I’ve written to God. I’ve implored Life and tried to squeeze from it jewels and nuggets that may only exist in my mind. (My mind is part of Life, though, isn’t it? The line between real and imaginary is weak when my thoughts create something that feels like it should be right in front of me.) I’ve even spoken to Food, my greatest love and arch-nemesis. But this is the first time I’ve ever tried to talk to you, Death. You’ve always been something to fear, avoid, and banish from my headspace. Problem is, I’m terrible at banishing you, Death. You lurk like the worst kind of creepy stalker: the type who just keeps showing up, knowing where I’ll be and waving as soon as you spot me, with that searing grin of yours.
If you must come, Death, may it be so far in the future that I can’t even imagine the amount of time between now and that moment. May you come with no warning: no illness, no violent maniac threatening me. Warnings like that may give some people perspective, a sense of their mortality while they’re still alive and seeing with the eyes of this life. But I already have perspective, Death. I know. I know all too well: I think about you constantly. Throwing yourself into my gut and making me live with you will only push me into some horrible edge of hysteria. May you stay away, and then, if you must come, may it be quick, with not even a prick of pain.
Honestly, Death, you need to avoid me because I am still a baby. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. I’m a super-slow maturer: it takes me decades to learn lessons others grasp in a blink of perception. People talk about gaining perspective as they mature: feeling more comfortable with themselves as time goes on. I can’t imagine how this might work. I will need many more decades before I begin to grasp the meaning of my life, and get used to my role here, whatever it might be. Those decades must be filled with health and vitality. I need to inch with strength and vigor towards whatever success, love, and meaning I was meant to achieve on this earth.
Death: please do not show me any remote sign of yourself. I mean no disrespect. I know many people who have come close to you and called the experience profound. They know what matters in life, they say, because you came around and showed them what could happen at any time.
You were a friend to them, Death, and I don’t want to minimize that closeness. But some friendships are best cultivated from afar. You know how some people are great to joke around with on Facebook or on the phone but stressful to see in person? I’d say that’s the kind of relationship you and I have. We see quite a lot of each other from a distance, Death. You are way too intense for me to handle an up-close relationship. Go hang out with those who can cope with you. Let them learn the lessons of intimacy with you.
So why am I writing to you at all, if I want to keep you far away? Here’s the weird thing, Death: I am obsessed with you. Most of it is simple, bone-chilling fear. The moment you come — or even show yourself with more strength than usual — all the pleasure I try to squeeze out of Life will vanish. You’ve come to people close to me a few times, Death, and I reacted very poorly, teetering close to some kind of mental implosion. It was unforgettable in the worst possible way, and I would like to keep you away.
Since I know that you have a tendency to show up in all kinds of ways — and since I’m the type who is very open about my thoughts — I’ve decided to be upfront with you and tell you how I feel, in case you haven’t figured it out. You seem to appear for a lot of people who would have greatly preferred not to see you. I’m letting you know that doing this with me would bring no unexpected joy, gratitude, or even hard-won education. I’ve met people who wound up embracing their “cancer journeys,” or who said their heart attacks brought them glorious new perspective on what matters in life. That wouldn’t be me, Death. You’d be knocking yourself out with no payoff if you tried something like that with me, or with anyone I love.
I could end here, but that would erase a universe. Maybe even a universe of universes. I just admitted something to myself — something enormous and shocking. Death, you are my hugest fear, but also a sneaky beam of brilliant hope.
I love Life way more than you, Death. I hope to maximize my time with Life and stave off my time with you for as long as I possibly can. And yet… Life only goes so far. It can offer exhilarating cultures, people, foods, experiences, cities, landscapes, moods, beliefs, challenges, victories…. The opportunities are stunning, but they are not infinite. I can sense possibilities that Life will never offer, no matter how lucky or well-planned.
Where Life leaves off, Death, do you come in? That is my most fervent hope: a hope that far outshines my this-worldly dreams. Of course I want that fabulous writing success, the freedom that comes with a fortune of money, the wonders that arise from connecting with soulmates and deep friends. But, if I had all that, would I still yearn for more? I feel sure that the answer is yes.
Death, your role in all this is terrifying, ironic, and tinged with potential magic. If you weren’t an issue… if I were sure that Life stretched on into infinity… I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t seek anything “else.” “Else” would be the future: all the experiences I hadn’t yet encountered. That would be enough for me. I might not seek transcendence, or even know how to frame the concept in my own mind. I’d simply look towards the future and hope for the best.
But the future has gross limits because of you, Death. And, you know what? That very fact pushes me to seek something “more.” If the future has limits, maybe something beyond it doesn’t. Maybe the infinity I seek — the sense of promise stretching out beyond anything my mind can imagine — is bound up in you.
