It was about this time last year that the first news of my father’s illness came to me. I was in a workshop, semi-secluded, when the call came from my sister that Dad was in ER. We were days away from a certificate of occupancy on The Vicarage, coordinating a move from a storage unit and a house, three cats, two cars, and a mountain of little things to finish before we could hang a hanger. I raced frantically toward the hospital, 90 minutes from the workshop to find out that our lives would be completely altered henceforward.
From then onward, until he passed 11 weeks later, it was a steady stream of days on the road, staying at his house, taking care of cats, Dad, bills, finances, and a whirlwind of legal and ethical and financial questions that I wasn’t at all sure of. I don’t think that I’ve seen anyone, short of Doyle’s mother Anna Marie, go to that long home with affairs in any sort of order. I don’t think my father’s affairs were a mess – but still… finding his first divorce certificate (he was married to a woman ten years before mom?) buried in his enlistment and discharge military papers was a bit of a shock. I knew he was in the Navy but also the Air Force? And why he never signed up for Veteran’s Benefits, I may never know. Not really. I digress. The physical stuff is, for the most part, finished. A few loose ends.
But here we are, a year from the onset, and I struggle a lot more inwardly now, with my own mortality. You are flooded with offers of grief assistance and counseling when a loved one passes, especially if there was hospice care. Quite honestly, I don’t think you need it then. I think the day to day shouldering of dealing with the messy materialism consumes you. It’s easy to push everything aside until you’ve dotted the last I and crossed the last T. Push. Push. Push. Until, really, you slow down and start thinking about your own mortality. You start to think about how your body is failing you, not doing what it used to do, or that it’s maybe something wrong with you, you’d better check it out. You think about the pain and suffering you saw and start applying it to your own short remaining years on earth. It’s not that I dread death. It’s the dying part that is messy. I think the grief counseling is something you should do six months after a loved one dies, not right then. I don’t need to be pulled off a cliff and I’m not sure that most people do. I need to be saved from the quicksand of my own mind later on.
I recently attended that same workshop again, with people that I love and cherish. There’s a lot of talk about mortal existence and how we live our life. How we live our life. How we think about our day to day, the choices that we make, the equality that we all have, the toleration for others and dealing with the oppressors of freedom and truth. We talk about things far greater than ourselves and how we, as small specks of humanity can help further the progress of humanity. Working on perfecting humanity. These are a lot of words to think about, when you think about death and dying, and how short our lives here really are.
It’s also hard to think about those things when your ankle hurts or you sprained your wrist doing the dishes, or maybe when you wake up from a bad dream, something you can never remember from your youth. It’s easy to get caught up in the physical and emotional pain of living. I think this is how most of the world works, living day to day, thought to thought with the ideas never really rising above the surface for a bit of fresh air. These workshops remind me that there is more, and there are better goals we can all achieve. If I can get out of my own way. The physical pain is generally temporary. The angst of living an unlived life, I think, is probably far greater. I don’t want to be that person. I used to say I don’t want to regret anything when I die. I’ve learned that we will all regret something. It’s about minimizing those regrets that seems most important. Have I done all in my power to make the world a better place? Even if I have to take Advil to do it?
Spring seems like the perfect time to pull yourself out of the mire of a year’s worth of mourning. A year’s worth of inward focus on pain and suffering. It seems like it’s time to take a little joy from the flowing Bleeding Hearts or the small bit of green that shows on my hydrangea. I saw a hummingbird for the first time today, whizzing past my window to land on our feeders we just put out. The house is settling, the mourning is settling. Perhaps it’s time I did, too, and just enjoy the warmer days, the beautiful green trees, and the fact that I have the opportunity to wake up and work on the world, aches, pains, and all. Take the days while they are here, because the Night comes when not one of us can continue to work.
There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from. – Elizabeth Kubler Ross
At the end of the year, I always do my goals. Always. Since 1984. Really. I tend to think back to what some of those first goals were: “learn how to cook,” “learn how to cook well,” “spend time with family,” or the ever elusive and completely ubiquitous, “get fit.” At the time, I was 21. Over the years, things have gotten more complex, and easier. I actually know what a “goal” is and what a task is, and how to set them better, for myself and others. I spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff, probably more than is normal or healthy. I think about achievements and setbacks, I think about what ifs, and how could I do whatever it might be better. I love this time of year. Autumn to Winter is for reflection.
This year, I spent a great deal of time thinking about death, and life, for all the obvious reasons. I think it’s healthy to think about our own mortality. And, let’s be honest: we all think about it at some point. When I was 13 or 14, I was terrified of dying. I would stop and think, someday I’m going to stop breathing. I’m going to not have my heart beat like this. My mind will not be…churning, thinking of goals. I will cease. If we’re honest with ourselves, that is scary if we have no other prospects. I won’t have this life any more. I think I might have said all of this before, but hang in there, it goes somewhere else I’m pretty sure.
Fortunately, I was in an English Skills for College class, and Mr. Curran was adamant that we learn how to write a term paper. I used this as an opportunity to write that paper on “Life After Death.” I delved, plunged, and sunk into everything I could find about death other than what I knew from the standard, suburban bible studies. I read Elizabeth Kubler Ross, a pioneer in death and dying in the modern age, as well as the Bardo Thodol or the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Raymond Moody, another life-after-death pioneer. I listened to psychics and read “What Dreams May Come.” I read about near-death experiences and talked with religious people about what they believed via their religion.
