Contemplating what keeps us alive is a complex pastime. One idea worth pondering is how does fear keep us alive? One aspect might be the dread of what we cannot know. Another is that speculation about what comes next isn’t always attractive. These factors might contribute to our fearing death.
If we start to obsess about the notion of fearing death, it can rob us of joy and keep us from relishing our own lives. According to many studies, death is among our greatest fears, along with public speaking and perhaps a two-term Trump Presidency. This makes pondering the connection between death and fear a valuable exercise.
Fear of death explains why, most of the time, people don’t step in front of a bus when they get depressed. At the same time, others who are serious risk-takers deliberately dance close to danger. This practice seems to fuel adrenaline junkies who defy death with their stunts. Endorphins that rage with intensity can drive these thrill-seekers to continual flirtation with death. So, fear is a sword that has at least a couple of sides and cuts into people’s lives in different ways.
Near Death Experiences
Many of us have had brushes with death that have shaken us to the core. This often makes us aware of our lives in a more profound way. We re-examine what we usually take for granted, at least for the moment.
There are others who have become so sick that they lose their fear and welcome death as a release. Still others, like Anita Moojani, have been pronounced dead but live to recount their experiences of wading in the gulf between here and the other side. No matter what, we come to times in our lives when we feel the power of both fear and death. Often they are intertwined.
The Power of Fear
Fear is one of the most powerful forces in the world, perhaps next to death. The fact that these two aspects of life are so deeply connected makes for a unique combination that many of us have only begun to explore. Consider this quote:
Let the children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.”
So it seems that regardless of our knowledge and experience with death and fear, we cope and go on. We make popcorn, or catch the bus, or plan a birthday party, or dream about our next vacation and all the while there is a backdrop that simply moves about us like a ubiquitous gray storm. This storm always blows in and out of our consciousness.
How We Handle the Fear of Death Shapes our Lives
In some ways, it is astounding that it is not on our minds every minute. When I wrote the book, Death: An Exploration, I felt it was important to have a conversation that continues, whether we have it pressed comfortably in our bible pages or feel a kind of awe as we look at the sunset or pondering the words of philosophers who speculate for us. The dialogue is universal and too rare. But it is one of the few topics with the power to compel all of us.
In death we are not alone and perhaps the best solace we can take is knowing that we are connected to other living beings. We all dwell in the mysterious totality of what we have come to know as life, moving toward death.
Due to the patriarchal nature of tribal desert culture in the Middle East– where the three major Western World Religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity sprang from– a skewed view of reality has grown. Women have been treated as walking holes that expel heirs; often treated as not much more than mere objects of pleasure. The male dominance of the planet has plunged humankind into a condition of near perpetual warfare in the quest for power and riches.
Consequently, women have been raped, killed and held in a position of servitude since Christ walked the earth. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have written extensively on the plight of women around the world and they have asserted that if one considers slavery the most serious human rights issue of the 19th century and totalitarianism the same for the 20th century, then women’s rights is the issue of the 21st century. All over the world women are stolen, sold into slavery and killed at an astonishing rate. Studies show that between 60 and 170 million women across the world are unaccounted for; erased from the world as if they never existed.
However, there has been a paradigm shift in recent U.S. history as Hillary Clinton became the third U.S. Secretary of State following Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice. At the same time, the US government has fewer women represented in its governing body than most other developed nations. The ascent of women in the U.S. government follows a trend of more women working their way into positions of power exemplified by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the troubled state of Liberia.
The “weaker sex” has been belittled and exploited because of the passive nature of women. An aversion to violence in this “man’s world” is viewed by many as weakness. However, if we are to progress as a species women must be given more sovereignty, because women do not inherently have the same thirst for blood as men do as personified by the reigns of Adolph Hitler, Augusto Pinochet and Pol Pot.
With the exception of Mary Tudor, how many violent female despots can one name? (English Despot Margret Thatcher’s gender is still a topic of heated debate) If power was taken from the Man and transferred into the hands of people with the burden of carrying human beings inside of themselves, people that have a true appreciation for human life would be making the important decisions. Therefore, the era of need for competent women (think Maya Angelou not Sarah Palin) to influence our practices and policies is upon us.
Anyone who is married understands the virtues of women gathering and talking about important plans while men drink beer and make crude jokes. I would be happy to see more intelligent women driving society in place of the Newt Gingriches of the world.
