A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!I had heard that story, but I didn’t really get it until that moment in Midland, Texas, on my 47th birthday, when it was suddenly so clear.
Of course! He understands. It took the tigers to make him realize it, but it’s not the immediate proximity of death that makes the berry sweet, it’s understanding the fact of death, proximate or not, that does that. I wasn’t facing any tigers, no threats to my life, was in good health, but for some reason in that moment I was understanding what that guy understood, and it made everything ineluctably, ineffably sweet.
This runaway train is headed for the cliff, and there’s no way to stop it. It made me love the scenery on the ride.
The ecstatic quality of that moment passed. But I have carried with me ever since an abiding gratitude for my mortality. We are not given tomorrow, and that makes having today such a joy, such a delightful, beautiful joy.
The more we hold awareness of our own death always in mind, the more life feels sweet and vibrant and real. The more life feels . . . alive.
This was not just some psychotic break that Meredith had. Something happened in my neurons, no doubt, and what happened changed my life. If it was a break, it was a break from my past patterns where death was something I didn’t want to think about, something I distracted myself away from paying attention to.
It’s not that I had been afraid of death. I wasn’t afraid of it – how could I be afraid of it when I rarely thought about it all? Now I have the awareness of death as my constant companion.
What I realized on that day, others have also realized, as I have since discovered. Native American novelist Louise Erdrich writes:
“Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart's position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won't ever come by such a bargain again.”And the Scottish novelist Dame Muriel Spark wrote:
“If I had to live my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid.”Sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote
“Let us deprive death of its strangeness. Let us frequent it; let us get used to it; Let us have nothing more often in mind than death . . . We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom.”German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote:
“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself.”Does that make sense to you? For me, I have to tell you, if I’d read that when I was 42, it would have been a bit murky. Ever since 47, it has made perfect sense. Of course to practice death is to practice freedom.
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This is part 2 of 4 of "Making Friends with Death"
Next: Part 3
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