I thank David Cates for permitting me to post this timely writing (original post March 30, 2020).
“It’s Time To Stop Avoiding Death: You can’t have the life you want without letting go of the life you have”
I’ve been stunned by how thoroughly a tiny virus, barely 0.0001″ across, has brought our human world screeching to a halt. In a few short months, on a global scale, it’s kicked over all the old bedrocks, nation by nation, and clearly revealed the dark, wriggly underworld hiding just out of sight.
That sense of unease we’ve had — about governments and politicians, scientists and institutions, economies built on hope and lies, nature gasping from our poisons, societies splintering into dry tinder — all that is laid bare. And in the deafening silence of shutdown, there’s nowhere else to look. The veil’s been lifted. The world’s turned upside down. The roots are rotten.
This is what we have become.
Some of us still sneak out to the streets; some pull the netflix covers over their eyes. But as the days wear on, in quarantine, we’re being forced to see our lives, our jobs, our relationships, and our selves without those layers of frantic busyness and protective gauze. Exposed. Naked, squinting at the sun, unsure who we are, uncertain what to do.
I’ve been meditating lately on the vast, hidden networks of nature: the mycelium, bacteria, microbiota and yes, the viruses. The original organisms from which complex lifeforms evolved, and likely, the ones who will take over again when humans disappear from this world, adapting to eat up our plastic pollution and radioactive waste, and more immediately, to compost our physical bodies as each of us dies.
Nature is a web, innumerable networks in constantly shifting yin/yang balance. Death is an essential element in that balance. Embracing death brings us back into harmony with the underlying game as it’s played in this world, at every scale, from insects to empires.
Resisting death puts us at odds with the whole natural order.
These past few years, I’ve been pulled down into an underworld initiation. I accompanied first my sister and then my mother through the final months of their lives, sitting with them as they took their last breaths. Death is ordinary, terrifying and beautiful all at once. It cracks our hearts open in a way that nothing else can.
So before this new virus appeared, I’d already made friends with the dark and wriggly worlds under those flipped-over rocks. My naked skin had goose-bumped in the cold shadows. I’d felt the grief pooling in my lungs, and seen the world strangely magnified through tears.
I may be a bit further along this path than some of you. But maybe not. For in the bright light of these revelation-times, many of us are showing our hidden battle scars and secret hurts, the ancestral wounds we carry, the loves we’ve lost — all the tiny deaths we’ve not yet mourned and celebrated.
Apocalypse: the uncovering. What happens when the Emperor has no clothes? What happens when I lose my job and social place? What happens when I’m locked in a house alone with my family? When we can’t get food or medicine? When one of us starts coughing? When my competent identity crumbles, and you see who I really am, underneath the facade?
I’ve been reluctant to speak these questions out loud.
Many people have reached out to me for soothing, for certainty, for reassurance that we’ll soon be back to normal. Uncharacteristically, I’ve been holding my tongue.
I don’t think we can go back to “normal”.
Forgetful as we human creatures are, I can’t unsee this revelation. On every level, from the meta and systemic to relational and personal, this is where we are now. In the midst of the sixth mass extinction, pounded by climate change, with 20,000 children dying of hunger every day.
Much of our generalized panic about this situation, I believe, is misplaced. We’re focused on personal human deaths, our own or our loved ones. But when I step back, relax my gaze and focus on the bigger pictures here, it’s clear what’s really dying.
Our old, “normal” world has been rotting on its deathbed for decades. That stench in my nostrils is not from a few thousand (or even, soon, a few million) human bodies.
The social order has already broken down, politics is lethal, and nature is drowning in poisons.
Underneath the rocks, below the foundations, the roots are rotten.
And everyone knows it.
Our avoidance of death hasn’t actually stopped our world from dying. It’s just left us delusional, little children with our eyes squeezed shut, fingers plugging our ears, tongues babbling nonononononono.
The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has burst that dam of denial. It’s an equal opportunity killer, impacting every nation, rich and poor alike. No more bullshit. No more hiding.
Death is everywhere.
As we quarantine in place, isolated in our homes, the truth couldn’t be any plainer.
We can’t survive alone.
We’ve got to come together.
We’re social creatures, relying on each other for food, healing, touch, kindness, understanding, information, and a thousand other services.
Without others, we’re doomed.
And, as this current situation makes abundantly clear — as the virus passes from person to person, from hand to mouth to lungs — we’re also doomed with others.
Doomed if we do, and doomed if we don’t.
That’s the basic fact of life we have forgotten in our modern, go-go-go, scrambling-for-survival world.