 Kristof, Nicholas D. and WuDunn, Sheryl. “The Women’s Crusade.” The New York Times. August 17, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/magazine/23Women-t.html?_r=1&pagewanted=2#
I was excited to hear about the talk being presented about Eva Saulitis on October 18th at SUNY Fredonia. The event was a must given my admiration for her.
It was a reading and discussion of her work by her partner Craig Matkin, executive director of the North Gulf Oceanic Society, and Elizabeth Bradfield, naturalist-poet and co-director of the Creative Writing program at Brandeis University. One of the things that surprised me was that Saulitis had grown-up close to where I am from.
One of the things that surprised me was that Saulitis had grown-up close to where I am from.
Oddly, it was held in the exact same classroom that I guest-lectured in just two weeks before. The room was so full that I could not find a seat. In comparison, my lecture, which I had done half a dozen times before, felt pedestrian while listing to the musings from the giant life that was encapsulated in that moment.
Influences for Death: An Exploration
When I wrote my first book, Death: An Exploration, it was a learning experience that introduced me to new ideas and new thinkers. Also, it was an opportunity to ponder ideas from luminaries who I hadn’t previously investigated.
During that time, I discovered Eva Saulitis’s prose in The Week and her deft description of living with terminal cancer in her piece “Into the Wild Darkness.” Reading it humbled and intrigued me. She became the focus and inspiration for the second chapter of my book. So I was honored to be at her memorial talk.
To hear of bruins in Alaska devouring fish and orcas breaching the frigid waters, imagining her stalwartly observing and beautifully reflecting in her writing, was powerful. The impact of the words that remained of this observant life made me feel deep regret that we will not hear any more than she was able to leave behind for us.
In the process of her own suffering, it is clear that she became in tune with deep natural rhythms through her vigorous study of the natural world and introspection. This is illustrated when Matkin revealed that Saulitis ironically “predicted the day she was going to die a month and a half ahead.”
She had an acute sense of the enormous power of nature and our strange relationship to the wild world outside our homes. Her life spent deeply entwined with nature, reminds us that we are all small in comparison to this vast Earth and the wildness that dwells within.
It is significant how we see the world through her writing and the excellent job done by her dear friends Matkin and Bradfield to convey this unique perspective. I felt spellbound by her spirit. It struck me that this woman who came from this small corner of the Earth, which happens to be close to where I was thrown out onto this planet as well, was able to embrace the vastness of life and encompass so much and bear her secrets, her cancer, her truths. She was heroic in her fight with cancer and then was forced to pass over to the other side, and now seems to have become bigger than life.
I would like to let everyone know that my book Death: An Exploration is currently available for a Goodreads Giveaway. I will be giving away 10 FREE copies. Sign up as soon as you can because the giveaway ends on 9/29. To participate, simply click the link below:
We dance because we want to let go, to escape, and express ourselves as we heed the alluring call of music: its rhythm and its beauty. There is a mysterious connection between the attraction to music and death. Like the rhythm of music, death is part of the natural rhythms.
In yoga, we are taught to breathe, hold, and exhale. As a metaphor, we can see the first breath of life as breathing, the life we lead as holding the breath, and death as exhalation.
While dancing to music is optional, we must all dance to the rhythm of death. In the Hindu tradition, Shiva dances the rhythm of the universe. The dance of Shiva is said to destroy the tired and old universe and prepare it for renewal. We are able to see the destruction of death and contribution to life played out in a walk through the woods as once living plants and animals are decaying to fertilize the earth and bring forth new life.
Death is inextricably linked to life, the requiem that ends an individual rhythm, but still an integral part of the universal rhythm. It is the rhythm that continues but the individual death is a pause, the off-beat in universal song.
Music is part of rituals in many cultures and it is linked with death. Whether it is the dirges played at funerals like “Amazing Grace” or “Taps” there are ways death and music are intertwined in our funerary traditions. But there are also bright celebrations of life as it is in the amazing ritual in New Orleans. In these funeral processions, there is an acknowledgment of death and a celebration of life. But the tone is happier than many of the more somber funerary tradition in many other parts of the world.
Whether an homage to a fallen being, a celebration of life, or a somber tune, music is part of the funerary process. But music itself can be seen as a metaphor that is tightly linked to death. Death is an inescapable part of the broader rhythms of the universe and we are all forced to hear its tune. It is up to us if we are willing to dance with it.