Today we continue our late autumn theme of “Death and Life” with a new contributor, Genevieve Wood. Our next theme for early winter will be “Beginnings”. Send your writing and art to humanisticpaganism [at sign] gmail.com by December 21, 2013.
To look life in the face.
Always to look life in the face
And to know it for what it is.
At last to know it.
To love it for what it is,
And then, to put it away.
— The Hours (film)
We are born to die
We are born, only to die, only to cease to exist as we are. Knowledge of that ending, of a time to come without us, is terrifying to many people. So we search for immortality, guarantees, anything to predict what will come when, and how to plan for or against it. But our daily life offers no guarantees, no promises of the future except that it will come. Promises of the future can only come from faith.
How we handle the knowledge of mortality defines us in many ways. We spend our lives striving for immortality, hoping for survival against all reality. Yet in truth many of us desire certainty even more than immortality, desire to know the date and time of our death, and to know how it will happen and how to pass painlessly and with grace. Such knowledge cannot exist, of course, because even if we knew our own body’s original time limit, we constantly do things to change that and shorten and lengthen our timeframe.
This uncertainty and brevity of life, far from the apparent curse people see it as, is actually a great blessing in disguise. Only because we do not know the time of our death can we risk it, always in the hopes that it won’t be this time, won’t be us. We strive and struggle against the unknown, to learn, and grow, and become better than we were. This drive for immortality, not in the body, but in the minds of others, drives both the best and the worst of human behavior. We seek the immortality of opinion, of remembrance, and that seeking can guide us in many directions of life.
The Divine lives and dies in us
We exist, and strive, for a reason. As part of the Divine, we are separately-willed individuals that work to improve ourselves and the Universe around us when we are at our best. These drives to strive, to grow, to change and improve ourselves and others, push us only because we have a time limit, because we cannot put these desires off indefinitely, but must work at them from a young age if we hope to achieve them.
All words, however, are cold comfort when faced with mortality and the mortality of our loved ones. The Divine can seem cold and uncaring compared to personal pain and hardship. Yet, the Divine suffers, as we do, with each death, and rejoices with us in each life. Our Flame is that of the Divine, never lost or forgotten, even when we leave our bodies and cease to be separate, and are again one with the Universe.
The loss of ourselves, of our individuality, is scary to many people. We value our identities, our separateness from each other, even as we bemoan it. Anything that threatens our separateness, our knowledge of self, is a potential threat even as it is a potential gift. And so we fear death, knowing that we will no longer be ourselves when we do not wear our bodies, and fearing what we might be without them. We try to find ways to save our individuality even beyond death, beyond all knowledge into the realm of hope and faith.
But the Universe does not conform to our will and desires, much as we wish it did. Our lives end, but we are never forgotten or lost, but instead returned to the greater Universe.
Questions: What do you do in response to the fear of death? Does it help? Hurt? What blessing has mortality brought to your life? How can you live without certainty? Would life be better if we knew of how we would die?
Genevieve Wood is the founder of FlameKeeping, a pantheistic philosophy of life. In her day life she is a stay at home mother and a knitter. FlameKeeping was founded due to a lack of philosophical structures in pagan religions. The idea of FlameKeeping is that everyone and everything is part of the Divine Universe. We need to work together to improve that divine, building and co-creating the universe through our lives. We are not passive participants, we are active shapers in the future and must live as such. More information can be found at www.flamekeeping.org and in her book Kindling Our Stars, available at Lulu.com and Amazon.com.
This Wednesday, we will hear from our another of our columnists, Jon Cleland Host, Starstuff, Contemplating: “Evolutionary Parenting”. Don’t miss it!
Powerful post in its simplicity and questions. I would love to share this post on my blogs– Can someone tell me the name of the artist who created the piece featured in this post please? Blessings!
Wanted to publicly thank Humanistic Paganism for following up personally with information on the image and updating the post with the proper attribution. Love this blog and the work you are doing! 🙂
Thank you for sending the inquiry to the publisher. 🙂
I attended a Jehova Witness funeral the other day and the speaker told the story of Adam and Eve. In his telling of the story death was a punishment for eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. It was a stark contrast to many versions of the beginning of death in Indo European myth in which the gods see that the world is mired in stability and one god volunteers to be sacrificed and bring death to the world. The world is then made from his body and he becomes the king of the underworld and the souls of the dead join him there. In one death is a negative, to be denied and this life just a punishment before a better one. In the other death is an integral part of the working of the world and something we are gifted with.
Yes, I definitely find the latter myth more healthy.
Thoughts of death and dying often fill me with a sense of horror, even after many years of revisiting these thoughts on an almost daily basis. I have found some solace in the realization that in some sense I don’t really exist as an individual. In my death, the illusion of my separateness will cease. I do believe consciousness of my mortality has driven me to live more fully and more courageously than I might have otherwise.
I can’t explain why, but I don’t fear death. I see it as part of the eternal cycle. Inevitable. I cared for my parents through their last illnesses, simultaneously, and watched as they made peace with what was to come. I hope that I am able to let go with the kind of grace I saw them exhibit.
Thanks Meg. Comments like yours really put things in perspective for me. I have to acknowledge how little actual experience of death and dying I’ve had in my life. It’s all very abstract for me. Some would count that as good fortune, but I have to wonder. What a blessing to witness a “good death.” May we all find that grace and peace when our time comes.