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Like many, I’ve had some controversial discussions with family members and friends about the COVID-19 pandemic. Where you stand very much depends on where you sit, as the saying goes.
As another analogy has it, we’re all in the same storm, but in different boats.
Discussions will probably go on for a long time about the cost/benefit choices that different regions, countries, and cities have made – informed, hopefully, by a lot more and better data. If you boil the whole situation down to its essence though, I think the real “elephant in the room” is the fear of death.
While the vast majority of people who get COVID-19 recover from it, many worry about losing vulnerable loved ones, and understandably so.
While some younger people do get stricken with the virus, it’s probably safe to say that the elderly are in one of the highest risk categories. As such, this got me thinking more deeply about the end of life and the choices we make about it. Clearly, individuals may be in very different circumstances at the latter stages of their lives. Some, for example, may be relatively healthy, still able to do many things on their own, be surrounded by a supportive family, and blessed with looking back on real accomplishments. Certainly, that’s the ideal.
But, there are so many – especially in the global West – who reach old age with little family support, live in assisted care facilities, and/or suffer from all the incredible physical and mental ailments that old age can bring. I worry about being in that place myself someday, as I suppose many of us do. I also think of my own parents, who suffered so much during their last years, especially my mom. My siblings and I were there for them, but they longed for death in many ways. As Baha’is, they fully believed in an afterlife and were ready to move on to the next stage of their spiritual journey.
Know then that ‘life’ hath a twofold meaning. The first pertaineth to the appearance of man in an elemental body, and is as manifest to thine eminence and to others as the midday sun. This life cometh to an end with physical death, which is a God-ordained and inescapable reality. That life, however, which is mentioned in the Books of the Prophets and the Chosen Ones of God is the life of knowledge … This is that blessed and everlasting life that perisheth not: whosoever is quickened thereby shall never die, but will endure as long as His Lord and Creator will endure. – Baha’u’llah, Gems of Divine Mysteries
Having this kind of hopeful perspective on death need not imply flippancy, though. If my husband of 20+ years were to pass onto the next world – from COVID or anything else – I would be devastated by the loss. Losing loved ones leaves a great hole in our lives, and can be one of the greatest sorrows we have to endure, especially when that death comes early or unexpectedly. But, at certain points and for certain people, isn’t it a far greater mercy to let them go? We may have fear because we don’t know what’s on the other side. But I think many people long to return to the eternal home referenced in so many sacred scriptures, or, at the very least, to get a break from the tribulations of this world. As the Baha’i writings say:
All calamities and afflictions have been created for man so that he may spurn this mortal world – a world to which he is much attached. When he experienceth severe trials and hardships, then his nature will recoil and he will desire the eternal realm – a realm which is sanctified from all afflictions and calamities. Such is the case with the man who is wise. – Abdu’l-Baha
Speaking of wise men, I occasionally feature one of the world’s great philosophers in my “Soul Salons” podcast series. Deep thinkers like Seneca and Socrates and Cicero considered death very differently than many do today. That’s not to say they didn’t mourn, but they accepted death – in a similar vein to the Baha’i writings – as a part of life, seen in the context of a larger eternal journey of the soul.
The ancient Roman philosopher Cicero, for example, basically said that one needs to accept and be ready for death. He praised those great souls who welcomed death with joy because, among other virtues, they had obtained the “applause of good men.” He and other philosophers regarded death as desirable if accompanied with honor. Cicero was puzzled by those who complained about dying before their time:
“What time do you mean?” he asked “that of nature? But she has only lent you life, as she might lend you money, without fixing any certain time for its repayment. Have you any grounds of complaint, then, that she recalls it at her pleasure? Ultimately, Cicero tells his companions to “lay the foundation of our happiness in the strength and greatness of our minds, in a contempt and disregard of all earthly things, and in the practice of every virtue.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero, The Tusculan Disputations.
Another quote by Cicero focuses on how wise men who understand virtue – and the journey of the soul – will not be troubled by death:
“Whoever dreads what cannot be avoided [death in other words], can by no means live with a quiet and tranquil mind. But he who is under no fear of death, not only because it is a thing absolutely inevitable, but also because he is persuaded that death itself hath nothing terrible in it, provides himself with a very great resource towards a happy life.” – Ibid.
Our world has already suffered many COVID-19 consequences, but perhaps one of the positive outcomes is that this experience will help us think about life and death in more meaningful ways.
Zarrín Caldwell’s Podcast on Cicero can be found at: The Soul Salons: Exploring our Spiritual Heritage.