I'm no poet, but I admire poetry.
Some evidence is that after my wife got tired of watching Dickinson on Apple TV+, a streaming series about the poet Emily Dickinson, I continued on until I'd seen every episode of the first three seasons.
I loved how Dickinson looked at life in such a fresh and creative fashion, even taking into account how loosely the series probably adhered to the literal facts of Emily Dickinson.
For example, she spent quite a bit of time in a carriage with Death, a cool Black guy who was overworked, particularly after the Civil War started. Did Dickinson fantasize those meetings? Was she mentally ill?
Or was her fascination with Death a reflection of her poetic sensibilities? That rings most true to me. Reality is a slippery notion when it comes to poets and their poetry.
Which really is no different than how slippery each of us becomes when we try to describe to someone else how we feel about something. There always is a gap between our intuitive experience and whatever means we use to convey that ineffable something to another person.
Poetry is one way of narrowing that gap. So is music, art, dance, tears, laughter, facial expressions, writing, hugs, plus so much more.
I'm toying with the idea of finding ways of writing blog posts for the Church of the Churchless that do a better job of capturing how I look upon various subjects. This wouldn't be poetry as such, but words with more of a poetic feeling tone.
Might as well start with death.
I'll be going about my day, doing routine stuff, when suddenly a message pops into my mind, surprising me.
"One day you won't be doing this. Or anything else. Because you'll be dead."
It's a message that rings true. No big surprise. It is true.
We can make up stories about an afterlife. I've done that. Most people do. It's a foundation that religion rests on.
A very shaky foundation. Because no one knows if there is life after death. All we know is there is death after life. The proof is all around us.
A million deaths in the United States from COVID-19. Deaths of friends, family, famous people, ordinary people, cats, dogs, cows, chickens, fish.
Everything that lives, dies. But we humans, me certainly included for much of my life, we can visualize ourselves living on forever.
Kind of takes the sting out of death. Or so it seems. Because actually the stinger is still attached to the scorpion of death.
It has to be. Death is inevitable.
And if we're honest, we say to ourselves, "I'm going to die, and I have no idea if there's any living after my death."
That honesty is what breaks through my ordinary mind from time to time.
I'll be washing the dishes and suddenly realize, not for that much longer. Like I said, the realizing is a sudden burst of nothing else also for that much longer.
So it doesn't do me any good to vow that from this death-realizing moment onward I'll only do what is so deeply meaningful, in that way I will cheat death by living life so fully, I'll die satisfied.
Fine. But I'll still die. Which will bring to an end satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and everything else.
There's a stark divide between existing and not-existing. We try to use our well-honed techniques for dealing with life's problems to handle our knowledge that death is the end of life.
But they don't work. They can't work. Something, anything, is utterly incapable of dealing with nothing.
I'm left, then, with a simple feeling of gratitude when I have one of my meetings with death. The encounter wakes me up. For a while it stops me from taking my life for granted. Also, my wife's life. Our dog's life. All lives.
No matter if I'm having a good day, a bad day, or a so-so day, I'm having a day. Yay! I'm alive. Who knows for how long. I sure don't. No one does.
Whatever I do, at least I'm doing something. Which is a heck of a lot better than being nothing. If I could always realize this, I guess I'd be a Zen master. Or at least, a Zen student who does the dishes.
I’ve been watching Dickenson on Apple TV too! I love it! Death is pretty cool—the carriage rides and ethereal horses.
I think people who are skeptical about whether there’s an afterlife are just afraid to get their hopes up and be disappointed. 😉
Then again, if there isn’t an afterlife then you won’t be disappointed because you won’t “be”.
Posted by: Sonya | May 19, 2022 at 12:48 AM
With regards to Emily Dickinson, I’m curious—we’re notebooks that hard to come by in her day? All those scraps of paper… sorted of added to the charm, though.
Posted by: Sonya | May 19, 2022 at 12:56 AM
There are all sorts of little deaths in life—a breakup, neighbors moving away, a colleague that accepts a better job offer somewhere else and moves on. These little deaths aren’t as shocking as the big death, but they often lead to the same thing—loss of a connection.
Posted by: Sonya | May 19, 2022 at 01:09 AM
Yes loss of connection ... that after a while sets you free also.
That freedom might bring some uneasiness in the beginning but after a while it becomes comfortable as well.
Posted by: um | May 19, 2022 at 01:13 AM
"...death is what makes life precious..."
Brian, I'd ended up kind-of-sort-of disagreeing with the Plotinus thing recently, and I don't want to end up the kind of guy that goes all contrarian every time, like I see some people here do: But I really couldn't stop myself chiming in with an objection to this POV.
No, it isn't death that makes life precious. It is life that makes life precious. Or, to be more precise, it is an appreciation for life, and everything it represents, that makes life precious.
Death is, at least as yet, an inevitability. Therefore, we need to accept that inevitability, and to take it in our stride. I get that. But to therefore look on death as something positive, something good, that I think is a going overboard with the necessary adjustment.
