|Bandaged heart graffiti by Beni, Paris 2015|
When I board a plane to Europe, when I find my seat on the Eurostar, when I climb down the steps of the Metro to ride the No 1 line to La Defense, I am not thinking about death. Not even remotely. When the metro car stops mid-tunnel when it is supposed to be moving, when the train slows down for a moment and the lights go out, when the plane jostles through some rough clouds, maybe I think of death just a bit. Never conscious, always under the surface, some sense of knowing the truth peeks out and makes itself known.
But when I really really think about death is when I am with the people I love. When I look at the face of a friend across the dinner or breakfast table, when I take my wife's hand on the sofa and share a smile, when I tightly bind myself to a heart another in a deep hug, at these moments, often something fleets across my awareness: this may be the last time. We never know.
This is the thing: we never know. If having lost my parents when I was young taught me anything, it taught me this. It did not teach me what to say to others when they have dramatic loss. It did not teach me how to feel or what to do to assuage grief. But it did show me that we really never know.
This is an odd kind of knowledge. Unfortunately, unlike memorizing the conjugations of the verb "to be" in a foreign language, it's not the kind of knowledge that comes back easily. When it arises in my consciousness, as it did this morning in the bathroom, brushing my teeth, I want to bat it away. I want to know what happens next, even if I know that that knowing itself causes me more harm in the end.
When I am able to see the fact of dying - my own death and even more importantly, those of the people I love - I usually have one of two responses. 90% of the time, I panic. 10% of the time, I feel at peace - appreciative, grateful for the richness I have now and have had. But usually panic kicks in. And like worrying about money or relationships, worrying about death is intense. So easy to get overwhelmed by it, go with the panic, feel justified in it. And yet, why do I panic? Because I spend so much of the rest of the time - 90% of it - convinced that I am not going to die or lose anyone else I love.
The panic does not come from the truth of death. The panic comes from the gap of denial.
This is something I have actually come to believe, not just know. So that pretty quickly, even if it happens when I am in a rough mental state, I can right myself. Not just with intellectual knowing but heart knowing. If I keep following that panic, like a dog following an abusive master, it will only get worse. If I can remind myself to be gentle with this truth, and assuage the gap between my normal "truth" (eg denial) and the actual truth (eg death), then I can really sink into the moment.
Fear of dying - not dying itself - is one of the biggest cores of suffering in our world. In the bathroom, brushing my teeth this morning, I felt the panic fill me, from my hips, flooding my heart, tears pouring out of my eyes. Luckily, when I get flooded this way, I can pretty quickly and gently turn to the panic, saying something like this:
"You are right. June will die. Di will die. Bruce will die. Honey the cat and Jack the dog and the goldfinches out the window will all die. And it is ok. It is so ok. It's the truth. It's not looking at the truth that causes the pain you feel now."
The pain of knowing death is hard. Sad. Deep. Profound. Accepting death isn't easy, but it makes room for actual, real sadness, instead of dissociated journeys into the far off lands of denial. Deep breaths and a commitment to writing, to meditation, to practicing with those tricky edges of reality, the ones that deliver themselves daily, momentarily to me but that I turn down, hoping to find truth somewhere else, in the concepts I use to protect myself - these are the practices that help me find a way to right myself in the storm of human suffering. It doesn't work all the time. But more and more, I can find a way. Not to push the feelings away but to actually feel them. Feel the sadness of loss, but also the joy of being alive, right now, right here.
The panic isn't real feeling. It's protection, survival, this fear of dying. It's an ironic wall built to protect me from the truth, keeping me reeling in suffering, not living at all.