Embracing Death

Reposted from The Commons Online

Though we don’t know for certain, the scientific evidence, as well as our own observations, is pretty convincing that we are rapidly approaching, or have actually entered near-term extinction. That is, we have either precious little time to avoid climate apocalypse. Or it’s already too late.

In any case, we really have only one choice at this point in time as to how we go about living our lives.

It is the choice of no-choice, the only choice we have beyond a further descent into the barbarism we’ve perpetrated for centuries upon ourselves and other living beings — barbarism that now is the logical endgame of what we euphemistically call “climate change.”

We can finally choose to live our lives as we should have been living them all along. And, ironically, whether we still think we have a chance to save our sorry butts or we believe that we’ve blown it, the choice is the same.

That’s because our moment-to-moment reality is identical.

This is the fact of our always-pending, imminent death.

Death is not something we readily embrace. Despite giving occasional lip service to its inevitability, we don’t recognize it.

More importantly, we don’t live our lives as if death is always with us. We ignore the essential question of our brief moment on this orb of what our lives mean in the face of this omnipresent reality.

Our unwillingness to accept death as a constant companion has had a disastrous effect on our lives. Nowhere is this more dramatically illustrated than in the climate crisis that is currently unfolding all around us.

In an effort to deny our mortality, we have created a civilization that is based upon the plunder of nature’s finite gifts to achieve perpetual economic growth and material abundance.

This culture all began with the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago, when we began our benighted effort to conquer and rule nature. But in the process, we have been murdering our Mother, who is the very basis of our existence.

When we are in denial about death, we tend to minimize or disown that which has left our lives, whether that be a parent, a marriage, a friendship, or a job. We don’t want to experience the pain and suffering. We don’t want to touch on the unthinkable that loss and change ultimately raise for us.

But by giving the reality of death its due, we begin to see that we are here one moment, gone the next. We begin to see the interconnectedness of everything. We see that, despite our efforts to the contrary, we are one with the rest of life, including that loss and change.

In so doing, we no longer need to resist or deny the inevitable.

This awareness of being one with the rest of life comes with a number of salutary benefits.

For one thing, we can grieve what we have lost. When we don’t, our hearts harden, and our moral and spiritual growth stunts. We remain stuck in the past.

Most importantly, we can regain connection with the rest of life. We can reconnect with ourselves, the people around us, and the natural world.

That is why grieving is especially important when it comes to facing climate change. Whether we accept that we’ve gone over the precipice or whether we hope there is still time, it is essential for us to confront all that we’ve lost, all the beautiful and precious instances of life that we’ll never see again because of our efforts to exact dominion over Mother.

We need to spend time in nature, engage in heartfelt conversations with its fleeting manifestations. Apologize for how we have harmed it. Speak gratitude to the beings we encounter.

This is the way we begin the journey home.

As others have noted, death can also help us live our lives by reminding us to be more aware of the passing moment, that we don’t have forever, and that every moment might be our last.

In her remarkable book A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit tells of how people facing disaster invariably put aside self-centered concerns and rise to the occasion, exhibiting the compassion, generosity, empathy, courage, integrity, altruism, and solidarity required by their dire circumstances — qualities that Solnit suggests most of us possess latently but exhibit more directly in a calamity.

Unfortunately, one reason why people have not responded more appropriately to the climate crisis is that we don’t recognize the catastrophic situation that we’re in. We don’t yet feel our backs against the wall.

The problem is that when we finally do, it will be too late. We will be overwhelmed.

But by making friends with our always-pending death, by liberating ourselves to devote more of our lives to unconditional service to humans and other living beings, our lives are more likely to have purpose and meaning.

Living with near-term extinction does not preclude working for the good of the planet. Quite the contrary, when we pursue excellence, we do what we love — not to save ourselves, but for its own sake.

Unconditional love in action can provide strength and meaning in hopeless circumstances. To live passionately in the face of immanent death is to live a life of selfless joy, beauty, and creativity.

Perhaps the only antidote for the despair that many of us are experiencing now in light of our circumstances is to accept the growing evidence that we’re in near-term extinction, not only as individuals, but as a civilization. We need to submit ourselves to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grieving, which concludes with acceptance.

Maybe, then, in accepting our deaths, we will come fully alive.

For if it’s still possible, it is only a transformative change of this kind that can save us from our fate.