Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Thoughts on the Wheel of Life and Death
Humanity through the ages did not fashion its religions and philosophy from thin air but from experience both of life and death. 'Life is cruel', 'Death is kind', 'Life and Death are but two sides of the same coin' and 'The Wheel of Life and Death is ever-turning' are only a few well-known axioms that embody much that is delineated in more detail in religion. 'The greater the Sacrifice, the greater the Magic' is another.
In ancient Carthage, the place where the Punic culture flowered, arguably one of the truly great civilisations in history, families sacrificed their first-born sons to the gods. This practice is one of the contemporary slurs often thrown at the descendants of Carthage as though it represented less love and a less valid religion than one where the 'one true God' demanded the extermination of every member of a native population, INCLUDING all children, mothers, fathers and elders in the name of a divinely directed invasion and takeover of the land.
In fact, the tears of the parents when the first-born were sacrificed was as much dedicated to the Gods as the bodies and souls of the infants. And where life is cruel, and death is the portal to a life in the embrace of the divine, such a sacrifice can be understood. The parents wept at their OWN loss and smiled for the GAIN of Heaven for their infants. Many contemporary cultures have legislated aggressively for the 'protection' of life against death AT ANY COST, but could this not be crueler than an acceptance of a philosophy that places life and death in balance and recognises Death as a destination of Peace and Rest after the endless travail and pain of Life?
Contemporary Western cultures in particular often legislate against 'Mercy killing' and force a patient who is existing in a twilight zone of unremitting agony and helplessness to continue that poor parody of life, deeming 'assisted suicide' to be a crime AGAINST the Divine. How can that be so, when the Divine made 'Death' the portal to 'Rebirth'? Even for Christians, Death is SUPPOSED TO BE the prelude to 'Life Everlasting'.
One of the questions that the Qur'an in Islam levels against those who are not Muslims is 'Why are you so afraid of Death when Death is the place where your God and Creator supposedly meets you?' It is a valid question, actually.
No doubt I will be unpopular for writing this, but so be it. I never have been 'politically correct' when to be so would be to fly in the face of all logic and instinct and to adhere to some one else's code rather than my own.
In the very core of life is the instinct to struggle, mindlessly sometimes, for survival and that is as it should be. If every one surrendered life at the first sign of discouragement, pain or trouble, there would be no life on this planet. On the other hand, to force life to continue BEYOND logic, BEYOND real consciousness is unnatural AND selfish.
Furthermore, the paranoia about Death that is part of the very fabric of contemporary Western society is not healthy, especially when one must acknowledge that Death is an unavoidable destination.
I am writing this in the aftermath of personal loss, where I struggled day and night to keep two little creatures alive, despite the odds. When I failed, I was devastated. I am human, after all. At the same time, when I bade them farewell, I began to realise that I need to set aside my selfish feelings of loss and remember that Death IS peace. Sometimes, birth occurs without the necessary accessories for sustaining life. There is nothing wrong with the fight to give those accessories and tools to one who does not have them naturally, but if the battle is lost, one should be able to accept it and understand.
Even Christian philosophy holds that there is 'a time for everything under the sun, a time for life and a time for death', while so-called Christians often violently act against those who live according to a belief that both life and death are equally valid.
I would not presume to force any one to adhere to MY personal beliefs. I would not condemn any one else to live with the results of an act of hideous violence at any cost, in the interests of 'protecting life'. I would not condemn any one else to watch a loved one suffer day after day, month after month, if there was no hope of a recovery from an illness... I would not choose the life of a child over the life of its mother, nor would I choose the life of the mother over the life of the child. That decision should belong SOLELY to the mother.
Although I personally cannot imagine being able to sacrifice a loved one voluntarily to meet the requirements of any religion, I can understand and respect many of the civilisations that embraced those rites. There was a time when Western cultures valued Death more, espousing such concepts as a 'martyr's crown' or a 'hero's death' when it was said that 'there are far worse fates than Death'.
When loved ones die, I have fallen apart completely on occasion, and the road back to life for me has been a struggle, but... BUT in the end, I recognise that it is selfishness that is at the foundation of my sorrow and agony. I do believe that Birth leads to Death and that Death leads to Rebirth. That is the cycle of Nature. Why should it not be the truth at the foundation of all things?
Many laugh at 19th century depictions of 'Heaven', of the rather sentimental art that was promoted as 'visions' of the afterlife, but it is wrong to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Depictions of spiritual truths can be nothing more than a combination of symbol and personal desire, with a bit of the collective unconscious thrown into the mix. That should not affect the actual validity of an afterlife.
There are many who embracing 'Darwinism', began to elevate 'Science' to the throne of the Divine. To me, Science is only one part of the manifestation of Divinity, and Divinity CANNOT be defined, nor comprehended by any human being. What constitutes Divinity is by its very definition NOT human, nor encompassed within human understanding. Religions offer nothing more than fleeting glimpses of spiritual truths.
