By Judith Gayle | Political Waves
It's been on my mind to share some thoughts about death for months now. The biggest elephant in our consciousness, hunched in the corner and just out of sight, is mortality; it drives our every waking moment and some of our sleeping ones as well. Death is woven into the very fabric of 3D incarnation, where time and mortality are bunkmates. The early Fall window is tailor-made for such a conversation about an ancient fear that is built into our genetic memory, influenced by the Scorpio signature that is cozy with this reality. You may be turning your nose up, about now. This is a conversation most Americans avoid like the plague.
Revolutionary War era graves at the Old Dutch Church in Kingston, NY. Photo by Eric Francis.
I suppose there are other cultures as uptight and repressed about this inevitability as we are, but they don't talk about it, either, so I'm not entirely sure who they are. Our avoidance of the topic diminishes us. I applaud the Mexican tradition of el Dia de los Muertos
, for instance: their Day of the Dead, when loved ones passed are celebrated with picnics at their gravesite, altars in the homes of those who miss them, and a joyful remembrance of their lives and pleasures. Now that's a party. And while I avoid the somber religiosity of funerals, the Irish in me appreciates a good wake. But what else can you expect from a woman who, as a child, talked to dead people and found comfort and perspective while roaming acres of cemetery grounds close to home?
I'm not sure when we stopped lucid conversation about death in this country, but it was in my time. When I was a teen launching into adult activities, I was advised to keep mum about the Big Three -- politics, religion and sex -- as social conversation, lest conflict erupt. I ignored that, of course, since I saw all three topics much differently than my contemporaries and wanted to explore them. Notice that death was not on the list. Our American traditions once allowed for laying the Loved One out in the parlor for viewing and visiting, for a grieving process that made death's realities sharper but the inevitable parting more palatable. Perhaps it was the Second World War that changed all that. That's when we learned to make killing an art form, war a big business and death just a byproduct of pursuing national interests. I suspect that was also the time in our history when AmeriCo burst into being, the whole of the globe suddenly open to us and "For Profit" our new national model.
The First World War sent home more than our share of fallen in makeshift boxes, winnowing away the young men of that generation. Those early years of the 20th century saw the what was called the Spanish Flu pandemic as well, which took my great-grandmother and forever changed the course of my family's history. Many men died of the flu on the way home from the war. In those years, bodies were literally stacked up like cord-wood awaiting a final resting place, and we could still talk about death, find our relationship to it. Then came technology and policy and a shift of the nation's economy into militarism, and we slowly stopped talking about the inevitable result of international conflict and adventurism.
Joseph Ambrose, an 86-year-old World War I veteran, attends the dedication day parade for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He is holding the flag that covered the casket of his son, who was killed in the Korean War. Photo credit: U.S. Census Bureau.
We had won the Great War, we were the champions nicknamed Superpower, and the cost of our success would be an escalated pathology of violence and a permanent military presence around the world. We were all that and more. Shortly after Vietnam folded, the bodies of our soldiers were made invisible, just a "necessary consequence" of warfare as is the "collateral damage" done to innocents along the warpath. This was intentional, since nothing did more to bring that ill-conceived war to a halt than day-by-day film from the front playing across our TV screens. Today's explanation that asserts the privacy of the fallen is disingenuous: those who die publicly for a national cause can no more be private in death than can the faces of those who make such policy. But here we are. No more names, just euphemisms. No more pictures, just numbers of dead. No more mirrors of reality, just glorious national wins.
I write this on Veteran's Day, the television coverage thick with glory hallelujahs in remembrance of our warriors’ sacrifices. It's difficult to separate the genuine energy of patriotism from the heavy tread of nationalism on such a day. Since we don't dance with reality as concerns war and its human cost, I'm more apt to think of these fallen as scared kids, dying far from home and quite likely, in those last shattering moments, wondering why. Are they held in the comforting arms of our geopolitical ambitions as they take that last breath, or are they just wishing they could see the face of mother, wife, child one last time? It may be less distressing to think of our soldiers, their bodies returned to us draped in the American flag, as resolute until the bitter end, but that's more the Disneyesque version of reality. Ask those who witnessed their final moments, those three-quarters of returning Vets who suffer some symptom of PTSD and have a higher incidence of suicide, divorce and substance abuse than the national norm. In the light of day they might tell us their comrades died for freedom. I wonder what their nightmares would tell us.
