Do not grieve at the afflictions and calamities that have befallen thee. All calamities and afflictions have been created for man so that he may spurn this mortal world âÂ a world to which he is much attached. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 239.
Reality will always be victorious. No one can stand before the onward march of reality. The phenomenal is always conquered by the eternal. All the contingent beings are defeated by the will of heaven. One small Arabian boy can lead two thousand camels in the Sahara. One intelligent Hindu boy can conquer an elephant. â Abduâl-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 2, p. 6.
Letâs talk about death, that big old elephant in the room, the quest of our lifelong safari of understanding.
I know we cannot capture or slay this elephant, and who would want to? Heâs peaceable enough. He does nothing specifically to interrupt all that we would do in our lives. We can move around him, arrange our furniture so that heâs hardly noticeable, perhaps hang a nice tapestry across his back or place some flowers in his trunk. But he is an implacable fact of our existence. And wouldnât it be nice if, instead of trying to ignore him, we tried to understand him, tame him, to make him our friend and companion?
On the one hand many may find this quest somewhat ludicrous or unnecessary. Death is what it is, and all our speculation, study, and talk will not change what it is. In fact, our pursuit reminds me of a passage from literature that touches upon this notion of who can claim to be an expert about death.
I should warn you, by the way, that as a retired professor of literature, I will make these allusions from time to time, not to demonstrate my breadth of knowledge, but simply because in some areas of living, more of my experience comes from having lived life vicariously through great works of literary masters than from any exotic life I might have lived. Big game hunting, for example, is strictly for Hemingway types.
In any case, this passage is from Chaucerâs Friarâs Tale about a corrupt summoner who is going about the land trying to elicit bribes, mostly from the impoverished, in return for not issuing them a summons to the ecclesiastical court to stand trial for some sin he will accuse them of having committed. As he travels, he encounters a fiend from hell, an emissary of Satan who is gathering souls. The summoner in his hubris challenges the fiend to a contest to see who is the better trickster.
Without going into needless detail, the summoner gets tricked himself by a sly elderly lady, loses the bet, and is doomed to hell. A bit unperturbed, the summoner, who has earlier asked the fiend eagerly what hell is like and how hell operates, is now angry that he has lost the bet more than he is that he has lost his soul, since he had pretty well abandoned it long before. So the fiend consoles the summoner, saying, âDonât be angry. . . . You shall be in hell with me tonight where you shall learn more about our operations than a Master of Divinity.â
My point in this obscure allusion is that each of us would like more than anything to know about death and the afterlife. We, too, might ply philosophers and theologians and spiritualists with endless questions about what they might think the milestone of death is about, but the fact is that each of us will, like Chaucerâs fictional Summoner, also come to know more about the afterlife âthan a Master of Divinity.â We will all become experts when our time comesâpossibly tomorrow, possibly this afternoon, given the ubiquitous MTE (the Mack Truck Effect)âa sudden and unexpected departure from physical reality.
Nevertheless, we will track our quarry because ours is a worthy quest, as relevant to our present lives as any task could be. What is more, I would not be writing this if I did not feel we could discover some worthwhile methods of capturing or coming to terms with our preyâsome respectable answers to the essential questions about life, aging, death, and the afterlife. I also suspect we can discover insights that are not the usual pat answers, not the illogical or a-logical or baseless myths with which we have been plied our whole lives, even though our conclusions need not disdain or disparage the best of what others have discovered or devised in their own explorations of theology, philosophy, or common sense.
Our investigation, like our lives, will proceed according to a series of milestones, turning points that section out the sequence of our lives, or at least the ânormalâ paradigm we have devised for those who endure to old age.
We will begin with our pre-natal experiences in the uterine world where, though alive and kicking, we donât seem to have much control over our destiny. We do seem already to have a fully developed personality, or so I have observed as my own children emerged at their second major milestone, the first being conception itself when whatever we become is set in motion âlike a fat gold watch,â as Sylvia Plath calls the newly conceived child in âMorning Song.â
Next we will discuss the primal stirrings of life during childhood, or at least as childhood should be. Then we will examine our awakening from that special time of grace, when we are mostly oblivious to transience, when we first become aware of our own mortality. In particular we will take note of some of the theories proffered about the power and importance of this time when, according to some, we are newly emerged from the realm of the spirit and are attuned to the spiritual verities of life. We will consider to what extent these early notions of life and nature and self become a repository we will revisit and draw on for the rest of our lives.
And so we will proceed from milestone to milestone until, at last, we try to assess the wisdom we have accumulated regarding our elephant friend. In particular we will proceed to weigh the extent to which this implacable beast might become our friend, a gate-keeper of sorts. We will talk frankly about to what degree our lives are shaped more by our negative reactions to this fact of our existence than they are driven by positive forces. In other words, are we impelled more by anxiety, fear, and consternation than we are by love, the desire for knowledge, and the pursuit of truth? We will examine some of the attempts to bring about a degree of reassurance, consolation, and peace of mind in spite of our awareness of our own mortality as well as the fears we harbor for our children and grandchildren.
Finally, we will discover how the teachings of the Bahaâi Faith in regard to life, aging, dying, and the afterlife might offer consolation and resolutions for the most difficult questions we will encounter along the way related to our mortality. In fact, we will discover how some of the more cogent arguments set forth by great minds of the past have set the stage for the very enlightenment that is now available through the authoritative Bahaâi texts about aging, death, and the afterlife.
Next: As We Try to Comprehend Death: Why Bahaâi?