About Death, II


My last blog ended by comparing our lives to a song, and with the reflection: But if we live with awareness and gratitude, compassion and love, we will face the end of the song with grace, knowing that the composer and performer is not us, but forces vastly larger, more creative, and (almost) infinitely more enduring.
I’ve been asked to expand on this thought. What are these ‘forces’? How are they larger and more creative and enduring?
We can start small. Walking my dog this morning through narrow, hilly neighborhood streets, I heard the brilliant “pyou pyou” of a cardinal standing on a tree limb about twenty feet over my head. The bird was only about seven inches long, probably weighed less than two ounces, with a small pointed beak surrounded by quarter inch of black, a tuft of feathers for a pointed crown, and a shockingly red breast and wings. “How does it do that,” I thought, “this tiny thing making a noise that can be heard for blocks? A call louder than the loudest whistle you ever heard from that friend in high school who could put two fingers in his mouth and bring forth a shriek that made people cover their ears and would stop cabs in the street.”
After wishing the bird good luck in making a nest and finding a mate, I kept turning it over in my mind: “How does he do that?” I really didn’t want the evolutionary history of bird sounds, or a structural account of his beak, throat and lungs. I was way beyond science here, and into the sheer wonder of it.
By analogy: Sometimes we look at the world’s horrors (the Holocaust, slavery, sexual trafficking, Hiroshima, Dresden, current levels of starvation) and, despite all our sophisticated political explanations, still feel that we cannot understand how such things can be. Similarly, in moments of grace, we can feel the same lack of understanding, only this time with joy and boundless gratitude rather than despair.
How does the cardinal make that sound? Because the universe has been working for fourteen billion years to create just that bird at that time on that branch on that street. And it has also been working to create me – the person who can delight in the sound and marvel at the universe that made it possible.
Neither the bird nor I will be here – cosmically speaking – for very long. Death is just around the corner (how big the corner is I cannot say) for both of us. Is this a great tragedy? A loss to be hated and feared?
Not for me, at least not today. Today I realize that condemning any reality always presupposes an alternative. “Death is horrible?” “Compared to what?”
Rather, I take comfort in having been here at all. That the universe came into existence, and that the combined forces of particles, atoms, gravity, the strong force and the weak force, molecules, cells, DNA, evolution, weather patterns and the like have enabled me to exist.
These are the forces so much more powerful, creative and long-lived than my own little self. These are the forces to which I feel compelled and privileged to bow in gratitude.
That it ever was, and that I got to be a part of it. And that along with the natural/physical forces there have been millions of human beings in their own quiet or noisy ways inventing language, science, culture, art, religion, human rights, equality, poetry, chocolate cake and peanut butter.
Could my life have been easier? You bet, but it also could have been much harder. Have I suffered? Give me a few hours and I’ll tell you some details that would make your hair stand on end. But at least I got to be here, to love and be loved, listen to Beethoven and Bach, see Mount Everest, caress my wife’s face, and hold my daughter when she was born. Did I make all that happen? Maybe one-tenth of one-tenth of one-tenth of one-tenth… (you get the idea) of it. The rest was the product of all those other forces: impersonal laws of nature, wonderful chance evolutionary developments, the creative capacity of humans and animals and plants, and the support of air, earth, water, and fire.
And they all brought me to the cardinal this morning. Scared of death? Sure I am, I’m no hero and I’ll probably fight against the dying of the light like anyone else.
But ultimately, if I have an ultimately, I’m just damn glad I got to be here. And damn grateful to everyone (and I mean that in absolutely the widest sense) who made it possible.
Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and author/editor of seventeen books on ethics, political philosophy, environmentalism, and spirituality. His newest book is: Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters. Here is an excerpt.

