I received an email this morning from my friend Susan telling me that a woman we both knew had died last Friday. Over the years Susan had kept me apprised of the highlights of this woman’s journey – the surgeries, the moves back and forth to her family, her struggle for independence. Although I had not known her well I was sad to learn she had died at just 66, not that old by today’s standards.
I remember both my mother and my Aunt Lucy telling me they never expected to live as long as they did – my mother to 93 and my aunt still going strong at 97. They had far surpassed the statistical norms of their generation. In 1911, for instance, the year my mother was born, the average life span for a woman was 50 years and 54 for men. Think about it – most women never lived long enough to go through menopause or see their grandchildren grow up. Most men never retired.
When I was born in 1945 women had an average life span of 63; for a man, 68. I beat the bookies although there are many from my graduating class who are already gone. Like my mother, I may be surprised by living longer than I expect.
Life is uncertain and the fear of dying is the most basic of all, the hydra head from which all other fears twist and twine. Our western culture does not like to acknowledge the possibility, nay, inevitability of death and our best efforts are bent towards postponing rather than preparing for it.
Our religions promise us various forms and states of immortality and call upon the assertions of long dead saints to support their claims. But our current reliance upon the rational and material undermines belief in these possibilities. The gods of our fathers have been replaced by the gods of science and technology.
Since we no longer believe in life after death, we must prolong life as long as possible. The same science that brings us stem cell research, genetic manipulation and a sheep named Dolly also tells us that no energy is ever destroyed only transformed. And what is life if not energy? Only view a recently deceased person and you will immediately see the body is a mere inanimate shell. The animating presence, the energy, has left.
And what is that energy? Is it the individual essence that is you or me? Perhaps death is a mere blink of Brahma’s eye that triggers the star stuff inside and transports us to a new dimension. Is the God of Abraham and Krishna the same God that resides within Plank’s Constant and Schrodinger’s equation? If so, why is math so hard?
Heraclitus, a philosopher who lived 2,500 years ago and is best known for saying that the only constant is change, also said, “That which always was, and is, and will be everlasting fire, the same for all, the cosmos, made neither by god nor man, replenishes in measure as it burns away.” (translation by Brooks Haxton).
A fire that replenishes as it burns. No beginning, no end, no disappearance into a Great Abyss. Life is an ever-constant shape-shifting between thing and no thing in the cosmic furnace in which we are the fire and not the fuel.
It was this fire I felt when I read that the great Russian author, Anton Chekov, who, even as he was dying of tuberculosis, had a new home under construction. My heart responded to this victory of his spirit over the reality of matter. He was not denying the inevitability of death but asserting that death held no dominion over life. I applaud his spirit.
While on one level I may fear death I also admit to a certain curiosity when I contemplate the uncertainty of the journey that lay ahead, that plunge back into the great cosmic furnace that some have called the Sacred Heart.
ASIDE: 500 BC was an extraordinary era. Contemporaries of Heraclitus (535 to 457 BC) included Pythagoras, Buddha, Confucius and Lao Tse.