To clarify, I'm not a pacifist or an isolationist. I'm aware that there are hopefully rare instances when we must protect ourselves or others using our military might. The world we live in demands a trained force that is capable of defense, and in football terms, the occasional offense. But there are consequences when we make death a national industry and rely upon it for our economic wellbeing, consequences that no amount of speechifying and public pageantry can justify. Retired General and current Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki published a piece on the expanded veteran advocacy
he hopes to implement that included this statement: "Our character as a nation is revealed by the honors we accord them and measured by the respect with which we care for them." In all candor, our character is also revealed by what we ask them to do and where.
U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, named as the shooter in the November 5, 2009 Fort Hood mass shooting. Photo by the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
This week violence, fear of terrorism, systemic militarism and heavy human cost all came crashing forward, knotted together in the person of one Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a deeply conflicted and emotionally disturbed Muslim psychiatrist trained at Walter Reed Hospital, whose transfer to Fort Hood, Texas, for deployment to Iraq tipped him over into a nihilistic spasm of violence. I think I understand what happened there because I'm aware that, as variously attributed to Richard James, Goethe and Richard Bach, "We teach best what we need to learn." If you are seriously at odds with the various parts of yourself, and ambitious to boot, you may end up a shrink; I've seen it happen and it ain't pretty. Hasan was trained to deal with issues of PTSD. Imagine his escalating internal chaos as he dealt with returning soldiers, peeling the onion of rage, hatred, dehumanization of the Hadjis that both killed and were killed, and then filter it all through a religious philosophy as intense as Islam. Instant Molotov cocktail of the soul. As an American-born Muslim, Hasan was already in the cross-hairs, demanding of himself enormous personal balance and philosophical centering. Facilitating the deepest and darkest perceptions of returning warriors must have been akin to walking barefoot through the fractured shards of his own psyche, day after day.
This was also the week that saw John Muhammad, the adult member of the team of DC snipers, put to death in a state-sponsored execution. There is evidence that Muhammad was a nutcake, as emotionally conflicted as Hasan, his actions as confused and motives as enigmatic. He remained unrepentant, according to the family members of those slain who came to watch him die. Read that again: to watch him die. Revenge, served cold. I can't imagine it. I know it's the signature energy of the Old Paradigm and our ancient instincts, but it offers nothing toward enlightenment as far as I can tell. As Gandhi mentioned, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." And that describes many of us, still living an unexamined life, unaware that we sow what we reap. We kill, in this country; we are also killed. Why are we so surprised when it happens spontaneously, then? Whom and/or what do we think we can kill to keep killing from erupting as a natural consequence? This is a loop of adolescent behavior that will never end unless we wrench this country back from its death culture and re-establish the value of human life.
I don't need to remind you that the other civilized nations of the world have eliminated the death penalty, nor that they provide healthcare for their citizens. Not providing such an elemental requirement for wellbeing is the equivalent of slow death for hundreds of thousands, a punishing prospect not just for the poor but the middle class as well. I noticed a headline today announcing that 2,255 Vets died this year because they did not have health insurance, some six a day. I also read that Big Pharma is set to garner billions in the proposed healthcare legislation. War here, war there. War doesn't always carry a gun -- whatever does not support and encourage abundant life is war.
In today's society we can talk endlessly about politics, religion and sex but we step over death quietly, determined to "move on" and keep this primal fear buried deep inside. Life and death are two parts of a whole; if we can only deal with a portion of that reality, we have become not only partially blind to our own essential nature but half-assed in our ability to mature into sentient creatures, as well. We've invested wrongly as a nation and as a culture, dumbed ourselves down not only intellectually but emotionally. It's no wonder we can't contemplate the changes that are coming at us fast and furiously -- we are afraid of the wrong things. Our insecurity lies in our inability to face life at its most essential levels. We're afraid that pain will hurt and death is final. Yes on the first, who knows on the second. Yet as astrologers we know how cycles repeat, and how endings are always beginnings. As ecologists and/or students of the Old Religion we know that nothing is ever wasted, it is all recycled into the vastness of the whole. Whatever our faith, surely it is informed by the Great Mystery that allows us to intuit some kind of eternal something that is part of us.
Most amazing to me is the Evangelical community and their fear of most everything, and particularly of death. The very philosophy upon which they depend embraces death as the path toward resurrection, yet they seem personally terrified of dying, even while, with the exception of the unborn, wanting to eliminate just about everybody else: the Jews during Tribulation, the Muslims in jihad, the Liberals because they're wicked obstructers of strict theology. None of that is Jesus dialogue, by the way, more the pride and prejudice of Yahweh of an age long gone. My mother once asked a relative, a Protestant pastor, if it was all right to wear a cross as jewelry, as had recently become the fashion. He pondered a moment and said it was OK but rather like wearing a little electric chair around one's neck.