Life is short. Death is certain.
Here it comes.
I’ve been short and ruthless with my closest friends and students. “I’ve made my peace with Death. You won’t find peace with this virus until you do, too.”
Certainly, protect yourselves and others in the ways that you can. Don’t be foolish. No need to race toward death.
But also don’t be foolish, thinking you can beat death forever.
Let’s take this precious time-out-of-time (while the world is holding its shocked breath, the rocks are kicked over and the curtain’s pulled back on the Wizard of Oz ) — and look deeply into why we’re all so terribly frightened of dying.
So frightened of dying that we’re willing to hide in our houses, let doctors and nurses do our dirty work without protective gear, abandon our grandparents to die alone in nursing homes.
So frightened of dying that we hand our power over to despots, and sacrifice a world worth living in together.
This is a moment of truth.
This tiny “enemy” we’re trying to defeat is just another face of Death. (Not to worry, Death has millions more.)
The entire natural world, for billions of years, has been an intricate, ever-changing dance of life and death. That’s the game here on this planet. We’re all just borrowing material from other lifeforms to make our own bodies. They dance together for a number of years, and then decay and are recycled.
It’s a beautiful system, when I surrender to it.
So many cells and atoms and microbes come together to support my personal creation! So many beings give themselves to feed and nourish me each day!
When I stop and really feel that gift, I’m overwhelmed with love and gratitude.
But rather than live with humble gratitude, and die with grace, we humans get selfish. Personally, relationally, economically, politically. We want to grab and hoard and hold on forever.
And in doing so, we miss the point. We may gain a few years, but we lose our hearts and souls.
We can see that clearly in the selfish 0.1% who hoard more wealth than they can ever use. We see the results of our collective greed as it kills off entire species and trashes the living biosphere.
We see that greed and fear strangle our own lives and relationships. Mememememememememe…
We may have separate bodies, but we’re not designed to live (or die) alone.
For better or worse, we’re part of an intricate, unimaginable, mysterious whole.
And when we turn away from Death, we lose our connection to that whole.
When my mother died, and the muscles in her face let go, her individual “personality” vanished: the twinkle in her eyes was gone, the way she smiled, the tilt of her head. But in their place, the bones revealed themselves, and in that distinct marble sculpture (the slope of the forehead, the thrust of the jaw) I saw her mother, and her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother.
She was clearly part of something bigger, a temporary form borrowed for a handful of years, one face of a lineage that stretches back for millennia.
The rest was compost and ash, returned to the earth, gifts now available for other creatures to create their own turn in this world.
I want to be that let-go, that surrendered to everything: life, death, love, fear, all the beauty in this unfathomable mystery.
I want to enjoy my time in the sun, and then enjoy my time in the dark dreaming night. I want to remember my place in the whole.
All the best things in my life were unpredictable surprises. They came when I surrendered and let life take me somewhere new. New love, new work, new place in the world, sometimes even a new sense of self.
The trick, I believe, is not holding on to what life has already given me.
When my time comes, early or late, ugly or beautiful, I want to surrender again, and let death take me somewhere unfathomably new.
I wish the same grace for you: to turn toward apocalypse, curious, open, not knowing who you are, loving all that you’ve been given, maybe scared, maybe not… ready to let go of the old familiar world, and begin to assemble, from the strange scraps and compost and imaginal cells all around and inside you, something humble and connected and new.
Reach out to others. Share your heart, your joys and fears. Give your gifts. Connect to something bigger than yourself, human and more-than-human too.
Embrace the unknown. Be willing to die. A new world can’t come until we finally let go of this one.
We can let a tiny virus do the heavy lifting for us. We can wait for the next virus, and the next.
Or we can push through this birth canal together.
A few days before my mother died, when she was getting frustrated and frightened and losing her anchors to reality, I told her, “You’re doing such a great job, Mom! You’ve never tried to die before, and this is all new to you. I think you’re doing this perfectly.”
She smiled the most glorious little-girl smile, and content with herself, finally stopped fussing with the blankets and let go.
And as she died, she showed me that death is not the enemy here.
Death is a doorway to love.
In the same way that birth blows hearts open and changes lives forever, so does death.
Don’t turn away.
Don’t turn away from all that’s dying.
Face it, feel it, mourn it, grieve it.
Let it blow your heart open.
This is the doorway to a new world.
Here, in your lost and scared and grieving heart.
This is the opening.
We’ve never done this before.
But now the lights are on, and we can see where to begin.
Follow David Cates https://medium.com/@kauaidavid