Death

To my friend Peter F.
You’re one of the tenderest souls the world has known.
Be at peace.
~

Death is yucky.

It’s been on my mind this year. A lot.

One of my first, best work-buddies died suddenly the other day. His name was Peter, too, and we used to set up a cup across the room and take turns trying to throw pens into it. We got into trouble together–a lot. We drank Monsters together and always, always made each other laugh. He did this hilarious thing where anytime you’d tell him anything–anything–he’d whip his head around and, in an exaggeratedly defensive voice snap back, “I know!!!?” So much laughter. Peter was the best, and he was a deep, deep, loving human. . . . One of the hardest things about death, to me, is that you can’t talk with the person about it afterward.

This weird year . . . I’ve watched videos on the news of Black Humans dying who didn’t need to die. I’ve looked at graphs representing hundreds of thousands of people dying in a pandemic. I’ve been there with people barely hold on–wishing I could fix it, knowing I can’t. We’ve adopted a 13-year-old dog who we absolutely adore, but who we know doesn’t have too many more years or months to snuggle with us and eat yummy treats. We’ve talked through preparing for and dealing with “if you or I die,” since that’s a thing adults do, especially this year. And I’ve wrestled with some of my own fears and associations and assumptions and feelings about death.

A close friend recently asked the question: Why aren’t we using this year to reflect on death more? It seems like a healthy activity. But sort of like cod liver oil is healthy. It’s healthy but it is no fun. Cheese tastes better.

Another close friend recently suggested being honest more about the stuff we don’t have all put together. The stuff we aren’t confident about, or don’t know what to say about. The stuff we do struggle with. None of us have all the answers. So it’s good to get real with each other.

So, real from me to you: I don’t like death. Death gets to me. Like all the way.

Since I know you think about death sometimes, too–here are my thoughts–very random and disorganized, as this topic is for me. Once you’ve read this, maybe you can share your thoughts with me? Maybe they’re words I need to hear. Or words you need to say. Maybe you can share those words with others? Maybe we can face these yucky things together more.

First and maybe most of all: When someone dies, there’s this urge to say the right thing to make it feel a little better, to relieve a little pain. Don’t. It doesn’t work. At all. It’s almost hurtful–it is hurtful–to think your words can somehow fix the sting. Death is the worst. Let the pain happen. It needs to happen. Death is awful. Don’t downplay it. Don’t deny it. Don’t “at least” it. Maybe there’s nothing to say, and it’s just time for hugs and for just sitting next to each other.

That being said . . . here are some thoughts to (maybe) help prepare for it? . . . to give the awful experience of death some context. . . .

In some communities, death is very normal. For example, free climber Alex Honnold talks about how routine it is in his community to hear “[this-friend] just died.” Their sport is so full of passion and aliveness. But it’s an incredibly dangerous sport, so they become more used to death. From what I understand it still hurts, but it’s . . . different. It’s more . . . normal. The death? Not surprising. The full-tilt life? Worth the risk, and worth celebrating. “They died doing what they loved.” . . . Sometimes you hear doctors talk about how dying is just a part of the life cycle. In some poor parts of the world, early or painful death is much more “normal,” too. Maybe the experience of death is somewhat subjective.

A Buddhist view on death stresses how natural it is as a part of life. The flip side of the same coin. That it is such a struggle because we try so hard to deny that flip side, clinging to the things we love as if they are permanent, and seeing our individual selves as extra special instead of as one little part of a big, unified, flowing world of life.

“We can reflect on and contemplate the inevitability of death, and learn to accept it as a part of the gift of life. If we learn to celebrate life for its ephemeral beauty, its coming and going, appearance and disappearance, we can come to terms with and make peace with it. We will then appreciate its message of being in a constant process of renewal and regeneration without holding back, like everything and with everything, including the mountains, stars, and even the universe itself undergoing continual change and renewal. This points to the possibility of being at ease with and accepting the fact of constant change, while at the same time making the most sensible and selfless use of the present moment.”

~ Geshe Dadul Namgyal, Feb 26 2020 interview in the New York Times . . . maybe you should read that whole interview!

So what about after death? Do you know exactly what happens? Are you sure? Pretty sure? Not a shadow of a doubt? . . . Or do you not know? Are you comfortable with being unsure? At least able to accept it? Is there some “trust” somewhere in there? Do you think you could find a way to know for sure what happens? And do you think it would change things? . . . Do you need to know? . . .

