allowed myself to consider the fact that there may not be a true self. That my concept of self was limited and incomplete. That is why I feared death – I feared the destruction of myself and feared what I’d leave behind. The existential FOMO (fear of missing out). But the teachings of Sikhism and existentialism and science brought me to the idea that there may be no self. I am a construct. An amalgamation of parts and experiences. I have been many different people over the course of my life and will continue to morph and change. Which one of those is supposed to cross over? And once my brain stops sending chemical signals, am I there at all to cross over?
Once I finally allowed my mind to be okay with the fact that I am and always have been multitudes (as Whitman would say) I began to feel less burdened. I started focusing on this life instead of what comes after. I started actually engaging the world around me. Engaging the people around me. I focused more on life than death.
“Jo brehmanday, so hi pinday.”
“That which is in the Universe, so it is in the body.”
We are universes unto ourselves. An amalgamation of billions and billions (can you hear Carl Sagan saying this) of cells and chemical links and atomic bonds. Each one of us. Sometimes the strength you need, the courage, the curiosity, the resilience, the love, truth, possibilities it’s all inside.
I came to believe that the void in me could not be filled externally. That isn’t to say that you can’t use external experiences to help you on your internal journey. I learn so much from travel and meeting new people and reading. But ultimately it’s how I internalize the outside world, how I think about it, how I respond to it, that really matters. I’ve chosen to respond with gratitude. At least I’m here now to experience things, feel joy. The universe never owed me joy, but here it is anyway. Better than nothing.
And I have chosen the Buffy approach. Joss Whedon created Buffy with existentialist themes in mind. (The character Angel is actually seen reading Jean Paul Sartre’s La Naussea in one of the episodes.)
You surround yourself with good people. Good books. And a good fight.
Live your life to better the world, but get informed first and don’t do it alone.
But if you do end up all alone, remember that you still have yourself. And you are enough. A universe unto yourself.
I always thought that humans should start transfusing their DNA with the immortal jellyfish (Google it). Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to regenerate yourself and live life over? But maybe not. Because guess what? All cells are programmed to commit suicide; its called apoptosis. Every now and then when a cell overrides this suicide pre-programming, it starts replicating infinitely. We call this replication cancer.
When I looked at it that way, immortality seemed like a curse, maybe not to the cancer cell itself, but for everything else around it. And then eventually the cell itself because in time, it would kill its host. What would the world be like if we just went on and on, devoid of urgency and purpose, simply consuming? Perhaps an ending is a kindness.
I don’t know if we ever “conquer” death. I think it would be foolish to try. I think the key lies in acceptance. “Greeting him as an old friend.” – from the Deathly Hallows/Tales of Beedle the Bard
That doesn’t mean I’m not still afraid, but I’ve just stopped letting fear guide me as strongly. I’m still guided by spiritual philosophy but not oppressed by the ritual anymore. I’m not looking for an escape any more. There is only one exit. I’ve just decided to live life anyway, for the sake of itself. For myself. And as a woman from my culture, or any culture, that in itself is a revolution.
P.S. If you’re looking for a good read – check out Paul Kalanithi’s, When Breath Becomes Air. Paul was a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in his 30s. The book is his memoir and writings from the last year of his life. It is beautiful.