2010-12-28

Then We Will Know How to Live

As the year passes away, it's a good time to remember that our lives are no less transient.

Consider the well-known passage from Psalm 90:
The days of our life are threescore and ten years,
Or perhaps four-score, if we are strong;
Even then their span is only toil and trouble,
They are soon gone, and we fly away.
Threescore and ten: this is the Biblically allotted lifespan (Methusaleh and other pre-Abraham characters notwithstanding). Thus British poet, A. E. Housman (1859-1936), at the young age of 20, looked forward to an estimated 50 more years.
Now, of my three score years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
If we would celebrate the fullness of all of life, we will view with relief and gratitude that the separate identity that ego so ardently clings to does not have countless ages. What is ours to do is only this brief span: our three score years and ten, more or less. Our mortality reminded Housman that we have only this moment. He chose, therefore, to walk about the woodlands, to be present to the beauty that is right now.

Louise Erdrich (b. 1954) said:
Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart's position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won't ever come by such a bargain again.
Remembering death, keeping it always in mind, makes us more present to life.

“What a puzzle it is,” as Mary Oliver (b. 1935) said, “that such brevity . . . makes the world so full, so good.”

Scottish novelist, Dame Muriel Spark (1918-2006), wrote:
If I had to live my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might was well live on the whites of eggs.
We know that "this too shall pass." This transience of all things is so clear, so undeniable, so obvious. If you publicly declare, “All things are temporary,” no one will argue with you. It’s a platitude, not profound, something we all know.

What would it be like to hear those words -- "all things are temporary" -- and hear them as revelatory? While we all know that all things are temporary, we don’t act like we know it. We keep going after achievements: if it’s not a house or a car, it's a job, or a promotion, or a contract, or a publication or a grant. Or we go after a prospective partner and hope to get married, and then we go after the vicarious achievement of having our kids achieve.

If "a belief" is, as American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) said, "a habit of action," then the habits of our actions suggest that, whatever we may say, we believe in permanence. We go after things with a desperate graspiness that says louder than words that whatever it is we're pursuing is real, valuable, permanent, and not just one more thing that arises, hangs out for a little while, then passes away. What would it be like live the truth of impermanence rather than merely know it?

Because all things are temporary, and constantly changing, then death is constantly occurring. The you that you were last year, or yesterday, or 5 minutes ago, has ceased to be: that person has died.

The original Star Trek TV show in the 1960s introduced us to an imaginary technology called a "transporter beam." "Beam me up, Scottie," became a familiar part of our culture. How does the transporter work? Supposedly, it takes your molecules apart and reassembles the molecules down on the planet surface: water molecule here, protein molecule there, and so on. This is done with literally fantastic rapidity. So, OK, now, think about this. If we had a device that could do that, then there’s no reason it wouldn’t also be able to take the pattern of you and assemble all the molecules for you twice. It could make two of you, or three, or four, or a thousand.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, in the episode "Second Chances" originally aired in 1993 May, that's just what happens. In the episode, we learn that eight years previously then-Lieutenant Riker, while serving on the starship Potemkin had "beamed" down to a planet. While beaming back up, some fluke space phenomenon, undetected at the time, had split the transporter beam. The split beam creates two Rikers: one appears on the Potemkin and proceeds with the career that leads to promotion to Commander and transfer to the Enterprise; the other rematerializes on the planet below where he manages to survive the next years outside of Federation contact. Eight years later, the Enterprise visits that planet and discovers the Riker that was left behind. Geordi Laforge investigates the Potemkin logs and pieces together the explanation. He concludes that both Rikers are equally real, for "both were materialized from a complete pattern."

So, if that’s what the transporter is doing -- following a pattern to make a “you” -- then isn’t the transporter beam, when it works in the normal way, killing you? It kills you in one place, and then makes a replica of you somewhere else.

Suppose I were to make an exact and perfect replica of you. Suppose I then I said, "Look, here’s a replica that will live on, so is it OK to kill you now?" Would you agree that it was OK? Of course, with a transporter beam, the replica is made a few seconds after you’ve been killed. But if the fact that I have made a replica of you doesn’t make it OK to kill you, then how could the fact that I’m going to make a replica of you make it OK to kill you?

Those are interesting philosophical questions, which I will not here explore. I mention this hypothetical Star Trek technology to call attention to a not-at-all-hypothetical fact of our lives: through the technology of merely being alive, we are continually being killed and replaced by replicas of ourselves. At every moment, you are killed and replaced with a replica that has most of your memories, most of your skills and habits, looks mostly like you, etc. The replica is not exactly the same because all these aspects of you are, after all, constantly changing. To be alive is to change, and change means the death of what was.

I often hear that death is a normal and natural part of life. Part? No. Death is the whole of life, the constant fact of every moment.

Every instant is another death. It is also true that there will come an instant not followed by a replacement replica. One day, the succession of replicas stops.

What shall we do about that?

Others have seen this intricate linkage -- a linkage that amounts to identity -- between life and death. They have experienced the liberation that comes with thoroughgoing awareness of death and impermanence. Grasping the fullness of death brings us to the fullness of life. German Philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) found:
If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself.
Centuries earlier, French essayist Montaigne (1533-1592) urged:
Let us deprive death of its strangeness. Let us frequent it; let us get used to it; Let us have nothing more often in mind than death . . . We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom.
In that freedom that comes from constant awareness of death, we finally dissolve those boundaries we construct between self and “other.” Dwelling there we realize the beauty, wonder, and oneness of all things. By looking squarely at death and embracing it, we learn how to live. As American Buddhist Larry Rosenberg (b. 1932) put it:
We know in our heads that we will die. But we have to know it in our hearts. We have to let this fact penetrate our bones. Then we will know how to live. To do that, we need to be able to look at the fact of death with steadiness. We can’t just glance at it casually. [Living in the Light of Death, 2000, p. 82.]
Finally, in Judith Lief's words:
The best preparation is working with our state of mind now rather than thinking about exotic things we might do later when we are looking death in the eyes. It is better to learn to relate to death now, when we still have the strength and ability. In that way, when we face difficult circumstances, or at the time of death, we can rely on what we already know. [Making Friends with Death, 2001, p. 26.]
I think it helps us "relate to death now," to keep in mind that life is constituted by death. Maybe the transporter beam called Time will reconstitute your pattern in the next moment, and maybe it won't. Either way, the being you experience as yourself this second is gone the next second. Why wrap so much anxiety around whether or not a very-nearly-identical replica will supersede you? Why have any anxiety whatsoever about that?

When all that anxiety is cleared away, seen through, recognized as stemming from delusion and dropped, then, indeed, we will know how to live.