Our theme for early autumn is “Finding Meaning”. Next week, we begin our late autumn theme of “Death and Life”. Today, these themes merge in D.T. Strain’s essay, “Even naturalists don’t stay in the grave.”
This essay was first published at The Humanist Contemplative.
Do not stand at my grave and weep
In 1932, a young Jewish girl (Margaret Schwarzkopf) staying with a florist (Mary Frye) was unable to return to Germany to visit her dying mother because of rising anti-Semitism, and, after Margaret’s mother died, she expressed to Mary regret that she never had a chance to shed a tear by her mother’s grave. Mary was moved to write a poem to Margaret about her thoughts on death, which has come to be known as Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep. This is the background of the popular poem, as confirmed by the research of Dear Abby columnist Abigail Van Buren, reported in The London Times, and which I first learned of through Wikipedia. The full verse of the poem is as follows:
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush.
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
Recently, thanks to a post by Pamela Daw on Facebook, I saw a most remarkable musical rendition of the poem by Conor O’Brien of the Irish band Villagers. While other musical versions exist, I think this is my favorite:
Who is “me”?
I have no knowledge of Frye’s beliefs, but from the perspective of a Spiritual Naturalist, Frye’s poem hits home in several ways. The second line reads, “I am not there” which brings up the matter of what we mean when we say “I” or “me”. Naturalists recognize that a person is distinct from merely the atoms that compose the body. Once death has come, there is clearly “something missing”. But since naturalists have no beliefs in a supernatural soul, what is it that’s missing?
Like the Buddhist concept of no-self, naturalists recognize that a person is a composite of many different aggregates, traits, qualities, and functions. There is no single, simple, thing one can point to and say, “that is me”. The person — that thinking being which experiences, has memories, makes choices, and who we come to know and love — is a complex system of activity that takes place in a functioning brain, and grows over a lifetime of experiences. It is a careful balance of chaos and order of the sort complex systems theorists study (see also, The Big Deal About Complexity). When the balance is disrupted and the pattern is disturbed to the point where normal function is impossible, that system ceases to be and the person we know dissolves. So, they are truly not in the grave, but does that mean they are nowhere?
The following lines 3 through 10 of the poem are spent comparing the person to a number of different things in nature: the wind, reflections, sunlight, rain, the flight of birds, and the stars. These are not merely random comparisons to “things we like” because they sound pretty. Nor are they the kind of talk about death one would hear from the traditional religious viewpoint of souls and the afterlife. There is a very careful perspective being expressed here — one that is deeply profound and which can be found in some of the most sophisticated philosophies throughout human history. I do not know precisely what that florist with no formal education in 1932 knew of such things, but the Times described her as an avid reader with a remarkable memory. Is it possible she had been influenced by several philosophies? That is certainly possible and it is also possible that Mary Frye was perceptive enough on her own to pick up on some important truths about her world, just as many early thinkers did.
“I am the swift uplifting rush”
On the most basic level, the comparisons of the person with nature work as metaphor because, when we view the beautiful things around us, we are reminded of the beautiful qualities of the person we knew and the times we had with them.
“I am the soft stars that shine at night”
Another angle would be, as Carl Sagan eloquently pointed out, we are made of “star stuff” and all of our particles were at one time a part of the cosmos, and return to that awe-inspiring mix.
“Of quiet birds in circled flight”
But even more profoundly, there is a recognition that the intricate maelstrom of relationships that make a person possible, are based on the same universal principles that make possible all of the universe. I mentioned complex systems theory before, and it is apropos that one important series of studies in complexity theory has been on the movement of birds in flock behavior. It is a study of how higher orders of complexity and coordinated operations arise spontaneously from simpler interacting components. These are the very principles that underlay not only bird flocks, but hurricanes, galaxy formations, living organisms, societies, and persons themselves. That means, when I breathe in and out, that motion of air is happening for the same ultimate reason the wind moves through the trees, or the waves of the ocean crash upon the shore. So, comparisons of those found in Frye’s poem are more than mere analogy or metaphor.
The Divine Flux
These are the aspects of nature that caught the eye of early Taoist thinkers. They lend themselves to the Stoic notion of the Divine Fire – that tumultuous flux and inherent creative force out of which all things rise. The Stoics knew that to live in accordance with Nature meant, among many things, to understand deeply that those things which bring death are the very same things that make life and all the things from which we benefit possible. This is the Logos — the pervasive underlying rational order on which the universe is based, and which can be found in persons as well. Like complexity theorists today, Heraclitus knew we could not step twice in the same river because it is in a constant state of replacement, and the Buddhists teach us to lie in that river and, instead of grasping at every attachment that passes our way, experience the bliss of the moment as it flows by us, always letting go and ready for what lies ahead.
And, if persons are patterns, then patterns repeat, and in more ways than merely the meme. Through their actions and interactions in life (what Buddhists call karma) people are like the Chaos Theory thought experiment of the butterfly that can affect the course of a hurricane. Our loved ones create causes and effects which ripple outward in uncountable and unimaginable ways that cannot be contained. Just one of those ways is in their impressions upon us, which recreate similar patterns in our minds through communication and our deep knowledge of them. Thus, if naturalists remain consistent in their definition of the essence and end of personhood within a complex causal world, then it is true our loved ones are not in the grave. We, quite literally, carry a part of them within us, and so on to others. If that is so then, as Mary Frye says, in many important ways they did not die.
DT Strain is a Humanist Minister, certified by the American Humanist Association (AHA) and a Spiritual Naturalist. A writer for the Houston Chronicle, and other sites, Rev. Strain speaks and writes on a wide variety of philosophic concepts and participates in several organizations. He is an enthusiast of Stoicism, Buddhism, and other ancient philosophies; seeking to supplement modern scientific and humanistic values with these practices. As such, he often attends the Jade Buddha Temple, writes on Stoicism, and organizes the Humanist Contemplatives Houston Meetup group.
Strain is former president of the Humanists of Houston (HOH), and has served as vice-chair on the Executive Council of AHA’s Chapter Assembly, on the Education Committee of the Kochhar Humanist Education Center, and as a member of the Stoic Council at New Stoa.
His writings have appeared in magazines, newsletters, and in the AHA national publication “Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism”. He has been a guest speaker on the Philosophy of Religion panel discussion at San Jacinto College. Rev. Strain has also appeared as a panelist on the Houston PBS television program, The Connection, discussing religious belief and non-belief.
DT Strain is the founder of The Spiritual Naturalist Society, a new organization that cuts across traditional lines, and bring together naturalistic Humanists, Buddhists, Pagans, Jews, Taoists, and more. It’s purpose is to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism, and provide a place for education and fellowship for spiritual naturalists.
This Wednesday, we conclude our early autumn theme of “Finding Meaning” with Debra Doggett: “As seen from the sky”.
The theme for late autumn here at HP is “Death and Life”. Send your writing and art to humanisticpaganism [at] gmail.com by November 6, 2013.