Musings On Mortality

by Ian MacKenzie Dec 8, 2006

Pragmatic living or hippy nonsense...

The following is from my previous personal blog, written just after the London tube bombings in summer 2005. I’m republishing it here because I felt it extended a previous post on irrational fears while traveling.

I wonder about mortality.

My friend confessed she has panic attacks while sitting on the tube in London. She asked me to cheer her up and so I told her the only way to get over her fear is to be okay with dying.

“No matter what you do, there’s the possibility that you could be hit by a bus, a meteor, a terrorist bomb, heart attack, falling piano, etc…” I told her. She called me a hippy and put my advice on her blog.

A friend of her’s believed I missed the point, and wrote, “It is one thing to accept that one day we all die and to be ok with it. It is another to have your life stolen from you while you are going about living your daily life.” Which is quite true.

Rarely do we think about getting hit by a meteor every time we walk out of the house, but neither do we think about being ripped apart by a suicide bomber — until it happens in our midst.

Then the media drills it into our skulls.

We look at others with sidelong glances. We wonder what everyone is carrying in their backpacks.

Another friend of hers claimed I was living in a dream world, an abstraction. According to him, we Canadians “wallow in the secure privilege of that sanctuary of fattened mediocrity.”

He says Londoners have nightmares of death, while we have dreams of early retirement. My death resides on an installment plan, measured and predictable. “Find me a Canadian who has not been lobotomised by safety,” he demands, as if Canadians should somehow feel guilty for not living in a war-torn society, shattered by decades of hatred.

I never claimed to know how Londoners feel during these last few weeks, nor do I claim the same about the daily reality of those in Haiti, Palestine, Israel, Congo, Darfur, the list goes on.

But that doesn’t change what I believe about death. Being okay with dying doesn’t mean you’re indifferent to the circumstances that threaten you. It’s not like you simply let life happen.

Instead, the refusal to give in to the fear of death helps us work through the paralysis that is the aim of all acts of terrorism. This realization motivates me to help others in whatever modest way, seek out unique experiences while I can, and proceed through society cautious but optimistic.

Accepting the possibility of death helps to clear our minds so we aren’t controlled by our fear — whether justified or imagined.

Her third friend wrote:

“I think we’re afraid of death because it means we know for the most part we’ll die with regrets. All the should haves, could haves. The unfinished business. Some people try to reconcile that, I think, with religion or a belief in something that gives us something to cling to, a hope that well, this isn’t the end of it all. But personally, I kinda of think it is. We leave what we leave. Hopefully there’s some good stuff along the way that makes people remember us fondly, or with a smile, but when you’re gone, you’re gone.”

Her friend realizes that our fear of death stems from our belief about the situation we leave behind.

Did I do enough? Will I be remembered after I’m gone?

All of this is irrelevant if you accept the circumstances that you’ve created for yourself and for others. If you have conducted yourself to the best of your ability than there is no need for regrets. We don’t know what happens after this life — it could be nothing, or it could be something.

The Buddha didn’t care about it either way. He believed we should deal with this lifetime first, then worry about the possibility of the next one when the time comes.

Presumably, when we realize this, all our worry about soldiers, suicide bombers, safety, security, retirement, death, everything…it doesn’t matter. We put it aside. And then we act.

What do you think, pragmatic living or hippy nonsense? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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