I've been more aware of the passage of time, of myself on a linear path that I began to walk 45 years ago. Maybe it's that number, 45. Maybe it's watching my children grow up, which they seem to be doing at an alarming rate of speed. Maybe it's watching my father get older. Whatever the reason, there is an unavoidable end somewhere off in the distance at a point I cannot see.
I feel as if I can't bear the suspense of it all.
I read an article recently about how thinking about death effects our behavior. I need to quote it here at some length:
When people consciously think about death, they either act proactively to forestall it -- eat healthy water, exercise -- or rationalize why it won't be a problem for a long time - "I take Lipitor," "I'll quit smoking soon" -- or just try to distract themselves by turning on the TV, calling a friend or having a drink. The goal is just to get those thoughts out of consciousness.
When thoughts of death are activated outside of consciousness, it's not that people become more existential in their thinking since they're not thinking about death at all. Rather, they bolster the psychological resources that they have learned to use to cope with the existential problem of death, their worldview and sense of significance. And so when death is close to mind -- after watching an action flick, hearing about a celebrity death, reading about an act of terrorism online, noting a weird spot or new wrinkle, driving past a cemetery -- people become more adamant in their beliefs and get extra-motivated to distance themselves from their physicality and to assert their symbolic value -- their intellect, achievements, and so forth. They increase prejudice and aggression against others who are different. They reject the physical aspects of sex, avoid bodily activities, and use euphemisms for them. They show off their skills, smarts, fitness, and generosity. And indeed research has shown all of these things.They name these strategies for avoiding awareness of our mortality the proactive and the evasive. I seem to be failing at both. Even if I lose weight or eat a raw food diet or become tremendously fit, I am going to die. Even if I focus on the non-physical reality of Me, I'm going to die. Nothing I do is distracting enough to lift the sense of dread I've been feeling.
I have a new awareness, and I can't unknow what I know. Somehow, death is no longer something that I see only out of the corner of one eye. It has inexplicably ceased to be something my consciousness can evade or ignore. I can whistle in the dark all I want, but I still feel it breathing down my neck.
I want to believe that there is another path, one that depends neither on trying to dodge the bullet nor on pretending that there's not a bullet coming.
I'd love to be able to say that my tremendous faith in the life-to-come is relieving me of the burden of dread. The fact is, I lie awake in the night and feel it weighing on me, massive and immovable.
I have, incidentally, been reading Thomas Merton. He was a Trappist monk and teacher of contemplation and an important 20th century voice for social justice and a rapprochement between the spiritualities of the West and the East. Merton died in 1968 in Bangkok, Thailand, as the result of a freak accident. He was 53 (coincidentally, the same age as my mother when she died). It was the first time he had left the monastery in 27 years.
In one of the first of his posthumous publications, Contemplative Prayer, Merton says this:
[W]e should let ourselves be brought naked and defenseless into the center of that dread where we stand alone before God in our nothingness...I find that I can't stop reading that sentence. "Naked and defenseless" in "the center of...dread." "Alone before God in [my] nothingness." That's me. There's no "should" about it though. It hasn't felt like a choice, some duty to which I have given my obedience and assent. Instead, it is where I have found myself, stuck, with no going back.