Tuesday, August 17, 2010

DEATH: THE FRONT PAGE

(Another in my continuing essay series. Feedback MORE than welcome...)

Let’s say one minute you are walking across a New York City intersection, chatting with your good friend on your mobile phone. Or maybe making that all-important business call. Then, the next moment… nothing. You are dead.

Or this: you are a Pakistani villager. The monsoons arrive with particular ferocity this year. You and your family are gathered, huddling against the persistent rain in what shelter you have managed to find. Then, suddenly, the flood. A wall of muddy water, and you are all swept away to your death.

Or this: you are a nationally-known American, a conservative editor and writer, with a whole life’s history of success and recognition for what you do. You have reached the respectable age of 89 and have led an eminently fulfilled life. Today, your heart gives out. It has done all that was required of it for 89 years, and now it just stops beating. You never awaken from your sleep.

Or this: you are a moose. You suffered for years from arthritis, thanks to an impoverished nutritional diet in your early days. You suffered quietly, not knowing how to register complaint. You died many years ago. Then, a while back, you were rediscovered; your skull was disinterred and delivered to a laboratory for study by scientists, to see if you might offer a clue to human osteoarthritis.

Or this: you are a young man or a young woman in love. You live in a village in northern Afghanistan. Your relatives will not permit you to marry, so you decide to elope. You are tricked into coming back home with the promise that all is forgiven, but when you arrive you are summarily sentenced by the Taliban in a sharia court, and you are stoned to death in the village square.

Or this: you are a shrimp, living peaceably enough in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But today the shrimp fishing season starts, and you are caught up, along with thousands of your brother and sister shrimp, in a fisherman’s net. Tomorrow, perhaps, you will be served up as a rich patron’s dinner in some posh restaurant.

All this—on what I dare say is a not untypical day—was gleaned from the front page only of the New York Times on a single day, August 17, 2010. And then I may have missed some…

I have been thinking a good deal about the arbitrary and unpredictable nature of death. I read about the skeleton of a many-thousand year old humanoid excavated from an arid part of Africa and I wonder about that life, how it was lived, what ended it. I read about the extinction of whole species of living creatures from the face of the earth, and wonder when, not if, our own species will face extinction… perhaps not for another few million years, perhaps in this present century. Either one is possible.

And then, of course, I have to think about my own life, in both the great and small perspectives. In the great perspective, how small and insignificant I seem; in the small, how eminently important is my life! How much I seem to count for!

No wonder that we human beings are driven to create our stories, to prove to ourselves that our short lives have meaning and importance in the grand scale of things. No wonder we invent our Gods, to assure our immortality. No wonder we want to reassure ourselves that this is not the only life we have, that others will surely follow to give us a second chance, a third, a fourth, a fiftieth, a thousandth…

In this light, though, we can at least take comfort in the understanding that a single instant, this fleeting present moment, is hardly distinguishable from the four score years or so that even the fortunate among us are given to live. And that this single instant, this fleeting present moment, if we value it, may in itself afford us a good deal more happiness and satisfaction than the sum of all those four score years. All the more reason, then, not to let it pass without paying attention.

4 comments:

TaraDharma said...

yes, Peter, no wonder.

a delicious slice of life, here.

mandt said...

"you are a nationally-known American, a conservative editor and writer"---"All the more reason, then, not to let it pass without paying attention." How right you are Peter. As long as I have time to piss on above said's grave, I will die happy. lol

Jean said...

I love this. Especially 'you are a moose' - I have a thing about moose. But, no, seriously, such a lovely, lively way to draw us into confronting the ineffable.

Richard said...

You hit the nail on the head and I couldn't have put it better myself. We have to seize the the moment, as Buddhists we know that we have to wake up, wake up to now.

It's the only place we can wake up.

You've underlined the urgency of that exquisitely!