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Grace and death in 2020

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog about Covid-19 and how fear of death is blinding the world. In it I outlined the reality of the numbers and how unspectacular they really are when compared to many other causes of death, and daily deaths in general. I talked about how part of the problem is that people are just so afraid of death and that this fear had been ignited worldwide and has been raging, and that people can’t think straight or ask suitable questions – that the fear simply takes over. If you haven’t read it already then you can find it here.

One of the main things that has made this – the blind panic of much of the world, accepting and happily complying with extreme measures with no scientific basis- possible this year, is our collective unhealthy relationship with and fear of death i.e we don’t tend to have much grace when it comes to death.

This is a really big problem.

And that is a really big understatement.

What do I mean by having grace when it comes to death? I mean a level of graceful acceptance. Understanding and accepting that death is perfectly natural ( it is) and will happen to all of us (it will) and to everyone we love (yup, them too), and that we don’t always know when that will be or how it will happen. Life and death go hand-in-hand. Grace means really accepting that.

In a lot of ways we accept the transition of death. We understand that all of nature has a life cycle. We understand species evolve and that many species become extinct (especially when humans get our hands on their environment!). We understand day becomes night and night becomes day. We understand that the moon changes from new to full and back to new again. These cycles of nature we take for granted as changes that happen naturally. We understand animals on the land and in the sea die. We understand plants and trees die. It’s all part of nature. But when it comes to human life….wait…what? Death? No, that’s terrible. It’s morbid. It shouldn’t happen. Let’s not even think about it….and if you do you’ll surely manifest it, so best not to. (Watch this space for a blog on just this topic!) We have forgotten that we too are part of nature.

When it comes to our own lives and the lives of those around us, we struggle with the concept of death and with having anything resembling acceptance for it. And when I say acceptance I actually mean acceptance, not begrudging resignation.

It hasn’t always been like this. This isn’t just ‘how humans are’ around death. But this is how we’ve become around death. It may be normal now – this level of fear and denial – but it most certainly is not natural. In our past, our ancestors would have had a far more practical and accepting view of death. Yes this was partly due to encountering it more often than we typically do, but it’s also very much about the way we distance ourselves from it now to avoid being too close to it, which is part of the reason we encounter it less, no matter how much it’s happening. I haven’t looked at this extensively, but I’d certainly lay some of the blame at the door of the old-school funeral industry, when we started to outsource death completely and have nothing to do with it ourselves anymore; and modern allopathic medicine, where often the job of the doctor/hospital is to prevent death at all costs – quality of life be damned.

The biggest sign for me of most people’s lack of grace are a couple of the bizarre ideas I hear floating around this year as if they are common sense. As if they are a wise strategy. And as if they are kindness. One of those is that “one death is too many”. And another is that “all deaths are tragic”.

For anyone who has a more natural relationship with death and accepts it generally as part of life, I can assure you that ‘bizarre’ is the right word.

One death is too many.

We’ve heard this a lot in NZ and in praise for NZ, where the policy has been to eradicate covid-19 at all cost. An impossible and foolhardy venture with a terrible amount of collateral damage (that now even the WHO advises against).

Since when do we operate from that (il)logic – that one death is too many?

As I spoke about in my last blog when looking at death figures….. one death isn’t too many on the roads (we don’t close the roads or ban private vehicles. Or at the very least ban motorbikes…or drop the speed limits?! Nope), one death isn’t too many from flu (we don’t lockdown the country or crash the economy for that…ever), from heart disease and cancer (we don’t ban cigarettes, alcohol and close every McDonalds in the country). If one death truly were too many there is probably very little we wouldn’t ban. People die from fishing accidents sometimes. There are ways we can lower numbers, sure, but we will never stop all deaths. We will never stop all murders, all suicides, all cancer deaths, all accidents, all flu deaths, or all people who fall off their boat and drown while fishing.

And the idea that “one death is too many” goes hand in hand with the equally unnatural idea that “every death is tragic”.

Now this year it’s been all about “every covid death is tragic” but it’s a small step from that thinking to the idea that “every death is tragic”, because surely deaths from any other cause are just as tragic.