Some suggest that, once Life is over, a new state begins: not nothingness, but a somethingness we can’t hope to capture in our current state. Possibilities abound: consciousness freed from our bodies; new, amazingly flexible bodies; existence powered by the individual’s beliefs and thoughts; resurrection of our prior bodies, which return in a state of ultimate health and beauty to an earth that can accommodate us all in a glorious, Messianic state; return to God; merging into some kind of glorious oneness (not my favorite speculation, to say the least, since I’ve always been a bit of an introvert who deeply values my individuality and separateness from others, though fans of this notion swear that it would be good, and that the self would gain and not lose through this transition)… and so much more that I haven’t begun to imagine. These potential after-death states provide opportunities that far transcend the chance to visit another country, try a new kind of cheese, or meet an intriguing new person in the midst of our current lives.
Of course, some fear the states you might provide, Death. There are fundamentalist Christians who speak of permanent hell for all those who never come around to faith in Jesus’ divinity, to offer a poignant example. But, somehow, this scenario has never moved me or seemed remotely possible. It strikes me as too literal, too surface, too steeped in small-minded notions, to be valid. If Jesus is somehow behind the ultimate truth, he couldn’t possibly be so vindictive.
I greatly prefer the notions I’ve heard among Chabad Hasidim, who discuss a painful but temporary purification process known as Gehinnom, which isn’t a punishment per se, but a chance to engage with all the mistakes you made in life — followed by a blissful stage known as Gan Eden: a disembodied state powered by your own good deeds throughout your life, ultimately followed by return to an earth that has entered a Messianic age, complete with a resurrected version of the body you’d traveled through life with. At that point, you, Death, will cease, and souls will live forever in immortal bodies that house them, basking in clear, blissful holiness that will shine clearly throughout the world. According to this theory, some souls actually live more than one earthly life — dying and later reincarnating — before reaching this final Messianic state. I’ve been told that, when this happens, all the relevant bodies come back to life during the Messianic age, housing intimately related but somewhat distinct personalities.
It pleases me that I like the Jewish notion a whole lot. Not the Reform Jewish notion I’ve often heard, of living on through those who remember you. That’s a euphemistic way of saying that you, Death, lead to nothingness for our glorious mental universes. The former consciousness is black and gone, but the person is remembered until all who think of her are also black and gone. No. You must know me well enough to realize that, for me, this is the worst imaginable fate. I like the ideas I heard among Chabad Hasidim during my splendid though challenging year living among and writing about them. I don’t believe them, but, you know what: I am open to them.
The thought of these notions — and of your role within them, Death — sends a kind of electricity through my body. This sensation makes me feel that my friends from that year had a kind of line into you. Maybe you communicated something real and true with them. I don’t love the common belief among them that, once we die, we can no longer commit meaningful good deeds. My own sense of you, Death, suggests to me that growth and good deeds will always be possible, even after you’ve come. I mean, you’re a true pal, right? You wouldn’t take away our capacity to create new goodness, would you?
Well, I’m no observant Jew, let alone Chabad Hasid. I’m not sure what I believe about you, Death. On good days, I suspect that many different worldviews have captured slivers of what you have to offer, and that each individual will navigate a somewhat different terrain when the time comes, depending on the needs and quirks of each unique awareness. On my worst days, I shiver and cringe, thinking it’s likely that you lead to… nothing. A big sleep, but deeper than sleep. Brain death, with nothing spiritual to replace that intricate but finite mass of pulsing awareness once it gives out.
Judaism has an intriguing notion that behavior often surpasses belief in importance. You might have no religious faith, but if you perform a good deed, you’re creating spiritual energy even so. So get this, Death: I am writing a letter to you! Whatever I believe or don’t believe, I took that time out of my hectic life. I could be hanging out with swank people at a super-swank party, making all kinds of fabulous connections, but, instead, I am reaching out to you.
OK, I don’t really know any swank people, and, if I did, I’m sure they wouldn’t invite me to their parties. (My friends should take no offense: swank people are one club I’d never want to join, even if they’d have me as a member.) Still, Death: I am not one to put a lot of effort into something that feels useless. I wrote this letter, so I must think you’re listening, somehow. And if I think you’re listening, I must believe, on some level, that you’re a friend. And if I believe that you, Death, are a friend… well… maybe there’s nothing to fear.
I mean, you’re the worst possibility, aren’t you, Death? And I’m reaching out to you in warmth and trust. Would a logician say that this means I have faith that you will bring goodness when the times comes? What about a mystic? Most important, what about me?
Right at this moment, I feel a shimmering speck of optimism regarding you, Death. Let me stop, breathe in the feeling, and commune with you as a friend.
Image Credit: “Aim High” by Ojie Paloma, January 15, 2008, on flickr.com