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Thinking About Death

(February 24, 2003)

Imagine a group of primitive human beings who have no understanding of what it is like to be alive. Each day, they awake with no memory of the day before: every day and every experience is brand new. They have no knowledge of waking, sleeping, or anything else.

At the beginning of a new day, the primitive beings are happy. As they wake up, they have a sensation of being alive. They see the horizon become lighter and they hear birds sing. As the day progresses, they find many sources of delight: the smell of a flower, the sound of water rushing in a river, the feel of warmth on their skin. They look up and see a large, bright glowing globe along way away.

All of a sudden, something covers the globe and everything begins to grow dark. Then the globe vanishes and the primitive beings become scared. They look up and see a large gray covering. Water starts to fall on them.

The beings grow more and more scared and they huddle together. As the water falls faster and harder, they see great flashes of light and hear deafening roars of unknown sounds, and they become petrified. They shelter together helplessly, with no idea of what is happening or what they should do.

Eventually, the water stops falling, the flashes of light and the sounds disappear, and the gray covering vanishes. The bright globe reappears. The primitive beings still don't understand, but they feel more comfortable. They leave their shelter and walk around, exploring what they can see and, once again, enjoying what they find.

Hours later, they notice that the light is becoming fainter and fainter. As the shadows lengthen, the beings become more and more apprehensive. The sounds and smells of the day vanish, to be replaced by ominous shadows and unfamiliar noises. Once again, they huddle in fear. The light and comfort they enjoyed so much has vanished. They begin to feel cold, and they don't know why.

As the long hours of darkness wear on, the primitive beings sit in fear, not knowing what is happening or what to expect. One by one, each being notices a sense of fatigue steal over him, and he feels his consciousness start to leave. He fights it as long as he can, but eventually, the fatigue becomes too much. Scared and helpless, amid mounting anxiety, he loses his consciousness, fighting to the last.

We, of course, recognize what has happened. The primitive beings woke up, watched a sunrise, experienced a thundershower, lived through the day, watched the sun set, and, growing tired, fell asleep.

We know this because, to us, these are normal parts of life: the sun rising and setting, our sleeping and waking, and even thunderstorms. Because we can remember and understand, falling asleep holds no particular fear for us.

If we could talk to these primitive beings, we would say, "Don't be afraid. You don't understand everything that is happening around you, but if you could, you would not be afraid. It's part of a large system and it is okay — a part of nature."

But what about our own lives and our limitations? What do we really know about birth and death?

From our own experience, we know nothing about what happens before we are born or what happens after we die. To us, these facets of existence are locked away and inaccessible. We know as little about these experiences as the primitive beings in our story knew about light and darkness, or wakefulness and sleep, or thunderstorms and sunlight.

Throughout our lives we see inexplicable things happen to the people around us — they are born, they flourish and they die. Like the primitive beings, we don't understand these things, and we can't really explain why they happen.

What we can't understand scares us, and this fear makes us unhappy. To cope with the fear, we create myths, legends and belief systems, which we incorporate into our religions and into our culture.

When we are honest with ourselves, we can see that it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, for human beings — just like the primitive beings in our story — to step back and see the large, complete picture.

But what if we could? What if we were able to understand the patterns and forces that comprise the grand system into which we were born?

I wonder what we would see.