After all, death isn't really inevitable, in an absolute sense. Already, from around 30 or 40 or whatever-it-was, our life expectancy has gone up to maybe 80 or so? (I didn't check those stats actually, basically plucked them out of thin air; so it could well be that one or both my estimates are off; but still, the essential point is what is important, that our life expectancy has increased dramatically.) And already there's a great deal of research going on, that, I believe, is starting to show that aging isn't inevitable: That is to say, the exact mechanism of aging itself is being uncovered, and studied, and ways sought to reverse it. The telomere thing, for instance. I think it is quite possible that one of these days we might actually win altogether over death ---- well not quite, there's the question of our sun going nova, and even further of our universe itself either going into either contraction or else heat death or else cold death, but hey, if from an upper range of around 120 years and an expected range of around 80 to 90 years, we can go up to something like, I don't know, something significantly more, like maybe even 400 years or so, or, who knows, maybe even more, maybe much more: well then, death wouldn't then be the inevitability that is today. And this is possible, I believe, basis the sort of research we're seeing these days.
Absolutely, we need to accept reality. We do need to accept the inevitability of death in our lifetimes, and therefore as it applies to us, to you and to me, sure. But who knows, maybe a hundred years down the line, death will mean something very different than it does now.
And well, my point is, to accept something negative isn't to actually make of it a virtue: that's kind of going overboard.
I get it, the whole fragility of life thing. Many's the time I've felt much the same, right in my gut. I'd once had a surgery that ...well, not to go into personal details about all of that, but well, that unexpected and dramatic coming-within-reach-of-death, is something that actually helped me awaken to the larger potential of life and living -- as opposed to the sleepwalking-through-life-thing that most of us actually do, and that I know I myself did prior to that, even as I lived an apparently full and "successful" life. ----------But my point is, while death was instrumental in awakening me to the potential of life, that was merely happenstance. Death wasn't a necessary ingredient for that to have happened. What is important about that, is the appreciation for life it opened up; and not the incidental instrumentality of death that facilitated it.
I don't know if I've been able to express what I so strongly feel. I don't know ... maybe another way to look at the same thing, is how a proper appreciation of death can lead to diametrically opposite reactions. Someone can see the inevitability of death and the fragility of life, and conclude therefore everything is moot, and resign themselves to despair, maybe even extinguishment of life itself as a result, whether directly or effectively. While another may see the inevitability of death and fragility of life,and, like you, recognize the worth of every moment that we live. My point is, the key thing here is the appreciation of the worth of life. Not so much the means that led to it. Death (or an appreciation of death) is neither necessary for that appreciation of life; and nor does death (or the appreciation of death) necessarily lead to that appreciation of life.
Life is precious. It is precious if we live for 5 or 10 years more, or for 50 or 60 years more, or even if, maybe sometime in the furture, for 500 or 600 years more. Without that appreciation for life, one can sleepwalk through any period of time, even 100 years, even 500 years; and also for the far shorter durations that is our lot today. And with that appreciation for life, one can see life as precious, and draw pleasure from every breath --- well that's perhaps going too far, too Buddha-like, but you know what I mean --- regardless of whether one's going to live 10 years, or 50 years, of 500 years more.
Sorry, that's a lot of words, and I'm not even sure I've been able to get my meaning across. But I kind of felt strongly about this, and thought it right to share this POV here, even though it kind of disagrees with (one important part of) what you're saying here.
Posted by: Appreciative Reader | May 19, 2022 at 10:03 AM
If assuming there is no life after death makes life more precious, definitely, that belief serves a purpose.
If assuming there might be life after death gives one a better appreciation for the value of life, as a part of a larger whole, then that belief serves a purpose.
Death is not a subject very many people know a lot about, except those who have watched people die, or who have practiced dying while living...going through at least a few of the stages towards death.
But the idea that this life is temporal and will in deed end does help put life into a finite perspective, and that certainly help us determine how best we want to use that limited time.
For me, practicing dying while living is the end all be all. First, it feels great, and progress in this practice reassures me that regardless of what happens after I die, I'm quite happy just to melt into any state where I don't have to deal with me anymore. Second, there is a lot more there to witness, more stuff going on that has nothing to do with me, but which I'm connected to. I can go there instead of here. Even if all that ends upon death, it is a wholistic death, part of greater whole. That definitely puts life into perspective, a larger perspective, even if my existence in all facets of conscious understanding ends. Because, still I'm just a fragment of a continuing whole, and witnessing that whole, connected to that whole is entirely more interesting than this tiny life.
Posted by: spence tepper | May 19, 2022 at 11:02 AM
Appreciative Reader, you make some good points. I'll respond with a concrete example.
For three years I enjoyed riding around on a large Suzuki Burgman maxi-scooter, akin to a powerful motorcycle without the shifting and with antilock brakes.
Riding a motorcycle/scooter, as with downhill ski racing, big wave surfing, and other dangerous activities, is particularly pleasurable because the prospect of death or serious injury is ever-present. So one's attention has to be alert, though calm.
