An elderly neighbour, a man who inspired me in many ways, recently passed away. As for each one of us, his presence is irreplaceable but his way of being in relationship and of working are qualities I highly valued. His passing inspired me to write on the least talked or written about subject – death.
In my book the Compassionate Intentions of Illness (co-author Helen Ruddle) I write about how illness has the power to make us real and authentic. I also believe that the experience of the death of a loved one or the thought of death itself equally can bring authenticity to our lives; indeed, the witnessing or the thought of death may create a shift to a truer and more significant life. Certainly a shift that needs to happen is from seeing myself through the eyes of society to seeing myself for my true and sacred presence. There are many individuals who do not come to recognise that from an early age how, out of fear, they conformed to the ways of ‘society’ and suspended living according to their own individual and spiritual values. Society, in the persons of parents, teachers and other significant adults, model that life has meaning and value only when we are educated, productive, achieve status, work effectively, dispense patronage and throw dinner parties. When we are in good health and at the height of our powers we seldom question the maturity of our aspirations and the compliments that others pay us and we are unlikely to ask the question: “Is it me who is recognised or my position in society?”
This non-questioning is understandable because when our visibility depends on what we achieve, on status, on wealth, on power it is deeply threatening to question that dependence for fear of being invisible. Management specialist, Stephen Covey, queries: “How many people on their deathbed wish they’d spent more time in the office?” Yet some, even in the face of mortal illness, never leave the office – a clear indication of the web of busyness they have become entangled in and the terror of facing the loss of self and the emotional pain of a conditional belonging. Typically, ambition, love of power, arrogance, superiority, avarice, covetousness, pride, control, depersonalisation of self and others are some of the qualities that gained them a pseudo and substitute recognition and security. The pity is that even on the brink of death that the hard realisation does not come that they have led an outwardly ‘acceptable’ and ‘respectable’ but an inwardly barren and empty existence.
Is it not amazing that aside from minimal and superficial reference that the theme of death is absent from most of our conversation? It appears that death is a taboo subject, not to be talked about. In a society where time is money – ironically, a fact that has totally undermined emotional, social, economic and spiritual prosperity – no one really wants to concentrate on that edge where time runs out on us. Our education system never really considers death; indeed, there is no pedagogy of death. Consequently, death is the dreaded experience, something we are left to deal with – and not very effectively – in the isolation of our own life and family. To quote the late John 0’Donoghue, author of Anam Cara: ‘there is no cultural webbing to lighten the blow. Death can have a clean strike because the space is clear. Against this background, it is not surprising that we are never told that one of the greatest days’ work we could ever do in the world is to help someone to die’. John could have mentioned that I can only do that for another when I am doing it for myself.
We need to view death not as the enemy but the ally, the friend that can strongly prompt us to reorient our priorities away from the worldly and towards the spiritual, away from covering up our pain and towards authenticity and love. The real enemy is our motivated ignorance and the illusion that death only happens to others. Out of fear we avoid thinking about or preparing for death and, consequently, wind up
neither living our life from the inside out nor spiritually prepared for death. The reality is death is universal and no one escapes it. It can come at any time, to young, middle-aged and old. To be conscious of death inspires us to live authentically, to come to know our unique and true nature and to recognise those qualities in others.
Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist/author/national and international speaker and is director of three UCC (NUI) courses on Interpersonal Communication, Parent Mentoring and Relationship Studies in Cork and Dublin.