True Christianity is a philosophy of transcendence, of Love larger than death able to inform life to its fullest, yet we understand it little. As consequence, in this "Christian" nation we still worship death rather than life, pass punishment along as if it came at the hand of a loving parent rather than a frightened and punitive society, and think we're doing God's work. If you need to identify the surrealism in that, note that the CEO of Goldman Sachs -- Godfather group of financial risk-takers and bail-out recipients, which has amassed some 20 BILLION in bonus money this year -- recently asserted
that he was doing "God's work," as well. And I've got a bridge for sale in Brooklyn.
I don't know how you deal with death in your life, it's highly personal. Each of us has our own way of contemplating it, of processing its sorrow when it arrives, of coming back into the sunlight after we've internalized loss. I've come to an age when I see a lot of it around me, and I suspect that many will decide to leave the planet rather than make the necessary changes in the years ahead. We need not necessarily embrace death, but re-familiarize ourselves with it as part of the life cycle and take stock of it. On 9/11, three thousand of us left the planet and those remaining lit the rest of the world on fire to mark the occasion. Our brief fling with vengeance turned into a decade of death and it continues. The option is to declare peace, but that can't happen until we want peace more than we want someone else to tell us what to do, someone else to make us safe, someone else to take responsibility for our own growth in consciousness. Peace -- life -- is waiting on us to come play while death rules the day.
Here in the Pea Patch we have very little actual culture. Art is non-existent, unless you count, as do I, the natural beauty around us. Music is available in the honkytonks but it's invariably country, not my forte. So I was pleased when the local United Methodist Church invited a traveling Jazz-Gospel group from Louisiana to present an evening's music. I was raised performing gospel music, so I was one of the most enthusiastic audience members. In fact I suspect my obvious enjoyment made a few staid Methodists twitch. At the end of the evening, the band played the traditional farewell at funerals -- the dirge and the march. The dirge was St. James Infirmary
, gloriously sad in coronet, trombone, sax, bass and piano; the march, of course, was When The Saint's Come Marching In
. Sad took its moment, and joyous followed. Nothing is more poignant and inspiring to me than that pair of emotions and specifically in that order. Death is a big deal but life is infinitely larger. What happens at death is Divine mystery but for those remaining, life is in front of us waiting to be grabbed with both hands, celebrated, extended and appreciated.
I've thought about dying, we all have. Sometimes it looks attractive, especially in stressful times such as these. Suicide statistics are climbing in this economy, but punching our own ticket always strikes me as too permanent a solution to a temporary situation. Sad comes and goes but life is very strong. I remember a huge earthquake in Mexico years ago that leveled vast portions of Mexico City. Improbably, rescue workers found a 103-year-old woman who had been trapped under rubble for four days. She was fine. It wasn't her exit point, I suppose. I think we each have several, and we should prepare for them. With all this recent talk about Advanced Directives, I've reviewed my options and decided on a course of action. I'd like the dirge and march, of course, but my loved ones are far flung on the planet, so instead I've decided to have my ashes divided into baggies and sent to everyone I love. That way they can plant me with the petunias, wear me in a locket or sprinkle a pinch of me in their afternoon tea, whatever strikes their fancy.
The topic today is so vast, so tangled in traditions and projections that we are probably unaware of how viral it has become until a John Muhammad or Nidal Hasan reminds us. Bringing it into light is like inoculating ourselves against senseless fear. Death is not the enemy; living in fear and ignorance is. Diminishing our life-force with war and violence and unkindness and greed stalls our growth and traps us in density that only produces more of the same. The violence that surrounds us is a symptom that we've lost our way. It's time for us to contemplate the mysteries of life and death, and defuse the unnecessary fears that we've built around them. Talking about it, especially as we honor our military heroes and consider the wisdom of funding more war, is a good first step.
Truly, when we conquer our fear of life we are not afraid of what comes after it. Choose, honor and extend the full joy of life in all you do, and the rest will take care of itself. Sometimes it's just about opening the door and stepping though -- an analogy for healing our perceptions, for living our lives with awareness and even for leaving them behind. The circle of life: as natural as a Spring storm or a Winter snow and fully as amazing, as beautiful and as temporary as it was meant to be.