Monday, February 16, 2009

Dying Every Day -- and Loving it!

For all of the disagreements in the world there would seem to be one point of total unanimity; Death is not cool. Regardless of culture, color, class, career, or coiffeur everybody is agreed that Death is never a welcome visitor. Indeed, no small amount of time is devoted to pretending that death does not exist. In the United States, for example, few people actually die. They pass on, go to the other side, take the big trip – but dying is not part of the equation. And when pretense outlives its usefulness and death shows up, despite all of our best efforts – this appearance comes as a surprise, something we might never have anticipated. Definitely shocking!

How odd! Of all the happenings in life, only one is absolutely certain. From the moment of our birth – it is 100% definite: We will die. So where is the surprise? How come the shock? I rather suspect that the shock we experience is a self inflicted wound. I know that might sound strange or sick, but consider the following. We make every effort to push the reality of death into the farthest corners of our experience. But the truth of the matter is that death is not something that occurs only once in our lifetime, to be forestalled for as long as possible – it is in fact the constant partner of life and indeed an essential element of being alive – with the emphasis on being. No death / No life / No Being – or certainly no Human Being.

Being human is a journey not a destination. We experience the beginning as an entry out of the womb and into the world. The journey continues in and out of childhood, adolescence, adulthood – early, middle and late. Being human is a continuing secession of beginnings and endings. Stopping along the way is not generally recommended – and if we never had the endings, we would never know the beginnings. Duh! And death is just another word for ending.

Some might say that death is a special form of ending – like the last, biggest and best. Terminal, so to speak. But the truth of the matter is that all endings are terminal. That is what it means to end! And ending happens all the time. For example our human journey is marked by many choices. And every choice marks the beginning of something and the ending of something else. I choose to go to Chicago – and thereby I close the possibilities (end) of going to New York. I am just as dead to the possibilities of New York in that moment of time had a truck run over me. Ended!

If we look honestly and closely at this thing we call being human it is actually a continuing dance of life and death. At the cellular level, the physiologists tell us that all our cells are replaced (end, die) every 7 years. That of course is just an educated guess and some hardy cells might make it for eight years – but sooner or later they all die, only to be replaced by new cells. And the point is simply this – were we to eliminate the death, we would do the same to life. Life and death are the essential steps in the dance of being human at the cellular level.

I rather think that Death has a bad rap. It may well be impossible to redeem the word, but if we make a translation so as to retain the sense and eliminate the baggage, perhaps you will agree. Words like ending, closure, termination, completion come to mind. Who amongst us has not breathed a sigh of relief at a point of completion? Even with experiences that were totally pleasant there comes a moment when you just have to put it down. It’s over. And should we be invited to revisit that experience it is not unlikely that we will say, "Been there, done that!" Chapter closed. New one opening. Journey continues.

But what about that final ending – the one where the next chapter is far from obvious? That could be a problem, I suppose, if we chose to make it one. Some people seek resolution through belief in the resurrection, whatever that might mean. For myself, I am happy to be surprised. At the very least I anticipate the solid comfort of a truly deep sleep at the end of a day full of endings and new beginnings. And if there is more. . .

That’s what being fully human is all about.
Dying every day – and loving it!


christy lee-engel said...

Dear Harrison, Fabulous to have you blogging! The more venues there are for you to share your thinking, the better!

I am particularly taken by your reminder that "For myself, I am happy to be surprised." - that seems to me maybe one of the most potent keys to being able to relax into reality without fear.

love from Seattle,

Stefano said...

I often share these same feelings about death, thank you for bringing them out. There have been two writings that have provided me moments of comfort in regard to dieing gracefully.

The first is a book called _A_Pattern_Language_ by Christopher Alexander. The book is a seminal work in pattern languages and though it is about Architecture, it has been embraced by the Computer community quite deeply. In one passage, Alexander discusses why it is important that there be graveyards in the city, so that the residents are in touch with the process of death, and so that it enters their awareness on a regular basis.

The second book is Lama Yeshe's _Intro_To_Tantra_. Many Westerners don't look far enough beyond Tantra to realize that it is a way of life, rather than just about sex. That way in life, to do it the injustice of summarizing in a single preposition, is about staying open to experience by remaining in the present in the moment. Yeshe devotes a chapter to how that practice makes death merely another ecstatic part of our journey. Whether is occurs in an instant, or over many years, we move from earth to water (losing strength and firmness), from water to fire, and finally from fire to air.

Finally, continuing his long tradition of having extreme experiences before the rest of us, Ram Dass had a stroke and has written about the experience in a book _Still_Here_.

Blayney said...

Harrison, Our mutual friend Ted Gleason put me onto your blog. I, too, am a retired Episcopal priest, and I, too, am constantly on the lookout for ways to understand dying as a part of the process that gave us this unexpected existence, every much to be trusted and prized as the rest.

I wonder if you have seen the piece Edward Hoagland wrote in the current (March) Harper's. titled Curtain Calls?

I'm not sure if this response will reveal my blog address:

Blayney Colmore

Tonnie van der Zouwen said...

Dear Harrison,

Thank you for sharing your work in progress. Just now I am reading thoughts of Martin Buber in his book I and Though. What resonates in me with your story is one particular sentence in his book: "What makes a meaningful life is the ongoing decision to step into it". That means leaving all endings behind. Isn't that what opening space is about, create space to step into life? Another statement of Buber that relates to endings and death: All real life is meeting (I interprete that as the opposite of death). It is useless to search for God or the meaning of life, because there is nothing were they can not be found.
Some ideas on a drizzly grey day in Holland.
Warm regards,

Harrison Owen said...

Folks -- great to have you here! I do believe, Death has a bad Rap! Endings is what we need to get along with being alive. Always painful -- definitely nervous making. And essential.


Chris said...


Finally! Sharing your thoughts with the blogosphere...welcome at long last my friend! A great new beginning :-)

Rebel with Cause said...


Your blog came up on my Google Reader - I must have set my interests up well.

I will certainly follow your progress through blogosphere with interest.

Though this is not an Open Space per se, just the fact of how I was led here indicates that in some form and in due course, your blog could lead back to it. There is now enough software to make this possible!

And, Tennie has picked to quote from one of my favourite books, Martin Buber's short work 'I and Though'. It was one of the finds I made years ago in Cambridge, MA great bookstore Wordsmith (no more there, alas), only to find a few months later Peter Senge quoting him in a keynote talk at Systems Thinking in Action in the year when Dialogue work with Bill Isaacs was on the agenda- I think it was 1993!

Welcome and please do carry on. Topics that otherwise make people uncomfortable are a good start - especially where it is also an inescapable human condition.

Harrison Owen said...

What a rich reward! Martin Buber has been a life long companion, and thank you for reminding me. And Thank everyone for dropping by.

Diane Gibeault said...

Hello Harrison,

I wanted to wish you a happy birthday as I think today December 2nd is the day. In any event, if it is not so, you will have a birthday sometime in the future. There is never a lost opportunity to wish a dear friend well. May you continue to enjoy giving and receiving the joy that emanates from this wonderful gift that you put in the middle of our lives and that keeps on giving, Open Space. I wish you a lot of crazy fun things to bring you laughter and keep you always young at heart as you are. From a long time friend with lots of hugs, Diane