Wednesday, April 21, 2021

On death


Screen grab from the Alan Watts lecture mentioned below

My partner Crystal's sister, Linda, died after a sudden illness on Monday night. I lost a good friend, Charlie, on March 13. I just learned about a high school classmate dying. Death is a constant companion these days. It comes with the territory of growing old. Death is on my mind, and I was thinking about Jack Kerouac's obsession with death and his statement in Visions of Cody, "I'm writing this book because we're all going to die (1993, Penguin Books, p. 368). Writing about death seems like the thing to do right now, so here goes.

My thoughts on death have changed over the past few years. It seems like I once dreaded it, and now it’s not that big of a deal. I see it as part of the way things are: we’re born, we live, we die. It’s the great equalizer. The rich die, the poor, the powerful. No one escapes it.

I do have some fear about the manner of my death. That is, I would prefer to avoid a painful death, and I would prefer to avoid a slow, agonizing one, especially if quality of life were poor. But that is about dying, not death itself. Finally, I would like death to come in due time, not prematurely. I don’t really know what I mean by prematurely. I’ve noticed that old age is always 15-20 years older than I currently am. Sixty-five used to seem old to me, but not any more.

On a practical note, it’s good to think about death from both a metaphysical (as we are doing here) and a practical perspective. That is, make your death easy on those left behind. Have your affairs in order and make sure those left behind have a clear idea of your wishes, where to find important information (bank account numbers, passwords, etc.). Having a legally executed will is very important. Now, back to the metaphysical.

Alan Watts poses the question: What would it be like to go to sleep and never wake up? If you ponder that deeply, it is a comforting question because we’re not afraid of sleep (well, most of us at least). He goes on to ask: What would it be like to wake up after never having gone to sleep? That is what happens when we are born. It’s another worthwhile question to frame our notions of death. Whatever we are – our essence – arises from emptiness and returns there. And it’s not a problem for us unless we make it one.

One thought about death that I want to convey is captured in the country song about living like you were dying. What would you do, how would you live if you knew you had one day left or one week or one month or one year? Using that as a guide, you are less likely to arrive at death’s door with a bunch of regrets. I’ve always said we regret more what we don’t do (missed opportunities) than what we do (behaviors we’re not proud of). The lesson here is to focus on living. Hunter S. Thompson is credited with saying:
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!”
Finally, as Alan Watts points out in his lecture on music and life, the point is to experience life as a musical thing and remember to dance all along the way versus thinking of it as a race to some finish line in the future. There is no future. There is only now. Be present and make the best of each moment.

Let death take care of itself.

And rest in peace, Linda, Charlie, Greg, and too many others. Too. Many. Others.


robin andrea said...

I am so sorry for the losses you and your partner have experienced. It really is so important to think about death and how we hold it in our hearts, knowing it is the ultimate outcome of our future. Having watched dearly loved ones die over the years, I am learning the meaning of letting go.
It surprised me in such a good way to see your references to Alan Watts. I started reading him in the early 1970s after I somehow found Ram Dass's Be Here Now. The ambiance of that time was so profoundly different from the times we are living in now.
I did a post on the blog about my one brief funny encounter with Alan Watts. If you want a laugh, read this:
My deepest sympathy to you and your partner.

Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

Thanks, Robin. I love Watts. I just read Be Here Now last year! Great stuff. And today in Facebook I see another high school classmate has died. And so it goes....