February 16, 2011

I Am Going to Die.

(…and so are you.)

About a year ago I had what now appears to have been a migraine aura—a strange visual disturbance that made it seem as though someone had smeared living, squirming Vaseline all around the periphery of my visual field, while shimmering zig-zag lines occasionally floated into view.  I also felt a little dizzy and shaky. And while none of these symptoms may seem particularly alarming, I had never had a migraine before (that I knew of) and didn’t know what an aura looked like—neither did I know that they are more common in men than in women, or that they tend to occur “later in life.”

Click to see what a migraine aura looks like.

Now, in spite of carrying some extra weight, I am in pretty good health; my blood pressure was 116/63 last time I had it checked, and my resting pulse 64. But when a doctor who happened to be nearby began asking me questions about funny smells or tastes, numbness and tingling—questions that made it clear that he suspected a stroke—I began to panic a little, becoming so pale and alarming that my friends called my wife to leave work and take me home.

Of course, I felt ridiculous on the surface—I was, after all, just fine—but deeper down I knew I had something very important to learn from the incident:

I am not reconciled to the inevitability of old age, sickness and death.

I heard Bhagavan Das tell a story about a sea turtle in the depths of the ocean who comes up and, as if by chance, puts its head through a small wooden ring floating on the surface.  The probability of this happening, he said, is the same as the probability of a human birth.  So a human birth is an immeasurably precious thing, and there are both a staggering opportunity and an immense responsibility bound up with this earthly life.  Consider Jesus’ famous Parable of the Talents:

(The Kingdom of Heaven) will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey…

After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents (said)…’Master,’ you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’  His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘… I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant!…Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.’[i]

The servants’ situation is the one in which we all find ourselves.  When we come to give an account of our lives, what return will we be able to make on the talents with which we have been invested?

I took my children to a maple sugaring festival along with a friend of theirs from school.  Run by the city, the festival is an impoverished affair without any music, so as I often do I brought along my concertina.  As I sat on a bench and played some traditional American tunes, a few curious children and their parents stopped to listen.  Off to one side, I heard a mom drawing her little girl’s attention to what I was doing.  “Look at that, honey—do you know what that is?” she asked.

“An old man?” the little girl replied.


Now, any normal forty-five-year-old person might think this funny, in a cute, Art Linkletter sort of way.  But it bothered me. A lot. And it still does. When I heard the words “old man,” the one that came to mind was the one Walt Whitman wrote of, “who has lived without purpose, and feels it with bitterness worse than gall.”

I have two fantastic children and a wonderful wife who puts up with my mishegoss; I am still making music and doing my best to alleviate the suffering of my fellow creatures. But in spite of everything I have always thought I believed, I still struggle to find peace with the fact that I am probably more than halfway through my life without anything to show that I am, in any worldly sense, a “success.”  I haven’t set the world on fire! I haven’t “made a difference!”  If I were George Bailey, I’d have gone to jail!

Insufferable, I know.  And yes, I am mentally ill.  But I don’t believe I am alone in this.  Isn’t our whole culture frantic to keep us distracted?   There are now video screens at the gas pump. We can watch movies on our phones. News has degenerated into entertainment, while entertainment has been elevated to news. We as a society are, as sociologist Neil Postman put it, “amusing ourselves to death.”  What are we as a people trying so desperately not to face?

Yes, we don’t want to think about death.  And there are a lot of frightening things afoot these days that are hard to face, from climate change to resistant disease germs. Our children will inherit an unstable world from us after we die, which will not be very long from now.

But I think there is more to it than that. I believe that not only do we not want to think about death—we don’t want to think about life, either.  We have a high calling, we humans.  When my children try to sneak away from the table without drinking their milk, I remind them that a farmer and a cow worked hard to make that milk, and it won’t do to waste it.  Well, the universe has labored to make us, and yet we let ourselves go to waste.  Though we don’t like to think about it, “we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”[ii] And in order not to face the charge we have to keep, we allow the world  to direct our attention here, there, everywhere but the present moment—which is, as we know, precisely where the treasure is. Now is the day of salvation.

In the midst of life, we are in death, the Book of Common Prayer tells us.  Our lives are precious, and they are finite. Work while you have the light.

So I’m going try to stay aware of the world and its misdirection, doing my best to redirect my attention to the present moment and the revelations it contains. Life, as poet R. S. Thomas put it,

…is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

[i] Matthew 25: 14-29, edited for length

[ii] Romans 8:22

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