What I found is that once I had an idea of what I felt, intuited to be true, I came to conclusions and beliefs that suited me. I wrote that paper with passion. I wish I still had that paper; I let Mr. Curran keep that paper for future classes. My pride overrode the thought of any future reference. Yet, the future reference was inside of me – I had integrated that into my mind and heart, and thus began my love affair with philosophy, death, religion, and spirituality. It also taught me that those that are most of afraid of death and dying do not contemplate it until the time is upon them, at which they have no construct to explore. In their horror, they simply cease to be. So, yes, I felt pretty stable about what I have come to believe for myself.
Until this year. I’ve known and loved people that have passed before; my mother, JB (a co-writer with me), my grandparents, school acquaintances, beloved pets, and work colleagues have all left my life. Some I have cried for my own loss, and some of the loss to the world. For some, I never cried and in my detachment, I had wonder at that. I think the difference, now, is that I’m closer to my own mortality than I had been previously. I’m on the other side of my life, rather than on the uphill climb.
Had I been smart and conscious, I might have realized that I could have died at any time. Poof. Gone. Now, I know. Now, I think about it. Dad went relatively fast, from life to non-life. Faster than I might have been ready to deal with. And for a person who has handled so many things, been in charge and in control, it was icy water splashed in my face. Hey! WAKE UP!
The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?” he wrote in his Discourses.
Some might say Epictetus was an asshole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something.
“The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,” he says. “You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful. Well, I am a 21st-century practicing Stoic.”
At the same time all was happening with my father, I began rereading Epictetus and Zeno – the Stoics. I realized a while ago that while I love neo-Platonism from a spiritual perspective, I feel more like a Stoic. I think that my basic way of being is more stoic. People in my past might be laughing right now. That’s fine. I was not very thoughtful as a young adult – I was much more animated and, as HR likes to say, “passionate” about things. Now, the pendulum does not swing so wildly. My breadth of emotional response is far smaller. I feel, of course. I just don’t emote as…fervently. However, emotion isn’t all there is about stoicism. There are some principles of stoicism that authors have examined. The interesting thing is that none of the philosophers who we acknowledge as stoics have listed these principles in some sort of writings. Perhaps the closest is Marcus Aurelius, followed by Seneca.
I particularly love Marcus Aurelius…
Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to mine, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of divinity, I can neither be harmed by any of them, nor no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my brother, nor hate him. For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.
In essence, it’s about what we as humans can control. Many of us, including me, are fond of saying that we can only control ourselves. However, most of us do not. We think that by thinking and worrying and emoting, we can actually change those things around us. A very good book about this is “The Untethered Soul,” by Michael Singer. He wrote a follow-on, autobiographical book titled “The Surrender Experiment.” I digress, sort of. We cannot change the fact that we will die. It is a foregone conclusion. That we know of it makes no difference; it will happen at some time as we are flesh. All we can do, to quote Gandalf, is “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
So, I decide by writing goals. By deciding how I want to leave the world, how I want my one moment of breath in the long scheme of living beings in the universe to matter. I don’t want to spend my time thinking about the latest pop song, what some scheming politician has or is doing, or what I’m going to wear to look “presentable” for something. I want to be who I am and I want the long term, the big vision, the whole heart. I do think about those small things that happen around me almost as a matter of course. My brain picks them up and stores them, for some unknown crazy reason. But what I think most about is how the world will look in 5000 years, or 10000 years, and what will humanity’s path be, and what will be left after the earth rebuilds itself from our mark. I also think about 10000 years ago, and how far humanity has come, what we’ve invented and what paths we take. I think of this in a very Matrix-like mentality, like it’s a game that we’re all playing. I don’t say that outloud to many people, so you get to hear it here. I do think of life as a bit of a game, laughing at the seriousness with which we all go about our daily lives and emotional hiccups. Laughing at myself for buying the September Vogue and then thinking, really? Let’s think about something that actually matters… then laughing again because that’s just what matters to me. The circle of awareness expands. Maybe I don’t think that way when I’m the depths of humanness, crying for my dying cat or frustrated at family, I admit it. There is a part of playing human that we all have to do. I do, though, find myself lifting out of the depths some times and, like Trinity at the end of the Matrix, lifting above the clouds to see the possibilities of all Life and existence – the great game that we’ve all bought into playing, whether we believe it or not. What we believe is irrelevant, – belief will not let us control the outcome. It is what it is.
All very Stoic.
So, I write goals to play my human part and to participate in the world that we’ve created, nurtured, and sometimes destroy. My goals are lofty and pedestrian, sometimes in equal measure. It helps me keep playing the game and yes, part of that is playing the death part, too. I want us to all be a little less afraid of dying and death. It’s part of the game, after all. If nothing ever really leaves the material universe, we never really leave. We just come back as a new player, a new pawn or queen, knight or bishop, or perhaps the King. Maybe we come back as the board, the air, or the time clock, or maybe all three. Does it matter in the great adventure? Goals tickle my humanity and make it feel important. I know, though, that I’m not. We’re all not. And we are. We’re part of the game, part of the Matrix, and it won’t matter what pill you really take, will it?
That’s how I choose to end this year. On a Stoic’s note, as it were. Enjoy this, and laugh. ( Love this cartoonist… 🙂 )
To all of you, Happy Winter Solstice, Happy Yule, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Mithrasmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy days off, and most of all Happy New Year. May it be filled with laughter and love for the Great Game in which we all play a part, and filled with the Virtue toward which we aspire.
P.S. – I love this wheel of Stoicism, this compass. Sailing on the Sea of Life.