Weird couple of weeks. Having taken a month off work, I have spent more time than usual reflecting on everything about my life. Not to say I was wallowing, more that I have been extra mindful of my current direction and, more specifically, the choices I make or don’t make to steady the train, clear the tracks and ensure safe passage through life in all its florid glory. So, perhaps it is sadly rather apposite that during this period of introspection an old school friend suddenly passed away.
The greatest trick death pulls is making you believe it happens to you; it is of course something that happens to everyone else. Finding solace in heaven, reincarnation, or a final, everlasting sleep does not change the fact that as far as this mortal realm is concerned, once you’re gone you’re gone. It is those left behind who have to process tragedy, deal with the myriad of conflicting, painful emotions and pick up the pieces. It is everyone else who has to make sense of what it means to just stop living.
Of course, those of a religious persuasion find comfort in the notion that when we die we go somewhere else, but as religions dwindle, our society finds concepts of an afterlife or the soul increasingly amorphous and vague. Everything seemed clearer in the past. However primitive, there was a system in place and, more significantly, a destination. The ancient Egyptians believed when you died you had to endure a rigorous series of trials to determine what happens to your soul in the afterlife. You needed to have memorised elaborate texts, incantations and spells from the Book of the Dead – the ultimate theory driving test. Your heart was then weighed against a ‘feather of truth’ which means, as anyone with even the most basic understanding of physics will tell you, the odds are already stacked against you. Still, when you’re being judged by a colossal being with the head of a jackal, all rational bets are off. This notion of your fate in the hereafter being determined by how you behaved in life has endured in many faiths because it IS comforting. It suggests a purer form of justice beyond our mortal reach, that life is balance, that life is fair. Which, of course, it isn’t.
Today we have no death culture and we need one. Not necessarily the need for religious conviction that when we die we go to a better place, more that as a culture we need to collectively embrace death precisely BECAUSE is unites and sustains us. In the past disease and war brought us together in mourning. Sharing a traumatic experience gave us the strength and tools to face the unknown – a united front against a common enemy. During the Nineteenth Century, thousands in London perished due to the stifling grip of cholera. The carnage of World War One saw entire towns in the North of England lose every single man and boy. In the past life was cheap. Now it is reassuringly expensive. We have spent a fortune to ensure that many previously fatal diseases are now curable and controllable, while the nature of modern warfare and no conscription means organised conflict takes place among paid volunteers in some far flung desert. It is remote, it is distant. In this country at least, neither disease nor war has the same raging conflagration that incinerates whole communities, but by the same token we are no longer brought together on a regular basis to face the white-heat immediacy of death. Thanks to scientific and medical advances, we are living longer than ever before, but this means grief is less frequently felt and so we are less equipped to handle it. The idea that ‘it was just their time’ is fought tooth and nail. Not many of us are willing to meet death head on. It’s rarely our time because so few of us are ready.
So what do we do? We hide behind language. From the comical list of euphemisms spouted with high-pitched venom by John Cleese when returning his dead parrot to the more sensitive phrases used in polite conversation to soothe, the reason we have so many alternative ways of conveying death is because for many it is too unfathomable to comprehend. We talk of people ‘passing on’ or ‘passing away’, a reminder that not only is life fleeting, but also that those who die are merely on the move, heading somewhere else. No need to get up, I’m just passing through. See you in a bit.
My friend had a troublesome life. He found certain aspects difficult and due to many factors we’ll never truly know, it all came to a head last month. Though we were close in the past, it would be untrue to state we were best buds or that even though the news came as a shock, I was not surprised. I can say, however, that my heart goes out to his family. Death also has the power to relieve and release, but to see someone never realise all their dreams, ambitions and potential is a tragedy.
And yet how do we know if we have fulfilled our potential? Potential to oneself? To others? The more you peel away the idea that we all are here for a reason, to strive towards an admirable goal, the more everything starts to unravel. Is it best just to accept that things ‘just happen’? That you just keep your head down and get on with it? No room for navel gazing here, best leave that to those furrow-browed, emotional European philosophers of days past. Whether you spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about death or never give it a second thought, it’s going to happen whether you like it or not. Realistic? Yes. Comforting? Not really.
Life is flux, and I believe embracing that flux is key to happiness. It was staring down the barrel of professional inertia that moved me to make recent changes in my own life. Were they the right choices? Time will tell. And that’s the point. We all move forward regardless and we can’t afford to be neutral on a moving train. Whether we press down hard to gain momentum, strain to apply the brakes or strive to redirect the route, all the decisions we make will affect the trip, regardless of the destination. Best make them count. My friend has reached the end of his journey. Wherever he is, I’m sure he’s enjoying his slumber. As for the rest of us, fingers crossed we’re headed in the right direction; I guess we’ll find out when we get there. RIP old friend, hope you enjoyed the ride.