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Friday, July 29, 2016

Memento Mori

I just came back from Salo's funeral imbued with the grief I encountered and I need to process my thoughts and feelings. Salo was a wonderful 52 year old man just reaching the apogee of his personal and professional life unexpectedly killed by a massive heart attack--one month after our friend, his father, died.

We prayed: Compassionate God, Eternal Spirit of the Universe, grant perfect rest in Your sheltering presence to Salo, who has entered eternity. Let him find refuge in the shadow of your wings; and let his should be bound up in the bond of everlasting life. We listened to his story as told by his best friends, colleagues, and siblings. Stories of great accomplishments, service to others, and love of family. His children were reminded as to how their lives would continue to make him present to our world.

Inspiring but so, so sad.

How do I give consolation to his mother, our neighbor and friend? And how can I be consoled in this latest confrontation with death? We speak of life everlasting, being in the presence of eternity, in the arms of the Compassionate God. What does that mean? Do I believe it?

If everlasting life means that the independent "I-Rollie-Smith-consciousness" which I experience now when I am fully awake will last forever as it is now, no, I do not believe that. When my body begins to decompose and my brain no longer functions, that consciousness is deleted. I do not believe that I am alive when I am dead because I am committed to truth, a knowing through evidence. I do not disparage metaphor and the poetry of religious faith. But neither do I pretend to make it more than it is. I do not affirm everlasting life or resurrection as literal evidence-based facts. I choose to be tough-minded. I accept my mortality. Without pretense. Without sugarcoating.

But consider! That independent consciousness, that sense of being a totally unified and persevering person, my "I" as an unchanging, persistent thing, never existed. As I write this and say "I," I acknowledge the illusion of selfhood. Yet, I know that it is an important and necessary illusion. I have discussed elsewhere the notion and meaning of soul and the importance of having soul. I do not believe that my spirit, my person is a thing apart from my transitioning brain-networking-body.

Through meditation and philosophy, I have realized the illusion of my self and have begun to let it go. My existence is now, not in the past, nor in the future; though to be now my existence is in tension to past and future--all the way from before I was born and after I die. My existence is also in communion with all who have existed and will, friends and foes, all the relations who make me be me. To accept this moment as a culmination of all that has been is also to pass on to all that can be.

So I teach myself that, in order to be, I must daily, even momentarily, die. Yet as I die daily and in this moment, I exist as a continuity and complex of relationships. As I write one word after another or paint one portrait after another, as I talk and walk and plan and act, I am co-creating a style, a persona, a character. I say co-creating because my creation is always in relationship, partnership, or reaction to other styles, personas, and characters. So yes, that style, persona, and character goes on in the others I have touched and been touched by and so will continue into the future of the universe--whether I am focused on or not, whether my name lasts on street signs or building, whether my biography is written or not, I am a part of the universal memory.

That is consoling.  In the root sense of the word, the memories of those who have died, their stories, their characters, are mixed with ours in human remembrance.

But that does not take away the pain of the loss of a loved-one who has died. The pain is a rupture of relationships here and now. We celebrate Salo and all he has been to us and will continue to be for us. And yet we know that the Salo consciousness into which we can mix our consciousness has finished its creation and in that sense has reached its perfection. Yet the pain of a child's death, whether young or older is especially acute because we sense the sever of a project and potential unfulfilled.

We grieve that we can no longer touch him, body to body, soul to soul as a living, striving, thriving person. And we grieve for ourselves because we experience our own being-towards-death. We project the time when we will die and our persona will be complete; but we decide to go on in our project of living, thinking, caring, and loving for it is the projection of the loved one as well. And here is the point of discovery, the point of transcendence, the point of being all in all. Here is how faith and love does surpass death. I do not say "conquer" death because death is not an enemy.

Death for many artists, including Terry Pratchett, Charles Dickens, Piers Anthony, and the Mexican performers for Dia de Muertos, is an absurd figure to be laughed at. However, that does not diminish the pain we feel at the loss of someone we love or the anger we feel when a person's death should have been delayed.

Memento mori, the meditation on death, coming to terms with one's own and the death of those we love, has been a spiritual exercise of great-souled ones. Death is an experience that comes to us and will come more frequently as we get older. Let's help each other embrace it. The embrace of our mortality is the choice to be free--to act not for reward or punishment, but to act to create meaning in the face of the absurdity of death.

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