Living and sweating it out when death is an inevitability

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Jan 25, 2009 Living and sweating it out when death is an inevitability

The Chinese script for the character "mu," which means nothing. See more on mu. life and death here. (The copyright was relinquished by this animated symbol’s creator. The symbol also is available here.)

On death, Woody Allen asked: "I keep wondering if there is an afterlife, and if there is, will they be able to break a twenty?" 

My own death seemed somewhat abstract to me until, at nineteen years old, a close relative was diagnosed with cancer. In addition to dealing with that transition, I started dwelling more on my own finite life. Today, I’d probably laugh if I overheard myself at nineteen obsessing so much on my own mortality; for one of many things, I had many more years ahead of me at nineteen than I do now at forty-five.

A frequent question I have had is what motivates hard workers to work so hard if life is finite. Some might answer that they do not see life as finite, whether because they believe in an afterlife or because they view life as extending beyond just one person to embrace other sentient beings other than themselves. The answers to this question are many. 

As to how I deal with my own mortality, I try my best to follow Ram Dass’s simple message to Be Here Now, which, like so many key ingredients to a successful life is simple to understand but often elusive to achieve, particularly when being here now seems also to call for some provisions for tomorrow, if even that is just to assure for enough fuel to get to the next destination. I have also drawn comfort from lessons about facing the very moment of death from Ram Dass and the Dalai Lama, who talk about putting ourselves in the most positive mindset as we approach our final breath. Similarly, Gandhi said on the morning of his assassination: "If someone fires bullets at me and I die without a groan and with God’s name on my lips, then you should tell the world that here was a real Mahatma…"

As to how to make the best out of my finite life, I am very much influenced by the scene in Walk the Line where the record producer who finds Cash’s early samples too uninspiring, implores Cash to perform the song he would sing at death’s door with this being his last chance to get out his message and feeling. Similarly, I am struck by a YouTube video I saw (which is not handy to me at the moment) where people comforting an apparently terminally ill patient encourage him to take the next breath as if it were his last. Once again, it is about making the most of now, or Being Here Now.

Part of making the best of today’s life is not to be terrified of the inevitable mortal end. To that end, Thich Nhat Hanh said in Chanting and Recitation from Plum Village (page 188): "Birth and death are only doors through which we pass/Sacred thresholds on our journey/ Birth and death are a game of hide and seek."

Does the finiteness of each person’s life justify not getting out of bed in the morning and living a life of nihilism? No. Each of us is here for a purpose, and must give back to others and try to leave the earth in no worse shape — and hopefully better shape — for future generations.

I was inspired to write about all this not out of a desire to proselytize for any religion but from being reminded of the very incredible lives and world contributions that so many giants have made, including the greatest jazz musicians many of whom died rather young. They include John Coltrane, who died at forty from a liver ailment and Charlie Parker, who died at thirty-five from bleeding peptic ulcers, lobar pneumonia or both.

Imagine if John Coltrane and Charlie Parker had lived longer in good health. Dizzy Gillespie is an example of a powerhouse at a young age who rose by further quantum leaps to near-impossible heights right into his seventh decade.

How does all of this tie in with my life as a trial lawyer? Trial lawyering presents many stressful situations that require harmonizing the situation powerfully for the client’s benefit. Once I can face down death and find joy in life at every turn, much of the rest should be easy, including the hard work on the road to victory at trial and any other challenge. In that regard, t’ai chi master Cheng Man Ching spoke of overcoming our fears in terms of imagining that we are practicing t’ai chi (or are engaged in trial battle, for that matter) while balanced atop a narrow pointed cliff. To not eliminate one’s fears while atop the cliff is to guarantee certain death. Eliminating fear also calls for keeping and tempering the fearlessness of a child filled with wonder, and living in the moment, as wonderfully detailed in the following story of the man and the two tigers: A man is chased in the wilderness by two tigers, only to be forced off a cliff, hanging for life from a vine. One tiger waits above and the other waits below for a human meal. Two field mice gnaw away at the vine. The man sees a wild strawberry growing from the side of a cliff, reaches for it, tastes it, and — with his life hanging in the balance — thinks of how delicious the strawberry tastes. 

That wild strawberry follows me everywhere. Jon Katz.

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