American Psychologist, Author, Professor and Philosopher
American Psychologist, Author, Professor and Philosopher
We?re living in a time when we talk about death in ways that we did not before. The question is on our minds. We see documentaries on television about death. There is certainly a death revolution, a death liberation movement in process. It?s tempting to believe that we are beginning to deal with death in a way that is more creative. But, there?s a danger here. Let me suggest an analogy. We?ve had a sexual liberation movement, a women?s liberation movement and now, a man?s liberation movement. But what has been liberated? And, at what cost? I suspect the sexual liberation movement may have increased our bondage in some perverse ways.
What does it mean to act in a sacred manner in civic and political matters? What is the difference between treating my neighbor in a sacred and a profane way? A secular community emerges from a social contract by which individuals governed by self-interest agree to limit their exercise of power in order to enjoy the benefits of community. To survive, a community must maintain a minimum level of civility. Without a degree of power sharing, respect for the law and a distribution of goods that allows people to live, political power degenerates into strategic violence in an effort to enforce obedience. Absolute power in the hands of the few destroys the potentialities of the many. Under the rule of the Grand Inquisitor a thousand flowers are prevented from blooming.
What seems to utterly baffle the press and members of the liberal intelligencia is the discovery (repeated every few years) that a vast number of modern Americans, many in high places in government, still believe in the apocalypse and expect the immanent return of Jesus. A few statistics: In a recent Time/CNN poll, 36% percent of all Americans believe the Bible is God?s word and should be taken literally, 59% percent believe events predicted in the book of Revelation will come to pass. Of those who believe Armageddon will happen, 47% believe the Antichrist is on earth now, 45% believe Jesus will return during their lifetime.
When I struggle to remain aware of my mortality I am able to detect the ways in which death dogs my days and nights, how it creeps in and evades my defenses. Every night it lurks just behind my thoughts when I resist yielding to sleep?-fearful of giving up my control of awareness, my ability to direct my mind. Or, I wake in the middle of the night and have to pee and I look in the mirror and think, ?Oh my God! When did I get that wrinkled face?? Or, being male, I look in the toilet to see if there?s blood in my piss. I wonder if the mole on my arm is changing shape, if it is pre-cancerous. Driving on the freeway at seventy-five miles per hour death is never very far away. At the very core of my being I have two opposite, ineradicable feelings about death. In the bottomless pit of my stomach I have a sickening feeling that I am simply wiped out at death. Death is the end of Sam Keen, the end of my consciousness, the end of my world. What awaits me is complete annihilation, the Void. Nothingness. I have an equally strong opposite feeling. Something deep and primal raises a voice of outrage, protest and refusal. ?No. God damn it. No! Death is not acceptable! I refuse to simply vanish without a trace. I wasn?t consulted. I didn?t agree to death. I didn?t sign the contract. In some way I cannot imagine, I remain eternally within the Creating Source of all that was, is and will be. Hard as I try, I am unable to exorcise either of these feelings.
When we remember that being a person, from a sacred perspective, involves power -potentiality-promise, it is clear that power is an inevitable dimension in all human relationships. But, it is self-evident that all persons are not created equal either in the amount or type of power given to them. The gifts of energy, imagination, intelligence, health, wealth, and access to education are unequally distributed. To have a vocation is to accept and develop whatever gifts, talents and privileges we have been given not as possessions to which we are entitled but as a trust to be used for the enrichment of the commonwealth.
We come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.
There will come a time when I will be done with the little deaths of the ego and will face the definitive end of my life. I wonder how I will face this conclusion. Years ago I talked with my great friend Howard Thurman during the last weeks of his life. He told me ?I am not going to die until I am in the room where the ultimate decision is made about my life and death.? I am certain that when he died a week later he was in that room and gave his consent. I hope his example and spirit will be with me when my time comes.
Three iconic deaths, three stories, three incarnate mythologies, each of which tells us how to live and what to die for. Death Modern- Style. Forget what you know, forget your expertise for a minute and let?s just read the newspaper, watch television and ask ourselves ?What deaths are focal, or exemplary in modern culture? How, when and where do we see death portrayed? What is the face of modern death? The image of death we see most frequently on the media is the death that comes out of anarchy, disintegration, and poverty in the places where tribal consciousness and tribal hatred are re-emerging?Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda, Bosnia, Congo, Syria, Somalia. We see bodies blown apart by suicide bombers or hacked into peaces and floating down the river.
The mark of a free mind and a free society is the ability to question authorities, be critical of institutions and resist the seductions of propaganda and advertisement. Every citizen has a moral and civic obligation to reason, deliberate, weigh evidence, evaluate and make informed judgments. Ergo: it is the task of education to teach the skills of visual literacy that help us understand how we are manipulated by images and seduced by media generated virtual worlds that increasingly inform our perceptions and values. Newspapers and television could do a better job of presenting us with information and a variety of opinions, but they can never do our thinking for us, make our decisions, or choose the values by which we will live.
