Life, Death, and Everything in between…(on living a more full life)

There are years of my life when it seemed like nothing really happened, and then years when a lot happened all at once. Paulo Coelho says, “Life has many ways of testing a person’s will, either by having nothing happen at all or by having everything happen all at once.” 2020 feels like the year where everything happens all at once. See this week’s YouTube video at: https://youtu.be/2NSvu9x3r1U

The constant optimist, I can still see where there is beauty, love, and amazing happening, yes in this very year. In fact, there are some really, really good things happening for a lot of people that I know right now, and even just the thought of that brings a smile to my face. I mean some cute babies have been born, marriages are happening, health goals being met, financial goals being met, new homes, and for some just a deeper relationship with their authentic selves. Given that I don’t live wearing rose colored glasses, I can also see where there is pain and where there are difficult moments happening. Yes, to say that there are some less than stellar things happening in our world would be an understatement.

I attended a virtual retreat last weekend led by Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. I am not Buddhist, but I believe that we can learn a lot of many different people and practices. Pema has written many books on coping with difficult situations and times, and wise advice for our healing. I came across some of her work when I was going through a very painful time in my own life. I found her words at the time to be soothing, and helpful. The topic for last weekend’s retreat was, “Welcoming the Unwelcome.” Pema talked to the group from her home—the Gampo Abbey—located in a remote part of Nova Scotia. I wondered, “Does Pema know what’s going on, living tucked away in an abbey?” However, that thought dissipated when she began talking. She was well aware of all the things happening in the world, and she was especially aware of how fear seems to loom heavily over all of our heads. 

Have you ever looked at someone’s face and seen wisdom? That is how I felt when she began to talk. She was a picture of serenity, and I felt calm, hopeful, and inspired. She started us off with this prayer from Shantideva. “May all who are sick and ill, quickly be freed from their ailments. May whatever diseases there are in the world never occur again. May the frightened cease to be afraid. May those who are bound, be freed. May the powerless find power, and may beings think to benefit each other.”  I let those words sit with me, especially “may beings think to benefit each other.” How different the world might be if we were all a little less selfish. I don’t say that in judgment, just speculation because it does appear that some of our current problems are borne from selfishness. 

In welcoming the unwelcome, we identify our capacity for holding difficult feelings without panicking. We can acknowledge that these difficult events and experiences are happening, and even just that act of acknowledging what is happening is a powerful part of the experience and our healing. 

Pema once said, “Life is glorious, but life is also wretched. It is both. Appreciating the gloriousness inspires us, encourages us, cheers us up, gives us a bigger perspective, energizes us. We feel connected. But if that’s all that’s happening, we get arrogant and start to look down on others, and there is a sense of making ourselves a big deal and being really serious about it, wanting it to be like that forever. The gloriousness becomes tinged by craving and addiction. On the other hand, wretchedness–life’s painful aspect–softens us up considerably. Knowing pain is a very important ingredient of being there for another person. When you are feeling a lot of grief, you can look right into somebody’s eyes because you feel you haven’t got anything to lose–you’re just there. The wretchedness humbles us and softens us, but if we were only wretched, we would all just go down the tubes. We’d be so depressed, discouraged, and hopeless that we wouldn’t have enough energy to eat an apple. Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.”

Pema used a phrase, “collaborating with the world,” frequently through the talk, and I saw it as the way we are all woven together, and how each of our individual actions influence and affect the whole. She also mentioned that our growth really happens outside of our personal comfort zone in what she called our challenge zone. I do believe that 2020 has challenged many of us and have thrust us right out of our comfort zones. What will we grow into because of this?

One of the things that throws a lot of us out of our comfort zone is the topic of death. Very recently, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an all-around amazing human, beacon of legal scholarship, and Supreme Court Justice passed away. She had battle health issues, but she was still working, still living her personal legend. I opened social media, and saw an interesting reaction to her death. Because of the political climate, many people expressed fears about what would happen next with her seat. The energy of fear was so pervasive that I felt a little guilty that we wanted an 87 year old woman battling pancreatic cancer to live longer so that we could be saved from something ominous. I know how important the times are, and I recognize the important of her role, but in that moment, I wanted the world to just say, “thank you Ruth, for a job well done. Rest well dear lady.” I saw something similar when John Lewis passed away, the concern that our heroes were dying, and we would be powerless without them. I offer gratitude for what these people did with the time that they had. I do not think that we are powerless; rather, these individuals have laid the foundation for us to carry on their legacy of love, compassion, and care for our fellow human being. We must rise to the occasion as these individuals did; we must collaborate with the world, to stand for what we value, what we believe in, and what we know to be an authentic and real way forward. 