0 thoughts on “About Death, II

  1. I love these two posts of yours, Roger. I too find great existential comfort in these kinds of thoughts. It has helped me a great deal to read some science about “the combined forces of particles, atoms, gravity, the strong force and the weak force, molecules, cells, DNA, evolution, weather patterns and the like.” I was pretty stunned to learn that it was exploding stars that created the heavier elements of which our planet and bodies are made. Maybe somewhat bizarrely, the sheer violence involved in such processes has been comforting to me: it doesn’t mean I accept the horrors in human life, but I long ago gave up asking “why, God, why?” This is how it is, we were born from unimaginable violence as well as from an exquisitely creative dance: in fact those opposites are one. And one of the miraculous results is that we have been given the kinds of minds, bodies and consciousness that afford us some degree of awareness and choice, some ability to make things worse or better for each other and for that cardinal on the tree. My own death is just a necessary and positive part of the process. Lovely! Ghastly! Lovely!
    It also pleases me greatly to imagine that my own atoms will be recycled into everything around the place I get buried or my ashes scattered. Just as there are remnants of stars in us, your cardinal’s tissues may well include atoms that were in the people who once lived in your part of the world. I’d much rather be part of a cardinal one day, part of the soil and clouds and beetles, than imagine some endless virtual existence as a heavenly spirit. Of course, if the latter happens, as the people who raised me believed, then I will just have to go with it! But my atoms may still show up in a cardinal for a span, and that’s the thought that gives me pleasure now.

  2. The question that can’t be answered is, “Why is there existence at all when there being nothing would lead to no questions?” The thing to appreciate is so well expressed by Gottlieb that I think it cannot be done better. Thank you sir!

  3. This article, as poignant and as relevant as it is, is a perfect example of why religious conservatism will always be with us. There is nothing in the religious naturalist view that can compare with infinite being, infinite awareness, and infinite bliss- the end point of the human journey for most of the world’s religions. Despite the human unanimity up to the modern era that death is a transition rather than an annihilation, despite similar evidence from “para”psychology (so called because it is exiled from materialist psychology), and despite the human longing for the universe to have a heart, a center, that is immune from the ravages of change, yet supports and sustains the ground of becoming and it’s beauty recounted here, and the experience of this transtemporal center in mystical experience, we are forced to choose, once again, between immanence and transcendence. We CAN have both- there can be a cosmic redemption that includes listening to bluebirds as well as even greater cosmic healing, reconciliation, and transformation of the magnitude that makes evil seem comic by the immensity of its grandeur. No amount of birdsong can justify or atone for the holocaust, as one example- but the sacred marriage of heaven and earth the way the eyes of our hearts envision when they are not shut tight by fear, just might.

  4. I should mention in passing I have nothing against the bird people- they have their own spiritual tasks to do, and I have a standing request with God for my next life should I have one to be a healthy bird, as I have been very constrained in my body this go around, that and I have lived in my thoughts far too much for my own good- the physicality would be a wonderful change of pace.
    Yes, birds are spiritual beings. Spiritual- meaning the nonphysical aspects of creation, that are intertwined with the already deeply spiritual energy of matter, these non physical, spiritual force(s) that act as the telos/driving force of the whole process of creation, which the human brain participates in, but does not originate- only physical forces were recounted in the article as being responsible for our qualitative experience of creation, when of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Spirit goes all the way down. Why does this matter? Because I choose not to relate to the world as an alien invader, either from the secularist, fundamentalist, or religious naturalist vantage point. Spirit is not some kind of braingasm that one primate species has in an otherwise wholly physical world devoid of any intrinsic meaning, value, purpose, depth, or… in the older and better idiom- SOUL.
    The ecological crisis of our own creation will not be met without a recognition of this fullness of who we are ontologically, as we will not be able to summon the spiritual resources from the sacred depths of our being in the spiritually shizophrenic state we are being asked to live in.

  5. (from the original article on death).
    See my response on this line of thinking in your death pt 2, brother. I will note here that saying we should not turn to God for comfort really implies that we live in an alien, hostile, universe whether we admit it or not, that is less than what we are, rather than contiguous and coterminal with us, and on a colision course with More of Beloved. Note that almost none of the enduringly relevant mystics speak of the afterlife as an endless continuation of a subjective ego like ours in our present experience- however, and here I agree with them having tasted it myself- death for the “individual” is…. not a downgrade of consciousness.
    Imaging the It Gets Better campaign on a metacosmic scale, where these kind of rationalistic compensations for the purported annihilation of our consciousness, and the usual, accompanying offerings of an aversion to existential security, a distaste for a hypothetical endless harp-strumming otherworldly engagement, and the sweetened sour apple of the rejoicing that the atoms- all that’s left supposedly- careening about endlessly with other, future beings who will likewise share the same downgraded fate- These sort of opinings cease to have any relevance in the overwhelming majesty of What Is, a What Is that our sacred universe participates in, and is growing more deeply into, with our celebratory cooperation.

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