Over the past twenty-four months, the deceiving and uncanny void between longevity and finitude, between life and death, has become the prominent global focal point to a degree it has not been for generations. Within a matter of weeks, those societies whose collective perception of death had been engulfed under the translucent veil of prosperity and modernity were, very rapidly, forced to confront that chasm; forced to collectively face the potential of a deadly virus sweeping through and the precipice being revealed for the infinitesimally thin line that it is. In light of the relative darkness of recent times, and a decade on from losing my mother to cancer, I have attempted to delve into my personal journey, and what I have since learnt, to contemplate those questions that we – at least those of us in a largely secular Western society – have perhaps all too often neglected.
Reflecting and deliberating on such a profound and indelible topic conjures an innate hesitation and trepidation to discover what is on the other side of the keyboard, in case it wanders into territory that breaches the delicate tension between the personal and the public. This consideration was present throughout my writing.
The Walk of Life
What does it take to keep walking? What is the real tax of our constant attempt to avoid the inevitability of the path becoming a dead end? This question is something that is almost ubiquitously overlooked. The answer? Perhaps everything we are and all we have. The continuous energy expense dedicated towards this ultimate objective, is rarely something that one takes the time to seriously consider – but it is immense. Physiologically, our bodies have evolved many complex mechanisms, that act to keep us propagating forward. You cannot just will your heart to cease beating. And even if you wanted to end it all by holding your breath, bitter disappointment will swiftly arise and repay the oxygen debt. The majority of the time, thanks to adaptive evolution, biology works to save us. The genes need to reach the future and systems have evolved to try and get them there. Thank God for that. Furthermore, and psychological pathologies aside, many of our daily decisions on both a subconscious and conscious level are made with the objective of keeping that precipice away from arms reach, whether its perceived proximity is real or illusory, and whether or not those choices are successful in such a quest. Even the very pursuit and undertaking of what is meaningful and productive, acts as a path towards a fulfilling and gratifying life and away from the psychological pitfalls and pain of existential angst. The biggest adrenaline addicts still seek to avoid the traffic.
With a terminal illness, however, the end of the path is brought into view ahead of time. The realisation that something within our physiological structure has fundamentally malfunctioned to a degree to it outstripping the body’s capacity of fixing the error, or has been exposed to a pathogen for which it has an insufficient answer, must both act as the ultimate catalyst for inducing a paradigm shift leading to a level of humility that only those who are going through such an experience would be able to understand. Priorities readjust to such an extent that conscious choices may result in a move away from the objective of survival and towards ensuring those destined to be left behind are as well prepared as possible, or simply towards maintaining a maximal level of comfort in the moment. With this consideration in mind, it is worth appreciating that it is not just those who one would typically expect to experience anticipated grief prior to a death that do, as the sufferer is condemned to lose everyone they know, all at once, and will not be present to experience the loss once they have. This form of disenfranchised grief often goes overlooked, yet its acknowledgment can offer great value to those poised to lose it all.
An Event Horizon
Time is non-linear. Just as mass distorts the fabric of space-time, so too does a continuous distortion occur in our minds. As we age, time appears to speed up, perhaps in proportion to that age. The span of a year which seems like eternity in infancy, feels ever less significant decades later. Events and many other factors distort and shape this perception further, and facing the reality of a death perhaps leads to a shift more radical than any other. If one was to observe someone approaching the event horizon of a black hole, to the perceiver they would slow down until the point where, upon entering the infinitely dense void, they would appear to have stopped just as they approach the speed of light. The same effect of time dilation would occur if a traveller sat on board a train approaching the speed of light. For the individual moving, time would appear to speed up yet to a perceiver, it would slow down. A week moving at such speed would equate to years for those left waiting. Think Interstellar. It’s one way to remain young. Does something similar occur upon dying? From the point of view of the deceased, does time cease or has there simply been an interruption in the experience of consciousness? Without heading further down this infinite rabbit hole, Sam Harris recently released a contemplative exploration of the paradox of death in its relationship to time, identity and the impersonal nature and continuity of consciousness. See the link below for a much deeper insight into these concepts.
