Zen and the Art of Dying Well

Tech Prison copy

We used to say Death was Nature’s way of telling you to slow down. But no more. People have just about slowed to a crawl these days. Now we sit around avoiding life, hiding in our homes with our media systems, tablets, smartphones and social media sites. We have our food delivered, our books downloaded and we make friends online in video games. We schedule meetings and outings by text and then flake when our social anxiety from meeting actual people flares up and we stay home promising we’ll go out next time. (But we never do.)

Death. You cannot escape it. (There, I said it. Now you can’t say you weren’t told.)

I write about it in my fiction all the time. Some of my favorite pieces revolve around the Grim Reaper, his agents, his occupation, his perspective, his inexorable tread into the lives of mortal men.  Sometimes I am even obsessed with it. But not the way you might think. My obsession with Death, (and when I am speaking of the metaphysical potential, the larger than life presence of the entity of Death, I capitalize it as a way of paying respect to something larger than us all) is because I was not expected to survive my childhood.

Sickly, I struggled with allergies and asthma. Small and a bit scrawny coming up, I was the subject of humiliation and abuse both by family and enemies in the schoolyard. Living in the South Bronx during the 1970s, the lifespan of a child from those neighborhoods said 1 in 4 of us would not make it to 18. 1 in 6 of us wouldn’t make it to 25. Most of the people I grew up with are already imprisoned, on drugs or dead. More than a few of my relatives and childhood friends are already dead. My mother and stepfather died from cancer very early, relatively speaking, both were in their late 50s. Some of my close military friends have died as well.

I have a very close relationship with Death. I have seen Him up close and personal at several junctions in my life. I have fallen out of a third story window as a child and people have marveled at my survival in a terrible motorcycle accident where I broke a significant number of bones (all have healed nicely, thank you). I decided the reason I think I survived, is because I had nothing to lose. Having lost so many friends and loved ones, I was able to see myself dying and being okay with it.

But I didn’t die. And I am okay with that, too. The incident changed my view of living and dying. I accept it is the natural order of things and now I am intent on maximizing the time I have left. I intend to draw it out, too.

I intend to make Death chase me across the globe, make Him hike up mountain trails and inhabit pumas I intend to outrun, make him take on the shape of ticks with lyme disease, I plan to outfox him by wearing high socks and taping off my pants legs. I may look strange but I won’t have tick bites. I plan to go scuba diving in places with sharks and tease him with the chance to bite me.

I plan to live dangerously. Otherwise what is the point?

I could hide in my apartment with safety furniture and still slip in the bathtub. (More people die in the tub than you realize, if you don’t have a rubber safety mat and a support rail in your shower, you are taking your life in your hands, you fool! Safety experts say a slip in the bathtub is six times more likely to kill the average American than a storm…)

Death, the cessation of all things in the Universe, (sometimes called Entropy by those accursed scientists) will claim all things, all life, even that which might claim immortality because ultimately, energy is necessary for life, without energy, there is no life. (At least not as we understand it, I may write a story about a creature who attempts to live without the use of energy as a means of surviving the end of the Universe.)

Death will claim the stars, the galaxies, the quasars, the supermassive black holes hiding in the center of galaxies, invisible to the naked eye. Death and the loss of energy will eventually claim even the dark matter and dark energy, the hidden 95% of our Universe will too exhaust itself.

Then only Death and the stinking, rotting corpse of our Universe shall remain.

As Death closes the door on the Universe, will it look back at the past at all the Lives which have come into existence, thrived for a short while (from His perspective) and then faded away? Will it feel remorse at our passing? Will the energy and the essence of our having lived matter to him/her/it in any way? Or will it be a question of how well we lived before we died that mattered? Is our contribution to the Universe our ability to make profit until we can’t breathe the air, drink the water or eat the food?

I suspect Death would not weigh in on this subject since, in the job description, probably right in the top line, would be: Seeking candidate with the ability to be completely passionate about their work, but maintaining an objective perspective on the critical nature of the job. If this image moves you, you probably won’t get the job:

PussInBoots

I suspect the description might continue: Not seeking glory hounds nor shirkers; this job isn’t a good fit for the shy and retiring and the candidate has to be willing to travel 100% of the time while on duty. Perks of the job include, meeting interesting entities from all walks of life and from everywhere, (unfortunately, killing them shortly afterward) travel across the known Universe, all expenses paid travel, and deluxe accommodations. Death has to be an Every-guy or girl, no pretense, no false modesty. Able to walk with kings and still keeping the Common touch. Able to deliver bad news with aplomb, and still know how to party (many cultures celebrate the death of a friend or relative) and Death would have to be able to hold their liquor.

What’s funny to me is that as I get older, I become more like the being I am describing as Death. I am more willing to do things I once said I would never do. I have lost my shyness, speaking up on subjects I have always been passionate about, and having done my research feel good in speaking on the topics. I have learned to be completely passionate about whatever I am doing but maintain the ability to be objective. Getting closer to dying has made me prioritize things, people, ideas, and given me a new perspective on how much SHIT I am willing to put up with from anyone.