Holy shit. If you are looking for the way to have the worst possible relationship with death, have no acceptance at all of it, and suffer the most possible from any and every death in your life, then I strongly suggest that you start right there: with the beliefs that one death is too many and that every death is tragic. If you want to have the most unnatural and unhealthy relationship with death you can, then this would be the place to stay. That should see you right.

Hopefully, if you stop and think about it, you should see the lunacy in beliefs like this. Death is normal and natural. No, it may not always happen when we want and the way we want. It commonly doesn’t. But to call it always a ‘tragedy’ is to suggest that death itself is wrong or unnatural. This can only be true if you come from a death-fearing and denying place which, despite my sarcastic remark above, I do NOT recommend for you or for anyone else.

But THIS mentality is what a lot of people have bought into. And this is why people are laser-focused on covid numbers to the detriment of everything else. It’s like that joke about finding a spider in your house….so you burn the house down. If getting rid of the spider is very, very good, then it won’t matter what damage is done in the process, because the spider must die. Because the spider is bad. It’s the worst spider we’ve ever seen and…well, hell…let’s burn down the whole street to be sure. As long as we get rid of the spider. Only someone terrified of spiders, and who doesn’t realise spiders are EVERYWHERE, and who is so frightened of spiders that they can’t focus on what’s happening in the burning neighbourhood, could go along and not question this logic.

If you believe one death is too many (but only one death from covid) and that all death is tragic and to be avoided (even if you have to cause many other deaths to avoid that one) then sure, this year makes a lot of sense.

I see the same way of thinking – that one death is too many and must be prevented at all costs – at play in Melbourne where, in their current “state of emergency”, the elderly in rest homes are being treated as if the only thing that matters is that they don’t die (of covid).

I’ve read many articles about this, so I’m assuming it’s close to common knowledge there, that the residents of rest homes there are being isolated in their rooms and regularly sedated. Think that one through. Apparently all of this – the lockdowns, all of it, was to protect one of our most vulnerable groups and the most at risk group from this virus (and many other ailments) – the elderly. So, for their own good, they are being locked in their rooms alone and drugged to keep them quiet – because how the hell else do you handle old, confused, frightened, needy people who need to be force-isolated (for their own good – did I mention that!)? You medically sedate them. You drug them to keep them quiet and still. But hey, they’re alive. They might be more miserable and alone than they ever have been, but hey, at least they’re alive. Right?

This only makes sense if one death is too many and every death is a tragedy and anything is better than dying. Isn’t it?

This gets into the whole prolong-life-at-all -costs thing which is just as bad as the previous ideas I’ve talked about.

In the name of protection and safety, these people are being put into situations that are more aligned with torture than care. But it’s hard to see this is you think that every death must be prevented, anything at all is better than death and that any measure to prevent that death is worth it. That just staying alive is what matters. From that perspective it won’t matter what is being done to save lives, as long as some lives seem to be being saved.

Now that even the WHO have done a u-turn and are recommending against lockdowns, it’s blindingly clear that fear is ruling. Because many countries, after locking down because of the original WHO advice, are now ignoring the WHO’s updated advice and sticking to their guns….and so many people are still blindly supporting that. The facts won’t matter at all when fear is ruling you.

Life is risky. Travel is risky. Getting older is risky. Falling in love is risky. Having kids is risky. Speaking out is risky. Driving is risky. There are a lot of fun and exciting things that are risky, like sky-diving. And there are a lot of every day mundane things that are, statistically, even more risky, like crossing the road or eating.

Life without risk isn’t a thing. It hasn’t even been. And it won’t ever be.

We aren’t meant to avoid all risk and just stay alive as long as possible. We aren’t meant to be locked up in our houses merely surviving.

The idea that we are makes me think every time of the movie “Surrogates” with Bruce Willis. If you haven’t seen it, it’s set in a futuristic world where humans live in isolation and interact through surrogate robots. Basically everyone stays at home, in their own rooms (seperate from spouses and children even) and hooks up to these surrogate robots who go out into the world for them. They live through these robots – like avatars. They don’t truly interact with people, not even their own families. They don’t go out. They don’t risk their lives. They don’t take any risks at all. They don’t truly live at all. All in the name of safety.

