This past week I learned of the death of one person, an Internet quasi-celebrity whose antics I'd followed for some time; and the impending death of another, a cult author whose work has existed in obscurity but thanks to the Internet has gained a bit more of a following. The first one died of an illness he knew as of over a decade ago would kill him eventually; the second had major cancer surgery not long ago, and appended "This is the last piece I will publish in my lifetime" to the most recent blog post he made. He knows his time is very short.
I'm at an age now — not "old", but certainly not "young" — where many of the living people I took guidance and inspiration from earlier in my life are beginning to die. I'm not taking it as well as I thought I would. It becomes easy to accept, unquestioningly, that someone like Mick Jagger will always be alive — or maybe better to say Keith Richards; it's like he just stopped aging at some point — or that the guy in the mirror will always be alive.
Evgeny Zamyatin put it this way:
Do you believe that you will die? Yes, man is mortal, I am a man, ergo... No, that isn't what I mean. I know that you know that. What I'm asking is: Have you ever actually believed it, believe it completely, believe not with your mind but with your body, actually felt that one day the fingers now holding this very piece of paper will be yellow and icy? No, of course you don't; that's why you still haven't thrown yourself out the window; that's why you still turn these pages over, shave, smile, write...
We never completely believe it, even when the truth of it is being rubbed in our faces courtesy of the deaths of those around you. Maybe we still resist it even when bits of ourselves die, because as long as there's something there to perceive that something is dying, then we're not dead yet, are we?
Like any of the rest of you, I hope for a long life, and I do what I can to keep the odds ever in my favor (don't smoke, drink only rarely, no sex with goats), but I know better than to believe I will be guaranteed any such thing. I've lived with a heightened sense of life's shortness since I was quite young, having faced down something that came within inches of killing me. Ever since then, it hasn't been hard for me to hear the ticking, very loud, of a great mortal clock. I suspect I hear it louder than most because I have gone to some lengths to ensure my life is not wasted, and that I don't continue to waste it.
But the point is not to find death a defeat of anything, least of all one's self. Buddhism teaches that the self we are so scared of losing to the void is mostly a convenient social fiction that we maintain out of habit, and that the better we accustom ourselves to not getting hung up about losing something that doesn't really exist in the first place except in our minds, the better. This all sounds perverse, nihilistic even, to people who haven't spent much time dwelling within it. And of those who have dwelt within it, we wonder if they're just fooling themselves. Of course it's a bad thing when you die, because the reason we put a label on this thing called "me" is because this thing is what makes all the difference in the world!
And yet the more any great mind has circled the subject, the more it has found death to simply be part of everything else that happens. The price of existence in a form you recognize is eventual non-existence in that form. "Death" is woven into the very fact that anything exists at all, is perceptible at all. The person you were five minutes ago, before you started reading this, is now gone forever. Look for that person under every stone there is and you still won't find it. Dig down into yourself as well, and you won't find it there either. It is untrue that cowards die a thousand deaths; we all do, in every eyeblink. We spend so much time and effort ignoring this, it's no wonder we get our guts in Gordian knots when death comes along in a form that seems final to us.
I've not yet mastered the art of lifting my chin as thoroughly as I could, but I think I am marginally better equipped for it than many other people. It's the deaths of others that bother me more than the prospect of my own death, and I hope that's only because I've studied the matter as thoroughly as I have and not because I still maintain some smug sense of distance from mortality as a whole. I may not know for sure until my number's finally up. The least I can do between then and now, whenever then turns out to be, is keep the mirror of my mind that reflects such things as free of dust as I can.
Montaigne once wrote an essay entitled "That to Philosophize Is to Learn to Die" — the title alone should be a tipoff — in which he wrote: "What stupidity to torment ourselves about passing into exemption from all torment! As our birth brought us the birth of all things, so will our death bring us the death of all things. Wherefore it is as foolish to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years from now as it is to lament that we were not alive a hundred years ago." And then a little later he writes: "How simpleminded it is to condemn a thing that you have not experienced yourself or through anyone else. Why do you complain of me and of destiny?"
And then there's my other favorite last word on the subject:
Student: Master, what is death?
Zen Master: I don't know.
Student: But you're a Zen master!
Zen Master: Yes, but not a dead one.