Speaking about Death and the Elixir of Life
“When I read obituaries I always note the age of the deceased. Automatically I relate this figure to my own age. Four years to go, I think. Nine more years. Two years and I'm dead. The power of numbers is never more evident than when we use them to speculate on the time of our dying.”
― Don DeLillo, White Noise
Throughout my time as an instructor of humanities, I have asked my students to read books on death, discussed the topic of death and seek out stories on death in order to bring conversations to light that may never take place without this forum.Reading "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl changed my life in the 1990's etching clearly a view of life and death as seen through the eyes of a concentration camp survivor. Later, reading "The Death of Ivan Illych by Leo Tolstoy" grounded by knowledge of the fear of death and the way people view the "other" who goes through death, never believing it will be them one day.
Literature has a way of asking us to suspend our lives for a time and immerse ourselves in the lives and experiences of a character or a set of characters. In good literature there is a timeless quality and a universal appeal. It is this steadfast immersion that led me to become a teacher of World Literatures and the lessons they offer us without preaching. Good literature never preaches.
Because most of the writers I admire are long dead, I have been rather skeptical to read modern day or postmodern works feeling they lacked the qualities I look to in order to make meaning in story. Of late the writer Don Delillo was mentioned and so I picked up his work "White Noise" from which I quote at the beginning of this hub.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote several books on Death and Hospice and the process of dying. Her nonfiction work was also instrumental in creating in me the interest in what most people would rather avoid discussing: death. We all will die and we all will lose our beloved family and friends to death, which is guaranteed. We never know who will leave first, but we all must come to the same fate eventually. Why are we so fearful to look it in the eye and try to come to terms with its effect on us and its difficulty in discussing?
James Joyce writes beautifully in his novella "The Dead" about things that have long past and people who are long gone. He mentions lost love, memories and the chill of the west (death) and the covering of snow on top of the graves in a cemetery. Symbolism and imagery which have long confounded the inexperienced student cry out for understanding in poetry of war and loss, of slow agonizing painful death and violent and quick passings. There is never one type of leaving we are subject to dealing with in life. Dis-ease and murder, old age and youth, there is no grand gesture that can change the demise of one whose turn has come.
Viewing death as a transition to another place is a more pleasant belief system than one that another believes is a blackened ending. Even those who believe in a concept of heaven and hell damn the God who takes their loved ones away all too soon. The time one must take their leave comes at times in moments of great victory, as explained in the Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins movie "Meet Joe Black". Here the grim reaper comes in regular clothing to remind a businessman his time is nearly up, only to learn how people view the end of their lives from a jaded view.
What if we could look at death as the elixir of life? In the oldest recorded story "Gilgamesh" the 25,000 year old king has his experiences recorded on tablets that chronicle his journey of life and realization that death happens to everyone. He hunts for the elixir of life only to lose it while on his journey back from the "Hero's Journey" in the outside world. This elixir continues to be searched for in all of us from Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth to those of us willing to undergo surgical procedures to turn back the hands of time. We are all resistant to age and fade away from this life it would seem.
The Buddha's life was also one that was sequestered until he noticed people grew old, sick and died eventually. His search for enlightenment had a kind of lesson that also reminded him to be non-attached, as we all lose each other, nothing is permanent.
Death is not something to be feared and yet it is a number one fear in the lives of everyone. Why is it that we do not discuss our lives and our deaths with our loved ones and sometimes it comes too late and we leave before we have said all the things we should have said while alive? If life is an elixir then we must imbibe in it gently and with great foresight. By facing those things we fear the most, we truly live our lives while alive and know we have done all we can when the inevitable comes our way.
There is no death, there is just a changing of worlds. Chief Seattle.