This is what I often think about when I look around me at the moment. I see this idea that doing anything at all to alleviate risk is good. That risk and danger and mortality are bad, and that we’ll happily sacrifice connection, touch, freedom, and joy (all key components of being human and having a healthy human society) for the illusion of safety. And yes, it is an illusion.

If you truly want to avoid death then the best way is not to be born. Well I’ve got bad news for you, you missed the boat already on that safety precaution. The next best way, though I’m not sure there is any evidence for the effectiveness of this anyway, is to avoid living. Don’t do anything risky. Don’t go out. Don’t do fun things. Don’t even do mundane things. Just, you know, sit around trying to avoid death. Forget “the moments that take your breath away”. Nope, life is all about getting as many extra days, weeks, and years as you can, irrelevant of what you actually do with them. A recipe for a very unfulfilling life right there.

When I look around me, the epidemic I see is an epidemic of terrible relationships with death.

The solution to this is not to eliminate covid-19 or anything else. It’s not to try and eliminate death. That is a fools errand and it won’t ever work. It’s not to prevent every death. One death isn’t too many. Death, all of them, are universally inevitable. 100% of people will die.

The reality is that one day covid-19 will be gone. But then there will be something else. There will always be something else to frighten you, if you are ready to be frightened.

I wrote in the last blog about the opportunity our current environment offers us. The invitation to examine and change your relationship with death.

This starts very simply with taking time with the topic and getting realistic about it. The likelihood, statistically, is that you will live to an old age. But you also might not. Come on now. You know this. You might not want to think about it…but when you do, you know it. You’ve seen and experienced enough of death in your life, heard enough news, and have enough connections to know that anything can happen and at any time to anyone. Spending more time with that thought and getting your head around it, contrary to what people think, brings about less fear, not more.

Years ago I read a beautiful book by Stephen Levine, called “A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last”. In it he and his wife, who had worked extensively with death and grief, decided to live a year as if it were their last. They shared openly and honestly what they went through, the challenges they had, the way their view of the world radically changed, how their priorities shifted. As the blurb for the book on Amazon says ” Most of us go to extraordinary lengths to ignore, laugh off, or deny the fact that we are going to die, but preparing for death is one of the most rational and rewarding acts of a lifetime. It is an exercise that gives us the opportunity to deal with unfinished business and enter into a new and vibrant relationship with life.” Annnnd, I would add, it stops you from being so damned frightened and from sticking your head in the sand about your death and about your life. It also stops you from agreeing to any ridiculous thing out of fear and stops this fear being used to manipulate you.

I’m not suggesting you read that book, or that you do the ‘year to live’ experiment. I tried it…and lasted about 4 days. I simply couldn’t convince myself of it. I’m probably not a beacon of grace around death when compared to those two authors, but I have more than most. I’m not lacking any fear at all around death, but I have less than most. I’m not 100% accepting of the idea of my own death, but I’m in less denial than most. And what I know is that the more accepting you are, truly accepting, of the fact that you can take responsibility for your own health and do your best to be the healthiest you can be (a radical idea in 2020, I know!) but that otherwise you most certainly will die…possibly at 99 years old in your bed….but also possibly of something random on Friday, the better.

There is a line from Stephen Levine that always stuck with me. I may be paraphrasing but it’s something like “Most people are so scared of death that they still have one foot in the womb”.

To truly live you have to accept death. Spend time with the reality that YOU WILL DIE. And that this is normal and that it is right and, if you’ve followed me for a while you’ll know this too, that it’s beautiful. Get yourself to a death cafe (online or in person), write your funeral plan and get your will sorted. Just for kicks, write your own eulogy. Take some time to think what you would do if you truly did have only a year to live. All of these things makes death lighter for you, and the lighter it is the less ruled by fear you’ll be. And the more grace you will have around death. And the better and freer you’ll be able to live.