What will you leave behind? . . . You loved and treasured your moment of life. Will you leave behind a better chance for others to treasure their own lives? Will you leave the world a little better, a little happier, a little more hopeful? Your friends and family? Or the strangers you do or don’t smile at?

Death is uncontrollable. But there is a lot we can do to probably influence the quality and length of our life. Taking care of our bodies, of our health. Taking precautions. Not being a free-climber. Never ever eating happy yummy treats. Steering clear of poor inner cities where violent crime is more common. Not volunteering in war zones. See? It’s not that straight-forward. There are some “good” things we can do to probably lengthen our lifespan . . . and there are things we can do (or not do) that give us more days on the calendar, but days with less meaning.

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. . . . You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. . . . You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.”

~ Martin Luther King Jr

What evil or hurt do we do to each other and to the world in our desperate attempts to cling to our fleeting lives? . . . And what unhealthiness do we inject into our own lives to try to escape death, or to deny its pain and fear? . . . Stop and think . . . . . . .

But the good things we can do–taking true care of ourselves, and not to an extreme . . . pause and ponder how deeply you treasure your life. Imagine knowing your last breath. That deep, unsettling feeling of loss . . . it’s real. Life is worth holding onto, for yourself and for others, in every healthy and balanced way you can. So maybe do eat your veggies?

Just, also eat pizza sometimes. Balance. . . . And consider doing some big, brave (if scary) good in the world.

In other words, while you’re clinging to life, don’t forget to taste life and to help others find their lives, even if it may cost you a couple years.

At the end of the day, you can’t control death. I keep catching myself wondering, day-dreaming, hoping–maybe I can find a way to help our furry friend Willoughby bypass death, postpone it, live an extra whole lifetime. But eventually, reality steps back in to say: You can’t control death. I can’t control my furry friend’s. I can’t control my wife’s. I can’t control mine. And you can’t control yours. It could be an accident tomorrow. It could be disease a few years from now. Or it could just be time to go when you’re old and grey and full of memories. And I think it may help to accept that–the fact that you can’t control death. It may make your grip a little looser, your fears a little calmer, and life a little sweeter.

One sort of sick but sort of true silver lining–which doesn’t take away the sting but might offer just a little peace: Think what will be over at death. What will be no more. What will be done. Life does include plenty of suffering. And our bodies seem to see more and more pain as we slowly grow older. Some live to see such pain and helplessness that they choose no longer to cling at all costs to their life, knowing it is time to stop fighting a brutal fight. And when there is that much pain, the fact that death will someday relieve it is not an entirely unwelcome thought, though it never makes life less precious. Pain can’t last forever. And so we hear people at funerals give the over-simplified, maybe unwelcome encouragement, “At least they’re not in pain anymore,” and no, it doesn’t fix it, but . . . it’s sort of true. . . . There is a natural end to suffering, just as there is a natural end to life.

Yes, it still stings.

What experiences, feelings, emotions, treasures–are only a part of our lives because we know that one day we will die? There is a sweetness. There is a deep love. There is attentive, expressive, desperate love that comes along with mortality. Because every minute counts.

“If we were vampires and death was a joke,
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke,
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans,
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand.
Maybe time running out is a gift,
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift,
And give you every second I can find,
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.
It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever,
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone.
Maybe we’ll get forty years together,
But one day I’ll be gone,
Or one day you’ll be gone.”

~ If We Were Vampires, a song by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Time is a strange and arbitrary measurement of our lives. We crave and cling to our youth, our “prime.” And we don’t want to grow old because we believe growing old means we will lose those things–the things we’re passionate about, the things we do, and love to do. Does this interpretation of time do us a disservice? Does it rob us of what we have? Of the parts of us we never really lose–that just show up in a different “time” of our lives?

“You will always, always, always have the miles you’ve run. You’ll always have the countries you’ve visited. You’ll always have the people you’ve loved. You’ll always have the dances you’ve danced, the songs you’ve sung, the books you’ve read, the letters you’ve written, the rock walls you’ve climbed, the parties you’ve thrown, the puppies you’ve snuggled, and the accomplishments you’ve accomplished. . . . Why do they count less ten years later? . . . The love for the thing is still there. The memories are still there. The reality is still there. The identity is still there.”

~ You still are and you still can, a blog post I wrote a little while ago

Here is the most comforting thought I’ve ever found about growing old–about the irreversible passing of time–though to be fair, I’ve shared it with some who don’t find it comforting–so, in case it does happen to help you, too:

“I should say having been is the surest kind of being. . . . The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a younger person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? ‘No, thank you,’ he will think. ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past . . .”

