Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful.
It’s the transition that’s troublesome. ~Isaac Asimov
Last week I went to a screening of the film Griefwalker, a National Film Board documentary featuring the work and words of Stephen Jenkinson. I’ve seen the movie half a dozen times and I’ve known Stephen, a Harvard educated theologian, social worker, storyteller and ceremonialist, for a couple of years. For a time I was a student at his Orphan Wisdom school in Deacon, Ontario. I’ve heard him speak to crowds of grief hungry people on living well and dying well. The other night he offered us a riddle posed to him by a medicine man.
Hint #1: The answer isn’t everyone.
Ponder the question for a bit. Mull it over like a Zen koan. On the surface the query may sound obvious, but the question and its answer ask us to look deeper into the way we perceive death and life. Here’s another question: is dying a verb or a noun? To put it another way is it something you do or something that happens to drop in unexpectedly for a visit?
Jenkinson is a town crier canvassing the world with his message to wake up and take our own death into our waiting hands. As he says in the film, “Not success. Not growth. Not happiness. The cradle of your love of life is death.” Death is not something done to us. It is not the booby prize for our banishment from the Garden of Eden anymore than it is justice for a life ill spent. Dying is an activity that demands our entire constellation of presence. It begs us to dance with it, to embrace it, to wrestle with its mystery and all it can teach us.
It may not come as a surprise to most of you that we live in a death phobic culture. We spend billions a year to hold age (code word for death) at a continent’s length away from our botoxed, collagened, plastic sutured skin. Death is that ugly secret that happens behind closed doors to other people, not to us. There are generations of westerners who have never seen a dead body. When a terminal illness descends upon us there are discussions by doctors and well meaning family and friends as to whether or not to share the news with the body living with death’s impending arrival. Even the word “dead” has been shoved into an locked museum drawer while “passed on”, “lost”, “moved on”,” deceased”, “crossed over”, and any number of pabulum terms are offered up at the time someone ceases to breathe.
Hint #2: If dying is an activity what does that make living?
Life, just as death, is a contact sport. There are players and there are those who sit on the sidelines. Players are involved in life. As a Buddhist I see this as mindful living. Being engaged in the game of life we are aware of what is happening inside of us, on the field in front of us as well as up in the stands. We’re present, awake, watching our thoughts and emotions as they arise around the quality of play and the other players. Then there are the sidelines, those benched portions of our lives spent in memories of the past, plans for the future or just plain la-dee-da moments of baneful dull stupors. Lost in thought and not watching the game unfold, we can lose years, decades, our entire time on earth while others do the living instead of us. So removed from the existence passing in front of us that when it comes time for the game to end we wonder what happened and beg for a time out, another chance.
So, who dies?
The answer: anyone who lives.
As R.D. Laing once said, “Life is a sexually transmitted disease and the mortality rate is one hundred percent.” Death happens. Everything is impermanent. Those who do dying are the same ones who have done living. Some of us come to the game late, but many a match has turned around in the last minutes of a game thought lost. The gift of this life is to behold the precious beauty of each moment and to witness its demise in the next moment and the next and the next until our final breath. It is in living well that we die well.
And now for the bonus round question:
Who is it exactly that dies?
Hint: the answer is in my next article - Who Dies Part II
The Griefwalker Trailer
Griefwalker, a film by Tim Wilson, National Film Board of Canada, 2008
For more information about Stephen Jenkinson visit his website, www.orphanwisdom.com
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