Every February we celebrate relationships of love. Relationship: the state of being connected. We have relationships with people. We also have relationships with things. Our cars. Our homes. Even ourselves. When doing dishes, I am in relationship with the water, the soap, the plates.
Ignore them, neglect them, and things fall apart.
I propose that there is one bottom-line key relationship that has been seriously neglected by most people. I propose furth that fixing this one relationship could help restore everything, the entire network of connections to lots of others.
You’re probably thinking I’m going to say the key relationship is with God. Nope. Not this time.
The key relationship I’m talking about? Death.
That’s right. Whether we think about or not, we all have a relationship with Death.
Think about all the beings you know. What living being–man, woman, child, dog, cat, tree, planet, solar system–is not going to die? Can we at least agree that Death is an inevitable fact that will happen to every person? And to every living thing?
While we may have varying beliefs about life AFTER death, this is only about Death itself. You and I, and everyone you see, everyone you know, will some day, face Death.
Death is real. Death walks with me and with you, every single day of our lives. Death is sitting, right now, there in the room with you, perched on your left shoulder. You were born with your Death. Your Death is always there, at arm’s length.
Yet the vast majority who walk the earth act as if that fact, that truth, is not true. That Death is never going to happen to them, to those they love, or to their children. Sigmund Freud observed that “at bottom, no one believes in his own death…. Every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.”
Because of our neglected relationship with Death, most of us are stuck within the first four stages of grief as identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. You may recall the stages, so well stated by Roy Scheider in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally, Acceptance.
What is your relationship with Death?
Are you in Denial? Do you just close your eyes, surround yourself with physical comforts and pleasure, and pretend it’s not there?
Are you in Anger, which is simply fear outwardly expressed: always running away, forever washing your hands, arming yourself to the hilt, erecting walls, building fortresses, protecting yourself?
Are you into Bargaining with Death? Do you see and live life through the lens of the cold, rational, scientific mind, trying to talk your way out of the relationship?
Or are you Depressed, which is simply fear turned inward: sad, forlorn, deflated, and with barely enough energy to get out of bed? Does the thought of Death tend to take you down into a pit of despair?
Most of the world is stuck in Denial and Anger. Think about the wars and the misery caused by Denial and Anger’s children: rivalry, nationalism, hoarding and fear. When we create the ideas of national borders, of possessions, of “resources,” of money, of material wealth, we are doing so out of Denial of Death. Think about the misery inflicted by cold calculating intellectual minds in the pursuit of knowledge, a form of Bargaining: If we breed the perfect human, if we build a bigger ship, if we can just crack the code of the human genome, maybe we can live forever. We think we can engineer our way out of the Truth that Death is a fact of Life.
So where are you in your relationship with that little guy sitting on your left shoulder? Do you even have a relationship with Death at all–or are you stuck in Denial, Anger, Bargaining or Depression? Instead of seeing Death as an enemy to be avoided at all costs, could you possibly entertain the idea that Death–mortality–is actually a precious gift for which to be thankful? That Death is actually a serious Ally? Ask anyone who has had a near-death experience: Death enhances the value of life. Death renews, motivates, and infuses energy into our every endeavor. Death brings us back to the powerful present moment. Death touches our hearts. Think about it.
What would your world be like if you let go of your fear, your denial, your sadness, moved into Acceptance of your own mortality, and then went beyond it — to Gratitude? What would the quality of your Life be like, if you had a positive relationship with Death? A loving relationship, even?
Steve Jobs did it. He embraced Death. Death was his greatest ally. It empowered him. It inspired him to live life to the absolute fullest in every moment. Even on his death bed, he was trying to improve the equipment in his hospital room, to make life better. Mahatma Gandhi did it. He faced down legions of armed soldiers, with Death as his ally, in order to bring about peace, to save lives, to make life better. And the man, Jesus Christ, whether you believe who he says he was or not–He went willingly to death, without fear, to demonstrate that you can’t kill God. He came not to conquer, but to make life better. As did mass numbers of His followers. (We Orthodox say, He conquered death by death, and set us all free. But that’s another story.)
Life is a gift, a precious gift! And Life is never more precious than when we cultivate our relationships with those we love. Right? Well, what if we recognized one major key relationship in our lives–our relationship with that little guy who came with the package, who’s sitting perched on our shoulder, who’s been there every day, since conception?
Let’s change our minds, change our paradigm about Death. Let’s take our hands away from our face, wipe away the tears, and look Death right in the eye. Let us see Death as a gift, an Ally, to empower us, to inspire us, to make Life incredibly richer.
Think about what would happen to our politics, our economy, our environment– if we were ALL to stop chasing the fantasy of immortality?
Truth bestows freedom. Nothing in Life is more true than Death. We can run, we can hide, we can crawl into a hole. But is that really the best way to live? Freedom from denial, anger, fear, bargaining and depression, here and now, in this world, is true freedom. Treating our own Death as a friend, may prove the most key relationship of all.