I think about death daily. It might be morbid, but meditating on the grandest mystery of our existence gives me a certain kind of comfort that you can’t get from anywhere else.
Our modern American culture has no time for pondering or praying. No time for meditation. No time to imagine. There is no time for the mystical when we’re trapped on an egotistical carousel of capital accumulation and exploitation. We have been conditioned to spend our lives in service to our senses, entertaining ourselves with an excess of foods to eat, alcohol to drink, drugs to use, clothes to wear and media to mindlessly indulge in. And if we’re not doing that, we’re wearily working ourselves, interminably in pursuit of a comfortable career to uphold these luxurious lifestyles. What this way of living doesn’t entail is an engagement beyond what can only be perceived with our five senses or understood by an interim intellect. We all know these subjective, short-lived sources of pleasure that we pride and provide ourselves with are always transient sources of gratification, yet we fill our days and nights chasing them, woefully missing out on the bliss that comes from connecting to the divine, the eternal absolute, which lasts forever.
A friend of mine once said that our relationship to death informs our relationship to all endings in life. Or, as American author Steve Bouma-Prediger puts it, our “eschatology shapes (our) ethics.” Our attitude toward the ending of a day, a season, a year, an era, a class, a club, a project, a semester, a friendship, a romance, a piece of art, everything in our lives is a direct reflection of our attitude toward the end of our life — and what lies beyond.
If we have an apathetic relationship to the after-life, an anxious or adverse one, it will show in the way we react to the diverse deaths of our present life. Today’s secularized culture, maintaining its material devotion, is largely devoid of constructing dialogues and conversations on the afterlife outside of the damning indictments of institutionalized religion in (church) service to capital, white supremacy and patriarchy.
But as a working-class bisexual Black male in the settler-colonial state of America, I live my life in close proximity to death constantly, knowing any small misstep, misfortune or misunderstanding could very much send me beyond the veil at any moment. Eyes on demise, my interest in the after-life doesn’t come from any mere intellectual pursuit but an incarnate imperative of soul to move past the traumas endured in my bodily existence towards salvation, deliverance and oneness.
It is our collective spiritual deficiency that keeps discussion about life after death out of bounds, preventing us from pondering our cosmological truth and eschatological fate in constructive and communal ways. Our pathological pursuit (imposed by bourgeois ideology) of instant gratification, briskly bathetic endings and rushed beginnings ultimately leads us to an overall superficial experience of the world.
In order to appreciate endings and the end in their entirety, we must first recognize their undying entanglement with beginnings, connecting back to the cycle of death and rebirth. Similarly, as Jungian psychotherapist Thomas Moore maintains, “beginning and endings enfold into another in a mysterious way and can only be appreciated with a sensitivity to the sacred dimension of ordinary life.”
With the many “ends” in the month, there’s death to be found in every December. The fifteen-week-long semester finishes up. Fall is on its way out. And shortly after that, the whole year comes crashing to a halt. These ends are just as easily beginnings with a new semester, the start of winter and the new year coming just as quickly. When we consider the major endings and beginnings of December and January in tandem, adding in the ambiance of the holiday season, it becomes clear that these times in particular can be imbued with a special kind of vibrant energy. The holidays can very much feel like holy days as we reflect on all that is cyclical.
Early prehistoric peoples in the Neolithic Era saw the winter solstice in the dead of the winter, as a “return of the light,” a signal of life after death. Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau stated in “Walden” that “the day is an epitome of a year. The night is winter, the morning and evening are the spring and fall, and the noon is the summer.” Thus, within the robust exuberance of the rising sun each morning, we receive a solemn reminder of the cyclical nature of all things in the rhythm of death and life.
We see these natural cycles in the elements, in plants, in animals, yet due to our endemic nature-deficit disorder, we have a hard time identifying it in ourselves. Instead, we feel the end nearing and a hazy cloud of uncertainty hovers over us, covering our soul with an aerosol of anticipation as conclusion approaches.
We spend much of our lifetime running through the recesses of our mind in psychic play, meandering the distant day(s) ahead, imagining the ins-and-outcomes and struggling to come to terms with our future fate. For those of us who feel death as final, the prospect of ending a school year, a relationship or a work of art can fill us with dread. We believe that once it is done — it is done. Over and out. Never to be revisited again.
I felt this kind of dread throughout the semester when I ended my 2.5-year tenure in a theatre arts program to begin a teacher education program. After long-enduring the intense pressure to decide between the two paths — to create or educate — making a firm and final decision felt like delivering a painful death to an enormous aspect of my existence and personhood. There was a plethora of pain in picking — the pain of what has been (de)parted from in the past and the pain of forgoing any potentiality for the future. But soon, following alongside that pain was a blossoming — a breathing in of new life to another aspect of my being. Although my formal instruction in theatre has died, my passion for theatrical performance, the stage and the dramatic will continue to be re-born, re-emerging in other venues of my life.