To Die For
Is there a worse condition than death? What about inescapable pain whether physical or psychological? At what point does death become preferable to enduring further suffering for no end goal? In desperate attempts to reassure those stuck in intense grieving, it is common to hear the suggestion that perhaps no longer witnessing the deceased in pain provides at least some solace. It may be impossible to quantify the degree to which this is true, and is one of the most subjective considerations one can face. When pain becomes intolerable with no way out, and consequently unbearable for those witnessing the suffering, perhaps death becomes a preferable predicament. This naturally brings up the topic of assisted dying, for which it is a modern-day failure and embarrassment of our society that this option remains illegal and inaccessible in the UK to those who may choose to pursue it. Having experienced the guilt associated with witnessing a parent in a state of immense and unabating pain, and to not have had that option on the table without making a final journey to Switzerland, and without the ability to refuse it, seems morally akin to erroneously being sentenced to the medieval death penalty.
An Evolving Bond
From a personal perspective, contemplating these questions in combination with the thought of eventually surpassing the age at which, in my case, my mum died, ignited an inquiry into how the relationship with that person can endure and evolve even once they are physically absent. For those who are yet to experience a major loss, the continued evolution of such a bond, far from simply condemned to being a detriment by hindering the grieving process and one’s own progression in life, it can become a useful tool to aid in navigating through it. The pathway to the development of such a relationship is deeply personal and, as such, can take many forms. Early on, the tendency for the most valued and highest quality aspects of the person’s character to become exaggerated and distorted is often very real. Whilst this has its benefits, over time, and as circumstances allow for a more reflective and more informed and accurate recollection, the potential emerges for a deeper understanding of the person than was obtained in the living years. This seemingly paradoxical eventuality could result in a more optimal relationship with the memory of the individual taking hold, and whilst setting any meta-physical beliefs aside, may provide the ability for that to then form a new type of bond that evolves in real-time as you strive forward, with love acting as the eternal adhesive. In this sense at least, there is life thereafter.
Ten Years On
Having spent a decade wading through a tremendously difficult but insightful process, much of what has emerged resides within an ongoing personal journey which one must continuously learn to navigate. Yet, maybe the biggest explorative revelation is recognising that death is an abstract and even transient concept. To what degree do we now identify with the same sense of self of who we were a year ago, five years ago, or a decade ago. Even if the familiarity of particular emotions remains detectable across time and certain poignant memories travel along side, the unique transient state that constituted our sense of identity that experienced such emotions in their raw form no longer exists. Does that constitute a death? If not, then what is it? If so, then at what point did it occur, or is death just intrinsic to life itself? Who or what actually dies when someone passes away? The atoms don’t die. And if it is someone you cared deeply about, the love and intimate connection still live on in a new form. Whilst being far from qualified to even remotely begin to answer such questions, they do provide the reassurance that much about death remains eternally mysterious. And such is life.
In 2006, upon finishing Year 11 at sixteen, my German form tutor of five years, gave all thirty students in his class a card which contained a picture of the interior of an inflatable maze, consisting of a labyrinth of coloured tunnels and lights. In it he wrote a single line: “Life is like this maze; wonderful, colourful and full of surprises – live it.” That one poetic and succinct piece of advice on our last day of school, from a brilliant man has remained vividly ingrained ever since, and also may provide the most valuable insight that death reveals. That it is to live for.
On the eve of the 10th anniversary of my mum’s passing, I submitted a question for the weekly Q&A portion of Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying’s globally-renowned Darkhorse podcast. The topic was on the degree to which mass psychosis is a symptom of a delayed grieving process for a world that no longer exists within a societal landscape that is becoming increasingly unfamiliar – especially in the covid era. To my great appreciation, it was answered first and I was able to watch the response live. Please see the link below from 01:52 to 16:44:
The Paradox of Death – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3xB0v8ejvw