Friday, 7 April 2017

Five Gifts of Death

Today I want to return to the subject of death, that great spectre that so casts its shadow over society.  We seem to be so focused on it as a tragic event that we miss the positive side. I know that seems like a funny thing to say, how could death be positive? But it can and we're going to explore how.

1) A Release from Pain

While we all dream of a quick, painless death the reality is that most deaths are long, lingering affairs. Few of us will die at home and the causes of death mean we are more likely to die in pain. Things like dementia cancer and heart attacks are far more likely to be causes of death than simply passing away in our sleep. Most of the time, we will feel pain and death, therefore, is the end of that, a release.

2) Closure

One thing I've found is that a death can be a weight off one's shoulders. My Grandmother, as I've said before, suffered from Alzheimer's at the end of her life and the effect on the family was devastating. There is nothing like watching your loved one vanish before your eyes, stolen by memories and time. By the end, there was nothing left of her and the person who died was effectively a stranger. The stress and strain this placed on my Mother was lifted from her shoulders and meant she could mourn and move on; she had closure.

This is a blessing, being able to step forward into a new day without the dread that today is the day your loved one will go wandering the streets, that you won't be phoned at four in the morning because they don't know where they are. In the case of things like cancer, the end of the never-ending dread that the cancer will have spread to a new part of the body, and so on. It lets the living, live.

3) Appreciation

One thing I noticed last year was that many people got upset over the deaths of movie stars and singers, writers and personalities. I was intrigued by this because artists are lucky, they probably are the closest things to immortals that we have, in the sense that the art they leave behind still touches our lives. Consider Imagine by John Lennon which even though he's been dead for the best part of four decades still touches our lives and still stands as a powerful anthem for peace. Or think of Orson Wells and the powerful effect his work still has. With singers and authors, in particular, we step into their thoughts every time we listen to one of their songs or read a book by them. They're never really gone.

So it was odd to me, getting upset over the deaths of these people but I hope that what will happen when someone who has touched our lives in this way passes over, is that we see their work in a different light and learn to appreciate it more. I hope we notice things we missed before because we watch, or read, or listen, or look, more closely, seeking to squeeze the essence of the person from what we're consuming.

And of course, it doesn't stop there, reminding ourselves that one day, we will pass over allows us to appreciate the living world more, to see the things that become so much wallpaper under normal circumstances because we're so used to them. We see the trees, the birds, the animals in our neighbourhoods, notice the little things and this can connect us to the living world in a powerful, satisfying manner.

4) Societal Growth

A more macro societal benefit of death is that it allows our culture to change, to grow. As the champions of old ideas and concepts die, new work is published and old orthodoxies are challenged. As a result, human understanding grows and we develop new theories to explain things. There's always an element of 'dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants' it's true but without the deadlock that an ageing population might impose on a society, it is easier for the newer work to be seen and to pose legitimate challenges to the mainstream of whatever disciplines are seeing the new work.

5) A Deadline

This feels a little flippant but bear with me. In the Middle Ages up to the Victorian period, it was common for people to have a skull on their desks (if they had desks), to remind them that time was pressing on and as a motivator to get things done before death claimed you. The practice seems to have died out after World War One, possibly as a result of the huge numbers of death during that conflict, and as a result of the Spanish Flu.

Nowadays, we have enough time that the days seem to stretch out ahead of us without end, but that's not really true and we run the danger of hitting middle age having done the things that we have to do, but never having actually lived in the sense of achieving our personal goals. A skull, death, may be what we need to give us a metaphorical boot to the seat of our pants and get us moving.

This is what we call a memento mori.

This is mine, though it doesn't live on my desk

There may be more gifts death gives us

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