In case you were wondering, that is NONE. Zero, zilch, nada, zip! Nunca más.

Life is too short for that. I am committed to living as full and a satisfying life in the time I have left. I plan to sing in the streets, dance in the rain, yodel in the mountains, run with scissors, demand respect from my fellow citizens, participate in my society and consider the legacy I plan to leave on Earth. When I found this quote from Caitlin Moran, I was moved because it is why I don’t do religion.

I don’t need God to make me behave in a moral fashion. As far as I am concerned, if you do, if you are suggesting that the only way for a person to be moral is through religion, you are painting a picture of a lesser kind of human. True humans help their fellow man, stand up for what’s right, acknowledge when things are being done that are wrong or have wronged people and they do this because it is the right thing to do, not because a mystical force which is believed to have created the Universe says so.

It’s that simple. As far as I am concerned, you should live your life as if you only have one. And that every minute should be filled with life-altering choices of significance. You know, paper or plastic, ice cream or cake, birth control or viagra, Superman or Batman, Life or Death.

Because if it isn’t you’re not doing it right.

LIVE, INTENSELY. (Not with drama but with significance. If you are fighting over why you lock your phone to your girlfriend, that is drama, NOT significance. Get a new girlfriend or boyfriend who is not going to have that petty behavior and get back to living your life with significance. If you aren’t sure what it means to live a life of significance, then I guess we’ll have to refer you to a different essay.)

Live, so that when people die, they are affected by your passing.

Live, so that your enemies cheer your death and then quietly toast your demise recognizing they will never see your like again.

Live so that your allies mourn you and wonder what they will do without you by their side. Then they remember you prepared them for the day when you wouldn’t be.

Live, so that when you die, you can tell everyone: I did what I wanted in a fashion that made the world a better place than when I found it.

That is how I live now. I realize it has been how I have always lived.

When I die, I want it written on my tombstone: I LEFT THE WORLD BETTER THAN I FOUND IT.

I’ll insist they add in small letters: Don’t fuck it up. I know how I left things…

Enjoy the visual poetry that is Zen Pencils interpretation of Caitlin Moran’s musings.

dying for life

Art by Zen Pencils artist Gavin Aung Than, 2013

Quote by Caitlin Moran

“The real problem here is that we’re all dying. All of us. Every day the cells weaken and the fibres stretch and the heart gets closer to its last beat. The real cost of living is dying, and we’re spending days like millionaires: a week here, a month there, casually spunked until all you have left are the two pennies on your eyes.

Personally, I like the fact we’re going to die. There’s nothing more exhilarating than waking up every morning and going ‘WOW! THIS IS IT! THIS IS REALLY IT!’ It focuses the mind wonderfully. It makes you love vividly, work intensely, and realise that, in the scheme of things, you really don’t have time to sit on the sofa in your pants watching Homes Under the Hammer.

Death is not a release, but an incentive. The more focused you are on your death, the more righteously you live your life. My traditional closing-time rant – after the one where I cry that they closed that amazing chippy on Tollington Road; the one that did the pickled eggs – is that humans still believe in an afterlife. I genuinely think it’s the biggest philosophical problem the earth faces. Even avowedly non-religious people think they’ll be meeting up with nana and their dead dog, Crackers, when they finally keel over. Everyone thinks they’re getting a harp.

But believing in an afterlife totally negates your current existence. It’s like an insidious and destabilizing mental illness. Underneath every day – every action, every word – you think it doesn’t really matter if you screw up this time around because you can just sort it all out in paradise. You make it up with your parents, and become a better person and lose that final stone in heaven. And learn how to speak French. You’ll have time, after all! It’s eternity! And you’ll have wings, and it’ll be sunny! So, really, who cares what you do now? This is really just some lacklustre waiting room you’re only going to be in for 20 minutes, during which you will have no wings at all, and are forced to walk around, on your feet, like pigs do.

If we wonder why people are so apathetic and casual about every eminently avoidable horror in the world – famine, war, disease, the seas gradually turning piss-yellow and filling with ringpulls and shattered fax machines – it’s right there. Heaven. The biggest waste of our time we ever invented, outside of jigsaws.

Only when the majority of the people on this planet believe – absolutely – that they are dying, minute by minute, will we actually start behaving like fully sentient, rational and compassionate beings. For whilst the appeal of ‘being good’ is strong, the terror of hurtling, unstoppably, into unending nullity is a lot more effective. I’m really holding out for us all to get The Fear. The Fear is my Second Coming. When everyone in the world admits they’re going to die, we’ll really start getting some stuff done.”

One response to “Zen and the Art of Dying Well

  1. Pingback: Zen and the Art of Dying Well | State of Black ...

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