The Goddess Kali is a personification of creative energy. Once she became so totally immersed in the dance of destruction that she almost destroyed her consort Shiva. It was only when she discovered that she was trampling him beneath her feet that she was able to halt the whirlwind dance that would have sent the very world into oblivion.
Almost every religion has its Ragnarok or event that obliterates the world. Beyond that, however, is a new world. The new world always is built upon the foundation of the old. Likewise, death always leads to rebirth. Even in Christianity, the death of Christ upon the Cross was the act that created the portal of rebirth for humanity.
The people of Carthage offered their firstborn to the Gods. It is said that the ancient Druids offered their best and greatest to the Gods in similar fashion. The old Northern people offered their best WEALTH as well as human beings to the Gods, throwing all into deep bogs and lakes rather than promoting money, profit and life above all things.
Are we more compassionate, any wiser than they? We may legislate for life but we allow the homeless to wander the streets, allow ghettos to exist, make wealth and the wealthy our Gods while multi-millionaires continue to expand multi-national corporations that do NOT benefit the world in fact. Is capitalism a more compassionate philosophy than socialism or communism? I think not! Is Christianity IN ITS PRACTICE more compassionate than other religions? I think not. Was Jesus Christ more compassionate than other men? Absolutely, but few who call themselves Christians walk in his footsteps. Religons are only as good in practice as the human beings who pretend to be in charge of God. In the Middle Ages, Islam gave women rights when Christianity promoted the concept of women as chattels. Islam in its organised form then calcified and went backwards. Christianity in its organised form did not move forward, meanwhile, regrettably. It was human beings in the West who forced recognition of the rights of women at the end of the day.
When you look at the course of human history and civilisations throughout the globe, we are a species who makes mistakes again and again. Why then should any human being dictate the 'Truth' of all things to another? Why should ANY ONE have the right to call himself/herself or his/her beliefs superior?
'Intervention' has become a very popular concept in the Western world. We organise 'interventions' against family members, against loved ones, against friends and against OTHER NATIONS, deeming ourselves superior and in a position to dictate a better way... Interventions send individuals to 'rehabilitation', to regimes of heavy 'anti-depressant' or 'anti-whatever' medications that turn active individuals into zombies in the name of 'progress' or 'doing the right thing', sign over loved ones to insane asylums, send individuals to prison even for having exercised their own judgement concerning drugs of one sort or another... mount invasions of foreign nations, devastating them in the illusive name of FREEDOM, while giving those nations no freedom to 'just say no' to the invaders.
This is not the article I intended to write, oddly enough. I began to write today in order to make sense of a personal tragedy in my own life. Having experienced many Deaths of loved ones, one might imagine that each successive loss would hurt a little less. That never is the case for me.
There are those who become 'inured' to death. In fact, I have watched the process in others. I have seen how some one who was devastated by loss once or twice then creates a wall of protection against hurt by refusing to become entangled in love again. For me, that is impossible and I will continue to dissolve any walls that my psyche attempts to erect against the pain of loss because at its foundation, a shield of that sort is a denial of love itself. The argument, whether conscious or not is that Love involves pain. Ergo, if one does not love, one will not feel pain when the inevitable loss occurs. Love, however, is Life and if we distance ourselves from Love, we may protect ourselves from the pain of loss, BUT we cannot erect any wall that will protect us from Death. The loss will occur, whether we involve ourselves emotionally in it or not. By cutting ourselves off from Love, we cheat ourselves of the beauty and joy that it encompasses. The pain of loss, however great, truly is a small price to pay for all the joy and incredible beauty and complexity of every moment of a life that embraces love.
If one cannot acknowledge Death, one cannot move forward. Rebirth is as mysterious to us as Death. We cannot know what it signifies or how it is manifested in terms of our own selves or any other creature. We can see how the death of a plant can allow rebirth in the form of a new plant but this is not quite the case with respect to animals and human beings. The actual transitions are concealed from us. The discovery and study of DNA has given us a window into the validity of rebirth in terms of animal and human life but it represents only a part of the story.
Meanwhile, it has been said that the life of any creature or human being is preserved in our Memory. As long as a person or creature is not forgotten, he/she lives on. That is our comfort as well as a source of pain. In remembering a loved one, we often are flooded with renewed emotions and consciousness of the loss sustained when life ended. Everything in our existence has its price. The price of remembrance is pain and yet, with that pain is the gift of the continuing existence of the loved one in our consciousness. Memory may be a two-edged sword, but like a sword, it offers protection as well as the potential of hurt.
So I will surrender to the pain in order to preserve the memories. I will continue to love and in doing so, continue to embrace Life, both at its inception and at its end. Or at least I will try to do so while any spark remains in my body.
Images of an ancient tear bottle and a stela from the Tophet in Carthage dedicated to the Goddess Tanit.