Last night I couldn’t sleep. Have you ever had one of those nights when sleep rushes around you but never truly comes to you? As I was sprawled out across my small bed I placed my MP3 player next to my head and listened to whatever song was playing. The first song to play was called “The Angel of Death Came to David’s Room” and as I listened to the lyrics I found myself sifting through my thoughts to come to an understanding of death and impermanence. Funny how lack of sleep and meaningful words will do that to a person at 2 in the morning.
I don’t know how many of you know the story of King David in the Bible, but as I grew up in a church (My father was a pastor) I often heard the story in Sunday school or from the pulpit. David, who was a great leader, was definitely a major jerk sometimes. In the song (which I have posted at the end of the article, if anyone cares to listen to it) death comes to an aging King David and asks him to take his hand. David responds by giving multiple excuses as to why it isn’t his time to go: He still has more wisdom to give; he killed the mighty giant Goliath, and he never received a warning sign. Death says the same basic thing every time a scared David makes up excuses: Where is everyone gone that you know?
We know that everything withers and dies. It’s not a big surprise or a great unknown; it happens to every single thing in our universe. Just look outside right now- leaves are turning colors and they soon will fall to the ground and become part of the earth. I have lilac bushes that live on the right side of my house. Early every summer their pale purple petals reach out from their buds and welcome the sun. Their sweet scent fills my room and the outside of my house. They live happily for a few weeks only to suddenly turn brown and fall away. Nothing is forever, nothing lasts.
In Buddhism we are taught to embrace impermanence and to accept death. I am not sure if it makes me a bad Buddhist to hate impermanence but it does make me an honest one. I state that I am not afraid to die and that is mostly true; whatever happens after I shut my eyes for the last time is of little to no concern, but in the back of my mind I silently shudder at the idea of the end. I could quote multiple ideals spoken about death but in the end that’s all they are- ideals. We want to believe that everything lives on, that our love for people could somehow magically keeps them alive forever but one day we will be gazing down at their finally resting place. When we see them walk away, either in life or death, we are left staring harshly into the void wishing that it wasn’t so.
But it is so, and it always will be. I never met The Buddha, obviously, but when he spoke about embracing death and impermanence I doubt he did so in the hope that we would be impervious to the pain that accompanies it. I doubt he wanted to make perfect, unfeeling statues that looked indifferently at grief. We are humans; we feel anger, grief, joy and pain and this does not make us evil or bad. I think that he asked us to accept these things because they are unavoidable. Many things in life change but those will always remain firm. When we accept them we become more aware of the present. We cannot change what will happen but we can change how we decide to live in the moment. We cannot eradicate the grief we feel but we can create love and kindness right now. Accepting death and impermanence doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye but it does make the moments we spend together more important. The lilac bushes that bloom outside my window are a yearly treat for me and when they come I am always thankful, if they were in bloom all year round I doubt I would realize their beauty.
Impermanence also teaches us about ourselves. We spend our whole lives running around trying to do everything all at once. We spread ourselves thin and wear out our passions and happiness. What is worse than dying you may ask? Not living in the first place. When we meditate on death we are really meditating on ourselves and our actions. Do we keep walking around as if we are sleeping or do we wake from our slumber? Do we waltz around with meaningless desires or do we do the one thing that makes us feel alive? In the song David tried to make excuses why he shouldn’t leave; we should live so that when the time comes we are so content with the life we lived that we have no need for excuses.
I realized that night that death is probably the best teacher one could have. It teaches us love, kindness, generosity, caring, and joy. It says “Listen, you can live this moment in greed, hate or indifference, but the in the end that person will be gone, do you really want to spend your time feeling anger towards them?” It reminds us of itself so that we see people and issues in a different light. I wonder, if death was not a reality would we be so pressed to be kind to one another? I hope when death comes and asks me to take its hand that I will shake it firmly and thank it for all of the lessons I have learned.