Been thinkin' about death a lot lately, all up in this crib. No particular reason, beyond the recognition by many of the kiddos--which always arises around mid-term of the Spring semester every year--that their time here is actually going to end: that no matter what kind of experience they've had at this Uni, they're going, one way or other, willing or no, to have to leave this place. Some struggle, some shine, some tread water--most of ours at least cope--but they're all going to have to leave. Some this Spring, some next, some at some un-confronted future date which they haven't yet faced up to--but they will all leave. Or be left. Or both.
When you're young, it's hard to recognize that the bad times, like the good ones, will end. If you're young and suffering, you think no-one has ever suffered in the unique way or to the excruciating extent that you yourself currently are, and you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel that ensures that, in the nature of human psychology, even that excruciating pain is going to end. When you're young and happy, you think that it will never end, and it's that much more excruciating when--like everything in the world of samsara--that phenomenal happiness also ends.
You get a little older, you suffer through those cycles of joy and loss, and you begin to recognize them when, as is inevitable, they recur. The heart, when broken a second time, heals a little more recognizably but without perhaps the same first, exquisite pain. The second death of a loved one is a little less of a horrific blind shock than was the first. And of course, the very fact that it's familiar the second, third, or tenth time is itself a source of sadness.
But everything ends. Good times and bad, joy and sorrow, hope and success, and suffering and pain--and life itself--all end. We are all going to suffer sadness, and separation, and loss of loved ones.
And it is precisely this, precisely this, that makes the brief, brief time we have here so utterly, unutterably precious. "Life is like a little ceili," said the great historian of Ballymenone, Hugh Nolan, "it begins in darkness, and it's lit for a little time--such a little, little, time--and then it goes into darkness again." Somewhere in Bede's Ecclesiastical History, the metaphor is of life like a sparrow at night, flying into the lit mead-hall, passing through the warmth and firelight only for the length of that roomful of warriors, and then out into the cold outer darkness again:
The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me,To quote the only truly great line in The Shawshank Redemption, "they's on'y really two choices. Get busy livin', or get busy dyin'."
in comparison with that time which is unknown to us,
like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house
wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns,
while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed,
but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad.
The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another,
whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest;
but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight,
passing from winter into winter again.
So this life of man appears for a little while.
Maybe it's the season of the year--the springtime season, in universities, of parting and loss; or the season of life--the downhill slope of 50--but those truths feel very, acutely, very damned real. How long does a 50-year-old man have, right? 24 years, to the national average? 30, if the longevity of the males in the paternal/maternal bloodlines is any indication, and if the senility in the female doesn't catch up with me? Three, or four, if my father's early decease is any indicator?
It doesn't matter. All beings, like all phenomena, are constantly in the state of arising and passing away. One door opens, but another closes.
In medieval painting, the memento mori was the quite literal "skeleton at the feast," the presence of a skeleton, or skull, or ticking clock, that reminded those in the flush of life's success--in the throes of portraiture--that they too would die. In Christian theology, it was a reminder to take heed of one's immortal soul, to abstain from sins of the present and seek absolution for those of the past.
It's a little kinder in other wisdom traditions--particularly, in my not-unbiased opinion, in that of my own Zen Buddhism--but the truth remains the same:
Peter Mathiessen tells the story of his teacher, slamming the kyosaku against the polished floor of the zendo, and shouting, "Pay attention! Pay attention! Because your life is passing very very fast!"
We are all going to die.
That's not morbidity. That's reality.
And hence, because real, it is liberation.
That's the real lesson.