~ Viktor Frankl, a psychologist who survived Nazi death camps, in his beautiful little book, Man’s Search for Meaning

So . . . time. It passes. We grow old. Death comes. But I am still me. You are still you. The reality, the identity, the beauty–it always IS. It will always be real. One day we’ll be done looking back, but all the love and passion and beauty will still be there, will still be real. . . . any comfort in that for you? For me, there is.

But death still hurts. It’s the worst of the worst of the worst. So . . . how do we face it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard that people really need someone there to hold their hand. So maybe we focus on how we can help each other face it. We do need each other.

Spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen Frozen II and you don’t want to know any bits of what happens, skip down to the next paragraph. Remember or imagine with me: Olaf the larger-than-life little snowman is suddenly dying. Anna comes over and holds him as he slowly fades. “I’ve got you.” Wrapped in her embrace, Olaf says, “Hey Anna, I just thought of one thing that’s permanent.” “What’s that?” “Love,” says Olaf. “Warm hugs?” offers Anna. “I like warm hugs,” says Olaf, at home in the love of Anna’s arms. And then he goes. . . . And there it is. . . . “Warm hugs.” If we have to go–and we do–can we go with warm hugs? Can we give someone the warm hugs they need? This year, so many people are dying alone in hospital beds, too far from the loving arms that would give anything to be there to offer warm hugs. So–maybe warm hugs aren’t just physical, in-person, immediate. Maybe we can provide each other a love, a sweetness, a tenderness that proves those warm hugs, even just felt deeply in the heart. Maybe it would help to talk about death more with each other . . . to express, to promise the warm hugs, so that when the time comes, we can feel them, no matter how it happens.

Maybe you get the chance to be right there with someone to hold their hand . . . to hold them. That is a gift you can know is good.

So I don’t know what to do about death.

I don’t.

It is indescribably bad.

But the sadness and hurt of death gives you and me a meaningful purpose in each other’s lives:

Treasure people now. Give happiness now, while people are still here to feel it. Life has plenty of hurts, and death is scary. So when we see each other, maybe we can remember the hurt and the fear we’ll each face, and we can take the opportunities we have, while we still have them, to ease each other’s pain in any way we can . . . to bring love and light and laughter and warm hugs into each other’s impermanent, beautiful lives.

Willoughby 1 (2)

Tiny tiny tiny

world map

Picture a map of the world.

Do you see that tiny tiny tiny dot where you live?

You and I are tiny tiny tiny creatures in a great big world.

In August 2011, the Juno spacecraft, on its way to Jupiter, took pictures of the earth from one million miles away. Have you seen one of those pictures of our tiny tiny tiny earth?

There is something both humbling and relieving about how much bigger than me it all is. Do you ever stop to think about how much bigger it all is than just you or me?

One of the things it tells me is that all the struggle for Status that pushes other people, even entire people groups, down into suffering . . . the Status that we find at the expense of others is tiny tiny tiny.

May as well just be tiny humans together in our tiny corner of our tiny planet and just Love instead of trying to “win.”

When you zoom way out, we really ARE all in this together. Can we live like it?

#love #peace #kindness #world #life #earth #planet #people

See?!? I shouldn’t have . . .

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Hindsight is not always 20/20.

It’s hard not to judge our decisions and actions on a situation’s ultimate outcome.

We pick A instead of B, the situation goes terribly wrong, and we think “See? I shouldn’t have picked A. I should have picked B instead.” This hindsight feels simple. But it’s not. It’s fuzzy and confusing.

The world is a massive place teeming with a billion billion little forces. When your best laid plans go wrong (as they will), give yourself the space to remember: “The world is a massive place teeming with a billion billion little forces. Maybe this wasn’t all my fault.”

We have a tendency to judge our own decisions and the decisions of others (think significant other, friend, doctor, boss, teen-aged child, world leader–so many others)–to judge those decisions, after the fact, by what happened in the end. And then we draw powerful lessons. Lessons about what is “stupid” or “silly” or “unnecessary” or “not-worth-it” or “my fault.” Worse, we let others draw those lessons for us and, embarrassed, we quietly accept the lessons deep into our hearts.

A few examples might help . . .

