In the earth-based spirituality in which I trained and taught we talk about “making Death the Ally” -ie- allowing an awareness of impermanence and mortality to help us value life and live fully. But it’s hard to hold this awareness close when you're young or healthy or living in a culture with so much of everything. Seeing my parents’ struggle with what most would say was not an unpredictable development (my father has advanced Alzheimer's and has recently had to go into a secure care facility) I wonder why we find it so difficult to grasp the reality of impermanence even as we say we know that change is the only constant. When my mother (referring to my father’s need for care she cannot provide) said, “Who could have seen this coming?” I wanted to say (but didn’t) “Everyone! Anyone! All of us!”
It seems to be a species propensity, this ability to deny the probable if not inevitable unfolding reality. After all, who could have predicted that building nuclear reactors on fault lines would put life at risk of exposure to radioactivity? Everyone. Who could have foreseen that propping up despotic dictators would impede local democracy or result in civilian deaths when stirrings for justice and freedom arose? Anyone. Who could guess that dumping toxic chemicals into the earth and air and water would cause death and destruction for humans and other species? All of us.
I am stunned by our ability to ignore the truth when the truth is hard. Driving home from my parents, I really got it: old age and death is where we are all headed (if we are fortunate enough not to die young) no matter how we live. That’s right- whether or not we eat well, exercise diligently, are blatant materialists or focused on spiritual matters; whether or not we get everything on our to-do list done; whether or not we make or disparage to-do lists- it is where we are all going. Just let that sink in for a minute, let it shift your perspective on what you think you need to do or who you think you need to be.
I’m not saying that the quality of our lives is not shaped by how we live. To a large degree it is, although this remains in many ways unpredictable. Diseases like Alzheimer’s can strike anyone and profoundly shape the quality of life. But the ultimate destination- old age and death- is not a punishment for not getting it "right." It’s just the reality for all living things- including human beings- on this planet. And this is true whether or not you believe death is The End or a transition into a different state of being. Pretending that death is not the end of the human life we know reminds me of a woman in the birthing class I attended when I was pregnant with my second son (who was twelve pounds ten ounces at birth.) She suggested that if we called labour contractions “sensations” instead of "pains" they might not hurt as much. Ha!
In moments of clarity, when I accept Death as an Ally, I wonder at our timidity, our worry, our endless weighing of possibilities, our fears about and suffering over many of the choices we make. The denial of death paradoxically seems to lead to an almost casual disregard for the predictably dire environmental consequences of large decisions, but endless anxiety around smaller, unpredictable changes in our personal lives. We seem to perpetually sweat the (relatively) small stuff and sprinkle the big stuff with the fairy dust of denial.
And all of this makes me wonder where I’m not living fully who I am, where I am putting in time, waiting for something hoped for or unnameable, where I am allowing the small stuff to distract me from this moment, this breath, this life and all it asks of me. I shake my head at the wasted energy of holding onto hurt from past injustices, the missed opportunities to be kind to myself and others, the failure to greet each day as the gift it is.
Driving home from my parents’ I spoke out loud as I drove down the highway, addressing my soul and the Mystery that is larger than myself, saying, “Speak to me. Direct me.” And I recommited to listening and following what comes from that which is deeply sacred within me and around me, without hesitation or timidity or worries about where it might take me.
It’s not that I’ve never done this before. I have and continue to do this regularly. But with the changes in my parents’ lives the reality of our mortality has become vivid for me again, in a deeper way. And with Death as the Ally, the questions, the listening, the courage to follow the impulse when it comes from the soul becomes, if not easier to heed, harder to ignore. I don’t want to be surprised when death comes, not because I have any fantasy of control, but because I want to arrive in that moment having spent myself completely on living fully committed to Life, holding close the reality of how impermanent it all is and, as poet Mary Oliver writes- “When the time comes to let it go- to let it go.”