After-life apathy might also make us prolong the endings in our life, prohibiting ourselves from embarking on a better beginning. When we don’t care about or give up trying to make an end matter, we stop ourselves from having a substantive start to anything new. These evanescent endings, after lingering in the liminal for so long, often occur subtly and subconsciously. Hobbies go hollow. Once precious pastimes become just that. Friendships fade off, slowly shriveling away. Once close relationships roll to a slow stop. Loves lose their lustrousness. These ends arrive without us realizing and when we do realize, we simply no longer care or feel unable to act, respond or mend what has been lost.
Yet, as Moore states, “there is something in every relationship that is eternal, that goes on forever, that wants to be exempted from the life decision to cut ties.”
We may try to raise a relationship that’s passed from the dead with varying levels of success. Sometimes, it revives and thrives. We may return to our former flames and lost loves with an ecstasy so ethereal it feels like we’re in paradise. There’s a euphoric bliss in being back to what we have so dearly missed, especially if it (im)proves itself to be worthy once more. Yet other times, our resurrection efforts evade us, dragging us to the depths of the nether regions. In trying to find closure for what’s (de)ceased we may wander like ghosts, aimlessly unfulfilled. Moore maintains that “it takes courage to read signals of fate asking for change, accept bitter truths, revealed slowly and painfully.”
During these farewells and dry spells, we may literally go through hell. In Japanese author Hiroshi Obayashi’s “Death and Afterlife,” he posits that the Christian notion of hell as depicted in the Bible is not necessarily a physical location but metaphorical allusion to our exclusion from God’s grace. In this vein, hell only exists in our current reality when we embrace sin and accept suffering for ourselves and others. Hindu and Buddhist cosmologies put forth the idea of a temporal hell (within and below this plane) in which a soul may enter into as a result of karma. Meanwhile, Islamic ideas of hell vary between sects and schools of thought. While some view it as eternal, others, such as the Hanafi school’s jurist Abū Jaʿfar Aḥmad aṭ-Ṭaḥāwī, posit that duration of hell is commensurate with an individual’s sins.
Evidently, various conceptions of hell reign supreme throughout all religions and while it may be a daunting notion to hold in our heads, it’s an important one, since it speaks truth to the fundamental condition of conscious existence — rife with consequences and repercussions for our actions — the ultimate price of free will. In nearly all major religions, hell is a realm that does indeed contain damnation, but we can also find accountability and atonement, reconciliation and restoration being depicted within it as well. Fully autonomous and mobile attitudes of after-life apathy, on the highway to hell, lack accountability, give little thought to the result and encourage us to be careless in our every-day enterprises, all the while pursuing a malicious means to an (illusory) end.
On a lighter note, at the other end of the spectrum, we can find Heaven in the here and now and beyond. In Hinduism and Buddhism, within Samsāra, there are a multitude of temporal blissful Heavens into which souls may be reincarnated on their path towards Moksha or Nirvana (liberation from the cycle). Sikhism does not espouse a heaven (or hell), referring to them in a metaphorical sense, but does place value on the karmic retribution of life and death on the path towards a similar liberation. On the contrary, Obayashi ascribes the Christian realm as perfection. He states that it is “an intellectual ‘seeing, unmediated perception, or even ‘knowing’ of God immediately.”
These after-lives all invoke unfathomable spheres of serenity, joy, reunification, bliss and liberation beyond what we have the capacity to comprehend. Yet we can experience a small taste of their timelessness when we strengthen our spiritual practice through meditation and prayer, connecting with nature, artistic creation and love. These after-life affirming activities allow us to transcend, enabling us to access holy ways of knowing, living and existing. In our devotion to the divine, we receive this kind of knowledge and, in doing so, gain a better understanding of the intricate endings and beginnings of our lives.
Obayashi states that it is “through meaning the finite material of the human being is bound to the eternal through creation of meaning, a finite life can transcend it’s limitations.” To him, this meaning transcends all spatio-temporal boundaries and is found in our participation in the ultimate Goodness. Once we begin to live trusting that “all things are working for our good” — that our fleeting form of today is not final but only an ephemeral excerpt of our everlasting existence — that our death will be a death of deliverance and freedom ushering us towards liberation, eternal bliss and oneness — then, and only then, can we learn to love and look forward to the end. After all, in the end is just the start.
MiC Columnist Karis Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.