When someone we know and have moved with through life suddenly disappears from this world forever it can give us a huge shock. As a friend recently pointed out to me; death is the least surprising thing in the world and yet when it strikes without warning it is the most surprising.
Life is indeed dreamlike. So dreamlike that we often cruise through our days barely aware of what is really going on. Then suddenly someone we have known, someone we have loved or loathed or who has in some way touched our lives, even if only the fringes of it, is suddenly gone. They are no more; proof! Are we so numb that we only look up for a brief moment before snapping back into our distracted world? Or do we get enough of a jolt to pause? The pause is crucial. It is our ticket to something so much bigger than the petty concerns and preoccupations of our day to day life.
The following is a continuation of the theme in two previous posts on my book Who Lives Who Dies:
“When I was around thirteen years of age, I used to cycle to school with a girl who lived quite near our house. Jessie was a little older than me. She had gorgeous, healthy, long blond hair that always seemed to fall in perfect folds around her face. She was not beautiful but she was certainly attractive. She was not one of my closest friends, nor was she a confidante, but I enjoyed her company on the long cycle rides to and from our school and over the years we developed an easy going and pleasant friendship.
Every day we had to traverse many miles of roads to reach our college. We often found ourselves pushing into a strong head wind which made the journey seem that much harder and longer. Cycling together, Jessie and I would chat and joke about all sorts of things and the trip felt less tiring. Near the end while on our way home, we would push our heavy cycles together up the indomitably steep, Tamaki Street which stretched up the hillside on the last leg of our journey. Alone, this last climb seemed interminable, but when there were two of us it didn’t feel quite so bad.
We made these trips five days a week, month after month over a period of several years and because we shared this routine so regularly I seldom thought anything of it. Then suddenly one day she was gone. I got the news from my sister, who heard it from a friend of hers. Jessie had been instantly killed when a motorbike, on which she was a pillion passenger, somehow missed a bridge, flew off the side of the road and crashed into the riverbed below. It had happened two nights before word had reached my ears.
I was utterly stunned. Then, as that sensation began to wear off, a seeping, painful sense of having been betrayed swept over me. I thought of all the days that we had cycled to and from school together. I thought of all the hours that we had spent in our respective classrooms. I could not think of anything that she or I might have done in these past years that could have in any way prepared us for this. I could think of nothing in my school life or my home life that came even near to addressing the fact of death.
The things which I had spent all my time doing suddenly appeared superficial and irrelevant. I wondered that I could have slipped into such absentmindedness. All the days, months and years that we spent in our college, doing our lessons and then all the hours spent after school doing homework, suddenly all of that seemed like some kind of bad joke. Despite my previous experiences, nothing I had done up until this point had really addressed this issue.
My life suddenly felt very empty. There was something about it that made it seem unreal. That life could be snatched away suddenly was something I had brushed against much earlier, but I had gone on, life had gone on and once the old routines recommenced I had been lulled back into that shadow land which engrosses all of our energy and attention with things that we are somehow made to think are important. In this new circumstance, someone I had seen and shared time with almost every day for several years simply was no more and there was nothing that anybody could do to change that.
That very day I made the cycle ride to school alone. It was a cold Monday morning. Never will I forget walking into the classroom and having to endure the silent stares of the entire class. No one knew what to say, no one knew what to do. Something unspeakably mysterious had happened right in our midst and yet we all just sat there doing our lessons hour upon hour without even alluding to it.
In those days there was no pupil counselling to help students through any kind of crisis like this, there was no support at all. One was simply expected to get on with it; with the same useless, meaningless grind, as though nothing at all had happened. Somehow, when Jessie died, everything felt different in a new way. I had reached an age when my mind was beginning to question and inquire. In earlier years I had simply accepted whatever came along, but now I felt no longer able to do that.
Her death left a completely unexpected, gaping hole in a day-to-day ritual that we had shared for several years. I found it impossible to accept that she had simply ceased to be. The sense of absolute mystery about her disappearance from the world threw me into a contemplative mood. I found no comfort in the words I heard in church. I urgently needed to know what it actually means to die. I did not want to hear some secondhand stuff that had been pulled from a book. I wanted more than that.
During that time, I discovered one thing that could bring a sense of relief and perspective to my life. I took to sitting outside at night and gazing up at the sky. When I did this I could feel the mystery and the something which is so unfathomable about our existence. To look out and see countless stars and universes helped me to bypass my questioning mind and feel directly something which I could not name. When I looked into the vastness of infinity I could feel at once that there is so much more to our existence than the petty day to day concerns that ate up all our time and energy. This helped me to cope with my grief and frustration.
I suppose that is when I understood that the society I was growing up in would not be able to satisfy the deeper, inner questionings that this event triggered. The intense and actual mystery of so-called death loomed up before me as a huge and solemn unknown. How was it possible to continue on with the daily routines knowing that we all faced this and that one day we would die? Surely there was something more which we needed to know.
Western societies are not known for prolonging their mourning. In fact, the feeling one gets is that as soon as the loved one is buried or cremated, as the case may be, it is expected that there should be a sense of closure or, at least, the expectation of closure and everyone then goes on with whatever it was they were doing before. I felt that death was not being given its full due, it was being brushed over in a way that seemed superficial and inconsistent with the fact, that each of us would have to face this at some point.
Why was it that no one seemed to wonder where she went or what actually happened to her? Why was it that people were able to believe, so unquestioningly, what they had merely been told? I knew that could never work for me. It takes some unravelling to get to the bottom of the complex feelings that can accompany the loss of someone who has touched our lives. Most of the time, these feelings are glossed over, ignored, or buried beneath a load of distractions. There are endless ways of not confronting the reality of loss and death directly.
We avoid the confrontation by filling our time with self-centered and artificial distractions. Very often we are preoccupied with all manner of things that are not in the least bit vital and this is primarily how the days, months and years of our lives are filled. All the while, we know very well, that the clock is ticking, that our time is running out, yet we are no closer to understanding what it’s all about.
Inherently we are so much more than we are led to believe. There is a mystery in that. A mystery far beyond the confines of what our day to day thinking mind is willing or even able to comprehend. We can get a striking sense of that even very early in life. The fact is that we cannot escape ourselves, where ever we go, whatever we do, we are bound to be confronted, sooner or later with the mystery of our own existence.
This is why it is vital to look deeper now in the midst of so-called ordinary life, with all its cares and distractions, because the now is itself filled with immensity and holds the key to the deep, disclosing recognition of who and what we really are. The now is all that we really have! Jessie’s life came to an early and abrupt end and she did not know herself beyond the body and mind and the routine day to day needs and preoccupations of worldly life. But it can be different for us. We have the chance to look inward and discern beyond what appears to be true to what actually is true.
Life gives us a push and in some instances a sharp and hard slap, forcing us to look further and more deeply. We are not bound to believe all that others would have us believe, we must discover the truth for ourselves and the signposts that rise up on our individual journeys are often unique and perfectly tailored to help us do just that and thereby, wake up. May the inward journey for each of us begin now; fresh and renewed with each passing moment! ”
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