You decide that you should speak up with your co-worker about something you don’t feel good about. Maybe something he’s doing that upsets you. Something that’s making your job harder. Maybe something you feel is unethical or unsafe. It’s such a tough decision for you to make–to speak up–because you hate confrontation, you don’t want to be mean, you’re worried about a putting a target on your back, you might be wrong, you don’t get the workplace politics game well enough. But you make up your mind. You speak up. And it goes terribly. Zero acceptance, zero awareness, zero accountability. By the end of it all, the one co-worker is out to get you and all your other co-workers have heard you’re a tool. . . . So did you make the wrong call?

Or maybe you’ve always been very socially anxious and don’t have a lot of friends. You grew up with too many relationships that went poorly. You never learned to trust that there was good in people. Despite all this, you finally get up the courage to make a friend. You try opening up a little bit. You put yourself out there. And it goes terribly wrong. Turns out he has zero interest in you, only in what he can get from you. He breaks your confidence and ends up shaming you for your personality and you’re left feeling more lonely and anxious than before you ever tried. . . . So would it have been better not to open up?

Or maybe you’ve been struggling for years over what you should do with a toxic family member. You need your own healthy boundaries and she always brings forward so much hurt and confusion for you. But “she’s family” and you do love her. Finally after some therapy and sleepless nights, you make the choice that you can’t have a healthy relationship with her and that you’ll both be happier if you let her go. Her birthday comes around later that year and, knowing how lonely she is, you feel deeply guilty and sad. You miss the idea of having a relationship with her and you feel deep sympathy for her sad experience of life. So much guilt. . . . So does that make the choice you made the wrong choice?

It’s easy to say yes to all these. To see something go “wrong” and immediately feel that your choice was clearly wrong. That it’s your fault. To say, “See? I shouldn’t have done that!” Shouldn’t have signed up for that race. Shouldn’t have reached out to that family member. Shouldn’t have stood up to the bullying. Shouldn’t have applied for that job. Shouldn’t have taken that medication. Shouldn’t have listened to that friend. Shouldn’t have auditioned for that choir. Shouldn’t have opened up to that person about being depressed.

But hindsight is not that simple. Choice-A being followed by Bad does not mean Choice-A caused Bad. And Choice-A leading to Bad does not mean Choice-B would have led to any better. A billion billion little forces. A hundred little choices. We do our best. Our instincts and our experience are helpful. We listen, we try, we leap. And sometimes, life also hurts.

When something “goes wrong,” please don’t jump to the conclusion that it means you never should have tried it. That you’ve made the wrong choices in life. That it obviously would have been better if you’d made the different choices.

And when someone says to you, “See, you shouldn’t have . . .”–please be careful about the shame and guilt you accept from them, and how you let their judgment change you.

Almost every time I’ve ever heard myself tell myself–or someone else tell me–“See, you shouldn’t have . . .” it’s been a very quick take, a very knee-jerk reaction, a very simplistic perspective. It’s been for the sake of putting out a spark, shifting the blame, self-preservation. Yes, sometimes we have to wrestle with whether we’ve made some bad choices or need to make some changes. But in my experience, most of the times we hear–from ourselves or others–that “See?!?” reaction . . . it’s not fair, it’s not realistic, and it’s not helpful.

Stick up for yourself a little. Keep that spark alive, the one you followed, even when you didn’t know how it would end up. Remember the billion billion forces, and make your little choices anyway, as best you can. And then, when life still hurts, let it be life.

Because very, very, very likely, yes you SHOULD have. And you should again tomorrow!

No shame, no embarrassment, no blame, no guilt. Live your life, no matter what they (or you) say when embarrassment sends them (or you) scrambling to explain life’s curveballs. You’re doing great. :)

P. S. After all, what if you just never bothered trying things you weren’t already certain about? . . .

A challenge: Can we be our same “good” selves even in the “bad” contexts?

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I am a person with a lot of good inside of me. And, um, there is some bad inside of me.

Sometimes I do these big wonderful things to help people. And sometimes I choose things that I know could harm me or the world.

I have this deep passion for kindness, gentleness, being compassionate, and not being an asshole. And then sometimes I hear myself saying something heartless about someone and I think “wow, I am being an asshole.”

So I have both. Good in me. Bad in me.

“Good” and “bad” are tricky concepts. We each have different words for them, and some of the words come with a lot of baggage. Maybe your words are “good” and “evil.” Maybe your words are “right” and “wrong.” Maybe your words are “beautiful” and “ugly.” But somewhere–somewhere deep down, no matter our big picture, we have a sense of “yes, that is how life is meant to be,” and “no, that is sick sick sick.”