The operative myth or narrative of any culture is mostly invisible to the people who live in that culture. The fish does not see the water in which it swims. In Eskimo culture, in the old days they took the old people out and they left them on an ice flow and thought goddess Sedna would comfort them as they were dying. I can look at that practice and say ?It is very mythological, isn?t it?? But when I look at my own culture, where we take people to the hospital and have weird people dressed in white (never in rainbow colors, or like a clown) attend them, I don?t see that as mythological. That?s science. That?s modern medicine. In order to decipher death, and understand what we are doing and NOT doing we have to examine the, largely unconscious, mythology of our culture. One of the best ways to get a handle on this is to look at the death of the hero upon which a given culture focuses? the myth incarnate. Every culture has somebody who, in their dying, becomes a model for the meaning of life and death.
There is a great sense of metaphysical relaxation that accompanies the realization that the world is ultimately mysterious and beyond explanation. It relieves me of the burden of having to know what I cannot know and the temptation to place my faith in so called ?revealed truth? of some institution that promises me mystery, miracle and authority. In place of an ersatz revelation of the meaning of life, the wonder and simple beauty of Mockingbirds and Pine trees is given me day by day. My life in an overflowing world that is always borning and dying is given me moment by moment.
The abiding sense of power, purpose and meaning that the sacred perspective offers the individual flows from the conviction that one?s most idiosyncratic gift -one?s vocation- is an integral part of the divine creative process-the 8th day of creation. Again Earnest Becker: ?What makes dying easier is ?to know that beyond the absurdity of one?s own life, beyond the human viewpoint, beyond what is happening to us, there is the fact of tremendous creative energies of the cosmos that are using us for some purpose we don?t know. To be used for divine purposes, however we may be misused, that is the thing that consoles.? When I experience my self as sacred, a divine being with fingerprints, I discover that the words ?power,? ?potential?, ?promise?, ?purpose?, ?vocation? are identical. ?Power? comes from the Latin ?potentia? ? potential. My potential is discovered in the unfolding of my talents and gifts. My power increases as I fulfill the promise of my being. My vocation is the voice of my future calling me to become. My gifts, my vocation, are woven into my DNA. My end (telos) is in my beginning. My DNA is a strand in the ongoing process of creation. The power-potential-promise of my being is integral to Being-Becoming-itself.
The experience of wonder, the first of the elemental emotions, is the wellspring of both religion and philosophy. D.H. Lawrence got it exactly right; ?There is a sixth sense, the religious sense, the sense of wonder?. The emotion of wonder is triggered over and over again by the awe-ful realization that there is no reason for the world or anything in it to exist, myself included. Gratitude and celebration flow from wonder as we accept our existence as an inexplicable gift bestowed on us without rhyme or reason by the Infinite Creative Void, The Unknowable G-D (beyond God), or the Ground of Being from whom all blessings flow. (Take your pick.) Reverence may be elicited by a stand of giant redwoods or a two-year-old playing on a jungle gym. Listening to the myriad voices of our fellow creatures, we are reminded to walk softly on the earth and show respect for strangers. Reverence is the virtue that puts the ?civil? in civilization.
The final word? There is no final word. I define myself, and yet I escape all definitions. I am unfinished, pregnant with longing and hope. There is always some fulfillment just beyond my reach, some adventure calling me. I am a citizen of three kingdoms: the long ago and far away, the here and now, and the not yet. My self a gypsy, always on the road.
Socrates also said that his reason told him that the soul was not born and would not die. Therefore, he should go to his death voluntarily without fear. He says, ?All of my life I have been practicing dying. And now, when it comes to the act of actual dying should I be afraid? Should I run away? That would show that my entire life was a fraud.? Socrates taught that philosophy is the practice of dying, moving away from mere sense of knowledge and getting in touch with the soul. To die was merely to finish the process of getting to the essence of the soul, to be liberated from the bondage of the body and time. In bearing witness to this, Socrates became a savior, a comforter, an incarnate exemplar.
Some characteristics of courageous thinkers: Creative dissatisfaction with accepted answers. Willingness to break taboos. Ability to live with disapproval and criticism. Capacity to suspend certainties. A ludic disposition?delight in playing with possibilities. Enjoyment of solitude. The ability to remain silent, to listen and move slowly. (Siddhartha?I can think. I can wait. I can fast.) Love of paradox and contradiction. Intolerance for departmental boundaries. A good bullshit detector to sniff out stale solutions, moribund paradigms, sacred cows and self-serving ideologies. An appreciation of the difference between a problem and a mystery. (Marcel). An abiding love of questions.
