Updated: May 20
Understanding your own beliefs
It’s no revelation to say that death is the only thing we can count on in our lives. It’s the great leveller; we all face the same end regardless of our life experiences, circumstances or status. If we are lucky, falling asleep after a long and happy life without suffering too much will be the best way to go. Yet, though many of us will face some crisis or other - accidents, illnesses, even near death experiences - very few of us want to think about death, or what it means, before it happens. We fear death and prefer not to talk about it.
In many traditions preparing for and welcoming death is part of the natural journey of life. Death is a living character, often a dissembling joker who comes to cheat away our lives when we are not vigilant. Some belief systems involve the death-song, where someone disappears into the forest to create a ritual ready to complete their lives as they feel death approaching. In others a spirit animal waits patiently to accompany you to the beyond.
Many people have lost this belief in the unseen represented by a close bond with the natural world; the death and rebirth represented by the changing seasons no longer has symbolic importance to us. And our traditions no longer encourage us to contemplate the inevitable, to reflect on death and its meaning. We have learned to fear losing the lives we so carefully build around us rather than celebrate the journey we have been on.
It’s not a failure of the intellect to imagine continuing our living journey into another realm. But it is just that, an exercise of the imagination. That tool of our being which allows us to journey mentally to other places. Although most of us take a humanist approach - you live then you decompose - it can still be a comfort to think of our atoms - as Philip Pullman writes - becoming once again part of the universe - dust to dust. And it’s hard to find a culture where people don’t have any sense of something that departs the body - it's an important metaphor for living. The idea of our essence become a star in the sky is rather alluring and no different really to the idea that every molecule in the universe was created at the Big Bang. Just a different perspective on the same idea.
I think it's possible to be wholly rational at the same time as seeing the magic in the life we have. Rather in the way a beautiful painting or piece of music can transport us to imaginative realms. Nobody would start to tell you to only listen to the notes, or just read the words of a poem, without having some imaginative connection to the esoteric. When you stand at the top of a mountain on a clear day and feel yourself absorbed in the magnificence and beauty of it all, there you are wholly and wonderfully human. And there is life and death before you. There is a phrase from St John ‘in the midst of life, we are in death’. Like many universal truths, it’s a helpful code for living our best selves and remaining positive in our actions without fear of the unknown.