The Dilemma of Death (part 6 of a series)

“Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.” (Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, The Free Press, 1973, p.26)

I watch my dogs lying in the early afternoon sun. They are on their sides, utterly relaxed into the small variations in grade beneath them. A dandelion clump pressed against a ribcage does not seem to have the power over them that the corner of a misplaced pillow might have over me. Both of them are asleep within moments of lying down, utterly at ease in a safe place with their “pack” (myself, the other dog, and the cat who will occasionally make an appearance). They sleep as if they have been very busy all morning, like they’ve been running and running and are now exhausted. But they have not been especially busy at all. This is how they always rest- wholly and completely, without a single anxious thought about the future gnawing at their psyche. What looks like exhaustion to us is, in fact, perfect relaxation, complete wholeness between the dogs’ consciousness and physical bodies, without a single thought toward “splendid uniqueness.”

“The lower animals are, of course, spared this painful contradiction, as they lack a symbolic identity and the self consciousness that goes with it.” (ibid.) In other words, animals have no awareness of the one way journey through physical life which they, like everything else, are on. They give no regard to their own Death; they are not anxious about tomorrow. (Tomorrow? What is that anyway?) Obviously, on some level, carnivorous animals are aware that the physical death of their foodstuff is a desirable state. And it may well be that some animals- dolphins and elephants come to mind- may recognize a consciousness within themselves that is finite. But humans are the only ones who institutionalized the awareness of Death Impending. Humans are the only animals who allow “Death’s second self” (That’s Shakespeare for Sleep) to be interrupted, ever, by thoughts of Dying. Humans are the only ones who can become neurotic about the prevention of things which might be harmful enough to cause death, or who are able to be addicted to substances which alleviate- in always failing measure- their preoccupations with Death.

Every faith tradition has some dogmatic and/or doctrinal tenets that deal with the awareness of Death with which all humans live. All faith traditions acknowledge the pain- fallenness, insanity, suffering- that accompanies this awareness of Death, and the vital need for acceptance of both that awareness and of Death itself. In lieu of that acceptance, the adherents of some faiths are given the option, within their faith’s teachings, of looking beyond death, into eternity. (I’m not here in this series to judge the content of various end of life scenarios, only to acknowledge that do exist and perform vital functions in the whole lives of many persons and communities.

The commonality of our pain takes different specific forms but all of them have dirt in common. All of our lives, after Death, end up in some way, in the dirt. As ashes, or sealed within a metal vacuum which slows down but does not stop the process of decomposition, or laid directly onto the dirt which begins immediately to absorbs the liquids and fats of life, dirt is our bed, sometimes quickly, always eventually.

It is dirt over which we stand in “towering majesty.” It is dirt which contrasts so harshly with our names, our perceptions of our Selves, and the legacy we imagine ourselves leaving behind. It is dirt which covers our face to the world and finally blocks the world to our face.

Dirt is just..so damn final!

And that’s our dilemma. It is a dilemma for every human being on earth, too, and has been since the very first time human consciousness reached into an imagined future and put the 2+2 of life and death together. It added up to dirt then and adds up to dirt now, despite all kinds of conveyances, rituals, religions, and proposed alternative scenarios which have been placed in front that final “resting place.” (And note that phrase- “resting place.” It is one of many, many, many phrases and words used about Death which attempt to take a little bit of Death’s sting away.)

Elysian Fields await, beyond the River Styx, near the New Jerusalem, in the sweet by and by. We’ll visit some of those places and see what they might reveal about our fears, and our hopes.

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