Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Coping With the Sting of Death

As a teenager I had an 8-track tape player in my car along with a stack of bulky cartridges. I would often listen to the mournful Kansas song Dust In the Wind as it played through the poorly mounted speakers in the rear window. The lament that "All we do / Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see" is a reminder that the trappings of our lives ultimately diminish and decay.

In 1818 poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote his famed poem Ozymandias. It is one of my favorites. While the poem is about the ruins of the empire of Ramses II, it too is a reminder that our personal empires must eventually waste away. The poem warns of the hubris of expecting these things to long survive us.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
I recall Gordon B. Hinckley once talking about a number of people of great renown with whom he had associated during his lifetime. He said that many of their names are hardly known by people a generation younger than him and are basically not known at all by yet younger generations. He said that it is the destiny of nearly all people to fade from importance within a few years of their passing.

I have considered this as I have researched my family history. Each person whose name I find lived out his/her life, labored, formed families, found joys, bore sorrows, etc. Each was important within a certain circle. Yet I know only a few paltry facts about them. I know almost nothing about their personalities.

The meaning of life has long been contemplated by the great and the low. Our thinking on this subject largely determines the choices we make each day. The inescapable fact of death can be banished to the shadows of our thoughts, but it is ever lurking, playing a defining role in life's purpose. What we think of death significantly influences what we think of life, and by extension frames our daily thoughts and actions.

I once listened to a conversation between two agnostics. One felt that it was important at some point in life to seriously consider what happens after death. The other thought that it was unnecessary to spend time worrying about the matter. If he found his soul to still be alive after the death of his mortal body, he'd consider his options at that time.

From what I could easily gather about the second individual, I doubted that he approached any other significant life element with such indifference. After all, failing to plan and prepare for any major life aspect is most likely to leave one with limited (probably unsavory) choices.

Yet this is how many people approach the matter of death; giving it little contemplation until they are forced to confront it. As one philosopher put it, many think of death as something that happens only to other people. This is why reminders of our mortality are commonly (and often effectively) used to elicit fear.

As I have studied various schools of thought on the subjects of life and death, I have encountered many different approaches to dealing with the matter. Some seem balanced; others extreme.

On the latter end of this scale are those that take an almost totally selfish approach, saying that they expect to live every minute of life to the extreme until they come skidding into death whooping about the wild ride they have just completed. Another extreme includes those that want to be so unselfish as to lose any thought of self value, so that death means nothing at all.

I am dubious about both of these approaches. The first echoes Ozymandias' self-centered vanity. My personal opinion is that those that follow such a course will be disappointed with the smallness of the final result. The problem with the second is that it is rarely possible to treat others as well as we treat ourselves. Eliminating our own individuality can't help but erase the individual worth of others. How can this type of 'unselfishness' lead to a meaningful life?

We all die. As the Kansas song says, "All your money won't another minute buy." Some figure that since you'll end up dead at some point and you won't be able to do anything about it, why worry about it? This seems to me like yet another extreme approach that is akin to ignoring reality, which rarely leads to solid happiness.

Still another extreme embraces death as an escape from the troubles of this life. We all need occasional respite from daily challenges. But taking escapism to an unhealthy level does not lead to peace and contentment. So how can the ultimate in escapism do so?

A wide variety of balanced philosophies about death exist. Many are rooted in a belief in a life beyond our current existence, usually with the idea that what happens now impacts our disposition after death. But some approaches are not based in such a belief.

I admit that I don't intuitively comprehend how philosophies that see death as the end of existence can motivate happy and purposeful living. But there are plenty of others that seem to be relatively happy to whom these approaches make sense.

I have had my own confrontations with mortality. I once had a snow cave collapse on me. In the frantic moments that followed I could hardly breathe, mainly because the compacted snow prevented me from expanding my lungs. As the time passed, it became starkly clear to me that I might soon be dead.

In that dire moment I suddenly felt an immense sense of calm. I knew with absolute clarity and certainty—in a way that I cannot convey with words alone—that I would continue to exist as an individual after death. I knew that there was a place for me to go and that it would be alright.

Fortunately, some astute Scouts noticed my predicament and began digging me out. I was glad when the ones that were standing on top of me decided to move off to the side to remove the snow. I still wondered if I would make it because there progress seemed slow. Then one of the boys pulled off a somewhat larger frozen chunk. That freed one of my arms so that I could push enough snow off my chest to sit up, expand my lungs and get air.

The desperate moment soon passed. But the assurance I gained from that experience has remained with me.

When my father passed away, my mom, my brothers and I pulled up chairs and sat around the hospital bed. As I looked at my dad's frail and lifeless frame, I had another moment of utter peace in which I knew that he yet lived on—not simply as a bunch of memories, but as a real individual with the ability to choose and act. I felt complete surety that I would again enjoy his company in a later life.

I'm sure that some would call these experiences delusions. They are free to do so. But I know what is real.

These and other experiences have helped form my philosophy of death, and thereby, my philosophy of life. I believe that it is important to do as much as possible to prepare for happiness in the life beyond this life—and that doing so will bring the maximum amount of joy that can be had in this life.

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