And we each have some of both in us.

And the bit of bad doesn’t mean we’re worthless!

When your 3-year-old can’t draw to save her life, that is perfect. You love her awful, beautiful picture she made with her little trying hands. She’s 3. And you love her.

And when I catch myself thinking or saying or doing something that isn’t fair or isn’t my business or is actually pretty shitty–it doesn’t mean I’m worthless. I’m trying at this “life” thing, and I’m getting some of it wrong, and sometimes I give up on trying for a minute. But…I’m 28. And I, too, am loved.

But even with all the love and acceptance, it is worthwhile to stop and say: “We each have some good in us and some bad in us.” Yin and yang. Life. Humanness.

Have you noticed that sometimes . . . a lot of times . . . it depends on the context?

With an inspiring group of fitness friends, we’re kind. On the phone with customer service, feeling annoyed and unimportant, we’re rude and aggressive. . . . On vacation, out in the great outdoors with other adventurers, we’re just the nicest and openest. Racing the clock in traffic, we cut people off and give people nasty looks. . . . Volunteering for a couple hours at a food shelf, we’re friendly and interested in our fellow volunteers. At the end of a stressful day at work, we have nothing but moody looks for people who try to connect. . . . On our Instagrams, we’re all inspiring and motivating and positive. Then we get sucked into a political debate and all bets are off. . . . Sometimes it even just depends on which people we’re around. Our group of kind and uplifting buddies? Or our group of sarcastic and negative buddies?

Have you noticed that some of us internalize big-picture assumptions about how “most people are generally well-meaning and kind,” while others of us internalize the idea that “most people are generally mean and selfish?” Maybe we’ve just been spending most of our time living and learning in one type of context.

For example, some people live in worlds where they get to see a lot of mindful, thoughtful, excited good, good, good–inspirational conferences, leading high energy workouts, working with precious children at a daycare . . .

On the other hand, some people live in worlds that seem to frequently center on or bring out the careless, mindless, thoughtless bad–customer service, politics, law enforcement, litigation, working with…precious children at a daycare . . .

It’s not that the world is made up of sunshine and rainbows. And it’s not that the world is full of awful people. It’s that the world is full of PEOPLE. People who show up a little differently depending on the context.

The SAME PERSON will find the GOOD pulled out of her in some contexts, and the BAD pulled out of her in other contexts.

Do you ever catch that in yourself? Like, “I’m usually pretty nice, but apparently not when I’m asking for a refund!” . . . Or like, “I thought I had grown up into a mature adult who gets along with other adults, but then I went to a family reunion!”

Do you ever notice someone doing the Jekyll/Hyde thing to you? Where you’re like, “wait–I thought this person was nice? Where did this come from???”

We all have some of both: Good and bad. Love and hate.

Potential for both.

Are we different per context? In some contexts, wonderful? In some contexts, a little less than wonderful?

All begs one big question:

How can we move more toward WONDERFUL?

How can we bring out the GOOD more often in ourselves? And in others?

Can we consciously tip the scale toward a more consistent, mindful life of LOVE? Even in the tougher contexts?

Can we pick up the entire spectrum and shift it a few smiles and thoughtful words to the KIND side?

Yes, we’ll still have both sides of the spectrum in us. It’s just . . . can we get a little more mindful, so that we can bring a little more GOOD to the “bad” contexts?

If it seems hopeless–if you think Little You can’t tip the world’s Kindness Scale–remember that Love can be profoundly contagious.

It starts with you and me.

namaste

Martin Luther King Jr - stick with love hate too great a burden

When life gets normal again

I have an idea.

Get a piece of paper and write down some of your deepest thoughts from these lonely, scary, inspiring, deeply humanizing coronavirus days. Thoughts about yourself, about the world, about your neighbors and friends, about hope and kindness and sacrifice. Thoughts about what matters.

Then bury it somewhere in your closet with all the boxes and bins of old stuff.

A couple years from now, when you come across it again, I bet you will learn something about the depth you found during crisis. There may be some bits you had forgotten about as soon as the crisis. ended. Really important bits. Really special bits.

Can we find a way to remember the depth we are finding in crisis? The beauty, the courage, the friendship, the purpose? Can we draw ourselves some little maps, so that when life gets normal again, we won’t forget the deep places we found in these not-normal times?

Some of the changes in ourselves will be good. Can we keep them?

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