This Good Friday, I am thinking about death, an appropriate topic, I think. I went to see a man by the name of Stephen Jenkinson speak about death. He is a lovely, gentle man with a warm sense of humour and a deep love for people and great compassion for the human condition. He spoke of how we try to medicate away death. Anesthetize ourselves from having a profoundly human experience. We don’t even want to name it. Instead we call it palliative care, hospice care and speak of achieving ‘a better outcome’. What is a better outcome when death is a certainty? He said “Our death is guaranteed at the moment of our birth.” I’d take it a step further and say it is guaranteed at the moment of our conception. As any of us who have experienced the death of a foetus knows, it can be just as painful as the death of a person who has had the honour of breathing on this earth. Death is in fact our birth right. Our culture doesn’t honour it as the sacred and inevitable process that it is. Instead we try to whitewash over it. We medicate it, call it all kinds of things but not death. It’s the one certainty of life but we want to deny it. Why? I think because we have no control over it and we hate having no control. We do the same thing with birth. We medicate it, define it, cut it up into stages, constrain it and hold it apart from ourselves. We do everything not to experience this sacred, unpredictable rite of passage.
Many of you will hate my saying this but birth and death are essentially acts of submission. We have no choice but to submit ourselves to the process, the messiness, the deeply felt pain and love. When we are born, as when we are dying, we are submitted to the ideas that those who love us have about it. These are the bookends of our lives and they are utterly beyond our control. So we distance ourselves from feeling it deeply, we draw up the hazy curtain of pain killers and sedation, so as not to be burned by the searing reality of this life.
I notice in myself a deep discomfort with strong and messy feelings. I like to present myself as having it all together. I hide away the mess of confusion, anger and even exuberant joy. I dull them all down to a more socially acceptable, smooth and shiny pleasantness. As polite as a stainless steel fridge with no fingerprints. As clean and fresh and clinical as one of those clutterless kitchens pictured in a magazine, everything colour- coordinated. I don’t recall my own birth but I did manage to let go of this social veneer when I gave birth. I wonder if I will be able to tolerate my death, unmedicated. I feel now that I am slowly letting go of the social façade and cushiony comfort of numbing habits. It’s terrifying because I wonder if what spills out will be a simple trash heap or something more cohesive like a swampland. I have the strange feeling that, like in birth and death, I really have no choice and it is better to surrender to this process of becoming than to try to flatten it out with busy-ness, food, alcohol or pills.
I know that I was able to let go of fear of birth and surrender deeply to the birth process. It was not easy but it was a beautiful experience. I wonder if life, and death might have the potential to be just as beautiful and powerful if fears can be let go and I surrender fully to the experience instead of submitting to a broken culture. I honestly don’t know. But I know I don’t want to muffle my feelings anymore. I want to embrace the full intensity of life and perhaps it can be just as beautiful, if I am able to submit myself fully.