You can't sleepwalk through a life-threatening activity. Yet most of us do just that with our life, even though there's a possibility it could end at any moment, and certainly will at some future moment.
So I'd argue that while riding a motorcycle/scooter would be pleasurable even if we humans lived forever and wouldn't be harmed in a crash, the risk of death provides a strong extra measure of enjoyment.
Some philosophical minded people extend this to life itself, saying that most of human activity is founded on a desire to cheat death in some way, even if this desire is unconscious. Having children. Being a professional success. Writing books. Creating a beautiful garden. Fashioning works of art. So many ways to feel, "I am leaving something good behind when I die."
If there was no death, would that feeling still be there? No. Some other feeling would, like "I have produced something good." But we are humans with death in our future, not immortals. If we had an infinite amount of time to do whatever we wanted, would life feel as sweet? I don't think so.
Posted by: Brian Hines | May 19, 2022 at 11:14 AM
Emily Dickenson, Mystic:
Emily did also write of another existence:
There is another sky by Emily Dickinson
"There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent fields -
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum:
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!"
Soto! Explore thyself!
By Emily Dickenson
"Soto! Explore thyself!
Therein thyself shalt find
The "Undiscovered Continent"—
No Settler had the Mind."
The Master's pull..
"HE fumbles at your spirit
As players at the keys
Before they drop full music on;
He stuns you by degrees,
Prepares your brittle substance 5
For the ethereal blow,
By fainter hammers, further heard,
Then nearer, then so slow
Your breath has time to straighten,
Your brain to bubble cool,— 10
Deals one imperial thunderbolt
That scalps your naked soul."
Posted by: Spence Tepper | May 19, 2022 at 11:17 AM
The primary cause of all human death is human life.
Human death is the inevitable fact of human life.
It’s timing and circumstances are uncertain but in actuality whenever it happens it will simply be the process of causality happening in now-ness.
Death is death.
It does not have a value rating.
You don’t get different points awarded for what kind of death it is.
As hard as this may be to accept, the intentional killing of newborn baby, is no different in actuality to mass shootings, airplane crashes, cancer or suicide.
What we do know is that death leads to grief because of loss which is driven by the confusion about impermanence.
The actuality of death provides an on-going helpful reminder of causality that can inspire a life well lived based in equanimity and kindness. Learning to be comfortable about the inevitability and uncertainty about death, helps to process the natural grieving process of the death of others in a healthy way.
Posted by: Roger | May 19, 2022 at 07:33 PM
Temporal and Eternal.
Finite and Infinite.
These things cannot coexist.
Posted by: Sonya | May 19, 2022 at 08:41 PM
If you’re atheist, spend a good 30 minutes thoroughly contemplating the infinite expanse of space.
You won’t be the same again.
Posted by: Sonya | May 19, 2022 at 08:44 PM
@Roger: [ Learning to be comfortable about the inevitability and uncertainty about death, helps to process the natural grieving process of the death of others in a healthy way. ]
Inevitability, yes... but, personally, I will never feel comfortable about the
uncertainty of that moment. I aspire to know before I die, however feeble
my understanding, ... along with the mystic, "why fate called me to her
Posted by: Dungeness | May 20, 2022 at 12:37 AM
I haven't read much of Emily Dickinson but the poem 'That It Will Never Come Again' and the next line 'Is what makes life so sweet' has a different meaning for me. Although it does indicate death it also speaks of just this, this moment, this present moment that will never come again, it will never return; each new moment is unique – which incidently is my idea of being born again. The poem also talks of 'an ablative estate', a taking away or removing, as something we cannot grasp or possess.
Of course, there are moments that we may not want, as would be the case of people for example in Ukraine and Afghanistan or those suffering from illness or loss of family and friends. But whatever, the reality is 'that this will never come again'.
As for death. Well yes, what makes life so valuable is its impermanent nature, something amazing to be cherished – and not wasted on all the conflicts and beliefs that separate and beset human beings. I wonder if a life lived with intelligence and awareness, that is where the ego or self-structure is not the predominate aspect of our natures, whether death holds the same dread for us. After all, the physical body can gracefully know when its time is up – yet the ego/self almost demands to survive death – in some way.
Incidentally, I like the idea that life is universal. We speak of the life of planets and stars, things that are not organic. I prefer to think not of 'life and death', but 'birth and death'; life seems to be an ever evolving, on-going series of ever-changing life forms, of which we are just one – at this moment!
Posted by: Ron E. | May 20, 2022 at 06:15 AM
Yes, it's human to be uncomfortable about the uncertainty of death. I'm human and not perfect.
Posted by: Roger | May 20, 2022 at 08:30 AM
@ Roger : [ it's human to be uncomfortable about the uncertainty of death. I'm human and not perfect.]
Ditto. But, the mystic intimates we have the power to know who and what
we are... to shed uncertainty even about our death. He/she's followed an
inward path and lives in a state of devotion/nowness that make such feats
Posted by: Dungeness | May 20, 2022 at 03:17 PM