Wintering in Florida, with its large population of seniors, leads one to contemplate Donne’s poem. Despite his suggestion to “ask not for whom the bell tolls”, each January, those who are returning to the same location where we stay, check in with one another. Inevitably the topic turns to determining who will not be there. It is our own version of the popular course taught by Shelly Kagan at Yale. In his course, and in his book titled starkly, “Death”, he explores several of the many perspectives which are proposed by religious faiths and secular culture.
Though there is no lengthy theological and philosophical discussion among our friends, there is the sharing of perspectives which each one holds, and a common recognition that time must be spent wisely and thankfully, for the bell “tolls for thee”.
Kagan identifies a number of perspectives on the topic of death which are alternatives to the traditional religious teachings of Christianity and the other monotheistic religions. I can understand how this exploration might stretch and challenge students into identifying and owning their own belief systems. However, I imagine this as an intellectual exercise rather than a face to face coming to terms with one’s own mortality. It becomes a personal, not intellectual, encounter as one ages. What follows is a brief review of some of the alternatives identified by Kagan.
1. Buddhism: the only thing permanent is change, therefore we must strive to exist only in the current moment.
According to tradition, the Buddha’s enlightenment included coming to understand that death was simply a part of the reality that all things change. Acceptance of that reality can release one from the struggle to cling to anything, including oneself. Our “self” or identity, so prized in western culture, in fact is an illusion of permanence. Since the self does not really exist as a permanent thing, it cannot die. What “dies” is the constructed self. It simply dissolves, as does everything else. In the words of Thich Nat Hahn: “There is no birth, there is no death, there is no coming, there is no going… there is no permanent self, there is no annihilation. We only think there is.” In this view it is as though death is an illusion of ordinary consciousness. We fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.
Though I can intellectually understand this perspective, I do not personally find it a comforting one, except from time to time in brief moments of epiphany.
2. Existentialism: The Need to Construct Meaning
This position is the direct opposite of Buddhism. Rather than death being viewed as an illusion, it is the awareness of the inevitability of death which enables each individual to create their own meaning of life. (That, in fact, was what happened to the Buddha). The existentialists whould agree with the Buddhist tradition that life has no intrinsic meaning. But they maintain that we thus have the burden of creating meaning out of our experiences. This is an inevitable process which leads some to despair and others to a religious belief system in which meaning is given.
3. Death and Reincarnation. Death is simply a part of the cycles of rebirth.
In Hindu philosophy, as well as Buddhism, reincarnation is understood as a fundamental part of existence. Reincarnation is not a continuation of the personal self, and only in rare circumstances can one have memory of a previous life. Rather, it is the mechanism by which the “soul” purges itself of past wrongs until purified, and therefore it no longer returns to the physical world. One’s current life is determined by one’s previous lives. Though we cannot understand the overall “plan”, there is one unfolding. In the words of the manager of the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” ( a movie which has its setting in India) “everything works out perfectly in the end, so if things are not working out currently,… it is not the end…”.
There are other perspectives as well, of course: death as deliverance from intractable pain and therefore not to be feared but welcomed as respite; those who experienced near death and report profound experiences; those who “rage against the coming of the night” as Dylan Thomas instructed; and so on.
My own conclusions, from having explored the realms of theology, philosophy and integral psychology, and worked with many individuals who were searching for answers to life and death mysteries, are fairly simple.
When it comes down to it–
Live long enough and well enough;
Love and be loved, long enough and well enough;
to be able to say at the inevitable end:
Whatever happens next, this has been good, and it is enough.