There are many reasons we do not talk about death in our offices, universities or social gatherings. It is unsettling. It can be divisive - after all, we may hold very different personal beliefs on what happens to someone when they die. And what does death have to do with living life to its fullest, anyway?
From my teenage years, an everyday awareness of death has been one of my greatest allies in life. And so I thought I would focus today's newsletter on what death has to teach us.
I recognize I am wading into sensitive terrain. One thing we will not do today is to focus on the question of what happens when we die. I may have my beliefs on this, and you may have yours, and that's okay. The challenge I gave myself is this - is it possible, regardless of what belief we hold about what happens when someone dies, for us to come together, across diverse faiths and traditions, to recognize the same set of truths, principles and implications for how to use our awareness of death to uplift our consciousness and help us do our best work during our remaining time in this life? If that is a challenge that intrigues you, then read on.
A brief aside, on my Intersections webcast:
And, in closing, let me offer this - remember, it is not about maximizing the moments in your life, but the life in your moments.
© Hitendra Wadhwa, July 2020
“If I am killed, I can die but once; but to live in constant dread of it, is to die over and over again.” — Abraham Lincoln
The cremation ground in Chandigarh, the modern Indian city I grew up in, is located at a discreet distance from the city center. On the rare occasion when our family would find itself driving by it, I would point in its direction and say, “Look! We’re driving by the cremation ground.” My mother would frown and bid my sisters and me to look away. It was her way of loving us. She hoped that by having us shun death, death would shun us as well.
We are made to believe that death is our greatest foe. We live in fear of it because it is unavoidable, unpredictable, irreversible and absolute, wresting us and our loved ones away from everything we possess in this life to which we are so attached.
Fear of death
Part of our fear of death is productive. The fear of the virus, for instance, has made many of us, almost overnight, change a number of deep-set habits. Many of us wear face masks, practice social distancing, meet people on Zoom, observe quiet Friday evenings at home, avoid touching our faces, and diligently sanitize our hands. In more normal conditions, when there is no fear, over ninety percent of people give up on their new year’s resolutions, because behavior change is hard to do when there’s no fear or other motivational force.
But part of our fear of death is unproductive. It distracts us, demoralizes us and diminishes us. Since there is no way to guarantee that death will shun us, what might we gain if we stopped shunning death? In the middle of a speech during the Civil War, President Lincoln was criticized by some for showing respect for Southerners instead of seeing them as enemies that should be destroyed. Lincoln responded with a rhetorical question, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
Perhaps we too could destroy our unproductive fear of death by making it our friend.
Could death be our friend?
“Keep the prospect of death, exile, and all such apparent tragedies before you every day – especially death – and you will never have an abject thought, or desire anything to excess.” — Epictetus
Somerset Maugham once did a retelling of an ancient tale from Mesopotamia where a merchant in Baghdad one day sent his servant to buy provisions from the market. The servant came back, white and trembling, saying, “Just now, when I was in the market-place, I was jostled by someone in the crowd. When I turned I saw it was Death that had jostled me. She looked at me in a threatening way. Please lend me your horse for I wish to ride away from this city to escape my fate. I will go to Samarra so she cannot find me.” The merchant lent the horse, and the servant rode away. Then the merchant went to the marketplace and saw Death standing there in the crowd. “Why did you look at my servant in a threatening way this morning?” he asked her. “That was not a threatening gesture. I was just acting surprised, because I did not expect to see him here in Baghdad.” “Why so? After all, he lives and works here in Baghdad,” said the merchant. “Because,” replied Death, “tonight, I am meant to have an appointment with him in Samarra.” (Click below to continue reading.)
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© Hitendra Wadhwa, 2020. All rights reserved.
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