Some of you old timers are veterans of the sexual revolution. Now, with AIDS and herpes many of you will have only heard about that blessed period, not as long ago, when we thought that to liberate ourselves sexually we only had to connect any two or more pairs of genitals of consenting adults. Getting together in any constellation for any reason held the promise of liberation.
Strangely, the horror of death in the third world is a perverse comfort to us, because it is not our death. It is not the one we think about We read the stories of incredible savagery and say, ?Isn?t it awful?? But under our breath there is a self-righteous refrain: ?Thank God we are not as they. Thank God we are not primitive. Thank God we are really civilized. Thank God we don?t have deaths like that. Thank God.?
Supposedly, there?s a tribe in New Guinea where the right?of-passage for men involves drinking a strange kind of poison that can be absorbed in the esophagus, but it?s neutralized in the stomach. If you take the poison neat, in one gulp, you are safe. But, if you hesitate and gag, you?re dead. Whether the story is true or not, the principle is sound. A spoonful of death a day keeps illusions away. When I am able to swallow the terror raw and not run from it, I can look back over my life and see the ways in which I armor myself against the awareness of my mortality and construct what Ernest Becker called, my immortality projects for denying death. Clinging to orthodox Christianity, working obsessively to be worthy of fame, striving to make a name for myself, conforming to social niceties to be deserving of love, adopting rigorous health routines to protect me from age and decrepitude ?all these are ways armoring myself against the terror of death.
Switch cultures and focal deaths. In the case of Jesus, as with Socrates, we are dealing with a death that is chosen, voluntary, and could have been avoided. Jesus is condemned to death for reasons that are not clear but he does not try to escape. He prays that ?this cup? could be taken from him but he goes to his death in obedience to what he conceives of as the will of God. In so doing he demonstrates that the meaning of life is found, not in reason, but in direct obedience to God. The authentic life is one of obedience to a covenant with a personal God. In accepting suffering and death Jesus re-affirms of the meaning of life.
My body is a living museum of a natural history. As a fetus I passed through every stage of evolution. I had gills before lungs. I slithered on my belly like a reptile and walked on all fours before my reptilian and mamalarian brains were crowned by the glory of the cortex. In my holographic mind and evolutionary body eternity and time meet. My nervous system incarnates the story of Bethlehem.
Mythology is not just something in the head, it?s in the way we experience nature. In the degree that the natural order is felt to be maternal, the soul will be regenerated, reborn, reincarnated or transmigrated,. But it cannot die. Death is just a part of the cyclical existence of the human soul. This is an assurance we no longer have because we don?t look at nature that way. Consider other focal deaths. In the pre-modern world the two iconic deaths that gave people the meaning of life were the death of Socrates and the death of Jesus. Remember Socrates? last words? Socrates is dying, the poison has reached his waist and he leans over and says, ?Crito I owe a cock to Asklepios?. That?s very interesting, because Asklepios is the god of healing. Socrates, in the middle of dying says, ?I am being healed. I owe a cock to Asklepios?. Almost all of ethics after the time of Socrates, in Aristotle, in the Stoic ethics ? is a reflection on the life and death of Socrates. And, why didn?t Socrates escape from Athens and save his own life? He didn?t escape because, in his view, the highest good was found only in community. Human beings are human only when they are social, only when they?re in a community. And a community can only exist when there is law. Therefore the law of Athens must be obeyed even if it is wrong, otherwise one ceases to be fully communal human being. Ergo? Socrates swallowed the hemlock voluntarily rather than violate his vision of the communal nature of the good life.
Nowhere do we see this paradigm of illness so clearly as in the mythology that surrounds our most highly cathected disease?cancer. Cancer ?the enemy, the dark, insidious, irrational thing ? strikes its victims without warning or rationale. It is a metaphor for the evil that attacks the innocent. The deaths that we most focus on are those in which we feel ourselves to be victims of something. Increasingly, we are a society where there is a rush to victimization, where illness, and especially catastrophic terminal illness, is thought of as something that happens to a person?a cancer victim, a victim of a stroke, etc.
Once we acknowledge the inseparability of the self from the community, the quest for justice takes on a radical nature that goes beyond the civic virtues we owe to our immediate neighbors, it is no longer satisfied by mere fairness or by the obligation to share a minimum of wealth and power. It demands that we seek the fulfillment of the potentiality and promise of our neighbors, near and far. Love radicalizes the demand for justice by extending it beyond tribe or nation to all members of the commonwealth of all beings. As the Buddhist vow puts the matter: ? Sentient Beings are numberless I vow to save them.?
One of the few deaths, in the modern world, that has become iconic is the death of Che Chevera. For the communist world, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the only hero who inspired youth was Che Chevera. After the Cuban revolution he voluntarily went to South America and was killed and became a martyr. Some say that one of the reasons the Soviet Union supported Cuba for so long was because they had the only martyr of the revolution .