I'll spare you the overworked cliche' regarding death and taxes. It's only half true anyway. Anymore, taxes are as uncertain as the weather. Nearly half of all Americans pay no income tax. The super rich find their federal taxes are dropping dramatically. So, the only thing about which you can really be certain is death itself.
You will die. So will I. As a matter of fact, you and I were born to die.
"Morbid!" you protest.
The only part of you and me that regards death as morbid, even terrifying, is the little ego in each of us. You yourself, that is, the deeper you beneath and beyond ego could never regard as morbid that one thing it is living to do—which is…dare I say…to die. But, this is precisely why Leonard de Vinci purportedly said, "Just when I thought I was learning how to live, I realized I’ve really been learning how to die."
Ego is terrified, outraged or both at the thought of death. Which is why it will lead you to do almost anything to avoid it or pretend it doesn’t exist, cover it over, hide from it, deny it—even defeat it—which is why many Christians at Easter insist that the resurrection of Jesus was a resuscitation of his body. It isn’t enough for them that the miracle was not resuscitation of his body (doctors and nurses in emergency rooms and critical care units do this all the time). The real miracle is that this itinerant preacher from nowhere had his life, his teachings, as well as his way of knowing and walking with God, so validated in the Easter story that…well…here we are, two thousand years later, and we’re still talking about him and, in some instances, emotionally and spiritually touched by him. Name five other people who’ve lived and died since the days of Jesus whose life—and death—has had even a remotely similar impact on the human experience? Heck, name one.
But, that’s another blog for another day. This is a blog about death.
We worry in this country about obesity, the lack of exercise, the poor diets, and the stress and unhealthy ways in which some people choose to live, as if they’re consciously hastening the day of the inevitable. As you may know, addictions and the lack of discipline are sometimes the means by which people avoid facing the reality of the inevitable. What many do not know, however, is that our counter obsessions with fitness, food, fashions, finances, and the future can be ways we avoid the inevitable, too. My own suspicion is that much of the cosmetic surgery—face-lifts, tummy tucks, male enhancements drugs, and breast augmentations are the futile attempts by many to avoid the inevtitable. In fact, one could legitimately argue, much of what passes in this country as efforts at “career advancement,” “staying fit,” “eating right,” and “looking our best,” are just the socially acceptable ways we avoid the inevitable and hide its haunting reminders that appear as aging spots, brittle bones, weakening muscles, and wrinkles in all the wrong places. Even a religious faith can be an obsession that gives one a passing sense of power over the inevitable. I suspect this is why many insist on a bodily resuscitation at Easter.
Which brings me back to the ego. Ego is your social mask. It's the you that you mistakenly think is you—what Albert Einstein called “an optical illusion of consciousness.” There are many components to this illusory and passing social self. Your body, the labels you wear, the place you live, the car you drive, your accomplishments, place in society, as well as the social or religious group wherein you find identity and self-enhancement.
But, take these things away and who would you be? The answer is obvious enough. You would be left—the real you, which is not these ego-identifications or attachments. Nothing makes you aware of this faster than when something removes one or all of these passing points of self-reference. For example, ask a soldier who has lost all of his/her limbs, or even one of them, about the process of recuperation that involved, among other things, the re-definition of who they really are without parts of their body. Ask the survivor of a tornado that has scattered or destroyed everything except their life itself. Sometimes, life must remove from us that which is in the process of dying and passing away anyway as a means of helping us discover who we really are.
This is one of the most important truths that accompanied my own spiritual awakening. I describe this experience in detail in my book. But, one Sunday afternoon, I awakened to the realization that I am not my body. Or, my career. Accomplishments. Or, even the name by which I know myself. These are all just ego attachments, points of self-reference, and too often self-worth, and all will one day disappear with death itself. Of course, the ego tries even in life to preserve what it cannot in death. If you don’t know this, take a stroll through almost any cemetery. Observe the monuments the self has purchased for its-self, and often at great price, so as to preserve in death what could never be. Pay attention to the number of grave makers bearing names of people you actually remember. Most likely, you could count them on your hands—one hand at that.
Furthermore, I realized something else on that Sunday afternoon. As long as I am the ego and so remain identified with my body, or any other ego attachment, I would feel threatened, even terrified, whenever something threatened to remove or destroy even one of them. It dawned that this is Muhammad was trying to tell his followers when he said, “Die before you die or you will die a thousand deaths.” That Jesus said essentially the same thing when he outlined the qualifications of following him (read Luke 14:25-34). Detachment from the passing is one of the keys to living. Or, better, dying.
The French philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are not human beings having a temporary spiritual experience; instead, we are spiritual beings having a temporary human experience.” So, whatever the real me is—soul, spirit, consciousness—you give it a name, since it really cannot be named—everything but that essential me—the real me—will eventually die, disappear, and soon be forgotten.
When you know this—really know it, here is what will happen to you—at least, it did for me.
1. You’ll find yourself slowing down considerably and learning to live each moment for the precious gift it really is. You’ll think less about the past and almost never about the future. What you will think about instead is now. And, what else is there, really?
2. You’ll stop being too bothered about things that really don’t matter, anyway. Just today, for example, my stepdaughter was telling me about all the relational drama at the restaurant where she’s a server. Employees arguing, disagreeing, and creating drama for everyone and mostly over things so inconsequential that, if any of them saw a parody of their behavior in a sitcom on television, they would laugh till their sides split at its stupidity.”
3. You’ll think about death more often. But, instead of death being a monster you must avoid, it’ll be a mentor reminding you of what’s important. What I’m discovering is that, as the ego in me dies, I live. But, until it dies, I don’t. Not fully, anyway.
4. And, you’ll find the fear of death begins to disappear, too. This may be its greatest benefit and one I have yet to fully realize in my own life. Yes, I still regard death as "the last enemy," as Saint Paul called it (1 Cor. 15:26). But, what I can happily say is that death is no longer the enemy it once was. Make friends with it because De Vinci was right. You never really learn how to live. You only ever learn how to die.
One more thing. I’ve had a change of thought. I suspect one thing will be here long after I’m dead and gone and many an Easter is just a memory—and that something is—taxes. Happy filing. Or, now, late filing.