Death is life’s great mystery. I have researched how different cultures and people deal with the notion of death. It has been a mystery since the early civilizations. The ancient Egyptians built the pyramids most as tombs and they had a reverence for what they felt happened in the afterlife. No one truly knows what happens when we die, but each culture, each religion, each country and whatever category you can put people in, all have a way of looking at death. 

When I was growing up, I thought that everyone had long multi-day celebrations to honor their dead. In Jamaican culture, a funeral had several components. We had the “grave digging,” where the community gathered to watch workers dig the grave. Then we had something called the “Nine-night.” Because of patois, for the longest time I thought it was “nigh night” and it does last nigh into the wee hours of the funeral morning. My experience with the nine-night is that it was a big celebration of the life of the deceased with music—old school music especially. The family of the deceased would be responsible for feeding the community with fried fish, bread, and lots of other food. They were also responsible for drinks—and rum seemed to be the preferred drink. Because of this tradition, I always saw death as a celebration of the life of someone who died. At the funeral, and Jamaican funerals can be long, people remember the person with speeches, song, and scripture. After the funeral, a smaller group gathers at the house for more remembrance and food. It wasn’t until later in life when I attended a funeral in America that I realized that Jamaican funerals were different; they were more celebratory than somber.

In researching death around the world, there are so many different traditions and viewpoints; we don’t have time to capture it all here. I did hear it say though that western cultures see death as something to avoid, while many Eastern cultures see death as a transition to a next stage of the soul’s existence. I don’t have the answers to that, but I know death is something many fear. The reality is that none of us are going to make it out of here alive. Death is what reminds us that we are not immortal and unless someone out there is, and I don’t know about it, our time here is finite.  Also sidebar: every novel or movie that I have ever read where someone was immortal, they seemed to hate it. It seemed like a curse more than a blessing. But getting back to my point, what does death tell us about living? I think death instructs us that we should make the most of the time we have, and we should live courageously and without regrets. We should love, laugh, and feel things—we will feel pain, and hurt, but we should not live in those emotions. 

The writer Bronnie Ware, wrote the book, “The Top Five Regrets of Dying People.” Two of those regrets were that they did not have the courage to live a life true to who they were, but they lived how others expected them to live, and that they wish they had let themselves be happier. Bronnie says, “The peace each of these dear people found before their passing is available now, without having to wait until your final hours. You have the choice to change your life, to be courageous, to live a life true to your heart, one that will see you pass without regret.” I believe that death can instruct us on how to live more fully. I believe that we should tell people now that we love and care about them. We should give them their flowers now. 

We can also learn what we can from the legacy that people leave behind. I had a great friend from law school, Israel. He and I had similar upbringings, and we could always share a laugh together. One of the things that I loved the most about him was that he was a true lover of life. He always said, “why not?” When he said that, he usually was on his way to experiencing some delightful adventure. He worked hard, but he truly lived. When he died, I took a look at my life, and realized that I was saving so many experiences for some future time that I wasn’t sure might even happen. I started to live, not just for myself, to honor all the people I knew who had died. In some ways, we live for those who are gone. I went out on work nights to performances, I traveled to places that I might have said no to previously for reasons like, oh the cost, or I have work. These excuses were preventing me from living. I think you should save and get your resources in order, but I also think you should say yes to life.

There is a famous poem called “The Dash” by Linda Ellis, and it says,

“I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend. He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning… to the end.

He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time they spent alive on earth and now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own, the cars… the house… the cash. What matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard; are there things you’d like to change? For you never know how much time is left that still can be rearranged.

To be less quick to anger and show appreciation more and love the people in our lives like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect and more often wear a smile… remembering that this special dash might only last a little while.

So when your eulogy is being read, with your life’s actions to rehash, would you be proud of the things they say about how you lived your dash?”

And as an excerpt, The poet Mary Oliver who I loved, said in her poem, “The Summer Day,”

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Maya Angelou another great poet said, in her poem, “When Great Trees Fall,” I will read a small bit, “And when great souls die, after a period peace blooms, slowly and always irregularly. Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration. Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.”

So many brilliant people have existed, and amazing people will continue to be born and die, and we will have to face life again experiencing death over and over again, growing and grieving, but knowing that whatever died existed, and whatever is remembered lives on. Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself. Something to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you.” I think what she was saying is that life is also about service. What can you do to offer service to humanity, especially in these times? What can you do to live your life fully, so that when death comes, we would know that you enjoyed, and loved, and cherished every ounce of your wild and precious life? I hope this gives you something to think about. May the stars shine brightly over your week, and may it be one in which you truly feel alive.