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In a way, going to war as a teenager gave me a gift – it taught me that our physical lives are short and that they inevitably end, sometimes very suddenly. The young, in mortal denial, rarely realize that truth.
So, as a result, throughout my life I’ve had the sense of death hovering nearby, right there around the corner. Occasionally I imagine it, florid visions of that Grim Reaper guy with his black shroud and his scythe waiting patiently – or maybe not so patiently – for me.
In fact, I encountered him again this week, on an early Tuesday morning, while driving west down a two-lane highway in the mountains near my home, minding my own business on a clear road, the sun coming up behind me, a big eighteen-wheeler semi approaching fast in the oncoming lane about a half-mile away.
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Too late, I saw that the truck had begun drifting across the center line, coming right at me. To my right, the road had no shoulder – only a steep drop-off with no guard rail.
It all happened in a split second. As the truck approached, our combined closing speed more than a hundred miles an hour, I could see the face of the truck’s panicked driver lit through his windshield in the stark horizontal light, his eyes and his mouth open wide. His left hand held a cell phone, and his right hand yanked the steering wheel hard.
Obviously, since I’m writing this now, that barreling semi managed to miss me – but my car shuddered hard from the force of its wake when the truck went by me with maybe six inches to spare between us.
As soon as I could find a wide spot in the road to pull off and stop, I did. Shaking, I silently said this prayer for protection and gratitude, written by Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith:
I have risen this morning by Thy grace, O my God, and left my home trusting wholly in Thee, and committing myself to Thy care. Send down, then, upon me, out of the heaven of Thy mercy, a blessing from Thy side, and enable me to return home in safety even as Thou didst enable me to set out under Thy protection with my thoughts fixed steadfastly upon Thee.
There is none other God but Thee, the One, the Incomparable, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.
The prayer helped calm me. I sat there for a few minutes, recovering my composure and remembering once more that we all live on borrowed time, and none of us knows when our time will come.
Everyone rises each morning by the Creator’s grace. Our lives are in God’s hands. One simple misstep, one distracted or sun-blinded driver, one natural disaster, one blocked artery or missed heartbeat, and we’re each on our one-way journey to the next world. I’m constantly aware that our lives, which can often seem so immutable, all hang by a slender thread.
It may sound strange, but this morbid awareness of my own impending demise has allowed me to develop a different perspective on material existence, one that I’m actually very grateful for.
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A part of that perspective, I’m well aware, may come from the lasting trauma of seeing people die violent deaths in combat, up close and personal. That stays with you forever.
But a great deal of my perspective, I’m convinced, has been influenced by the beauty and depth of the Baha’i writings, which assure every human being that the death which awaits us all will ultimately be a merciful and bountiful one. In his mystical book The Hidden Words, Baha’u’llah famously wrote:
O son of the Supreme! I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve? I made the light to shed on thee its splendor. Why dost thou veil thyself therefrom?
That stunningly powerful small book conveys a great deal about our mortality – and what we can expect when our time comes to transcend this physical world, as it will for each of us.
Filled with reassurance, with soaring, comforting, solemn promises of a beautiful life beyond this one, and with a happy sense of radiant acquiescence, brief passages like these from The Hidden Words offer humankind an effective prescription for ending our fear of death:
O son of Man! The light hath shone on thee from the horizon of the sacred Mount and the spirit of enlightenment hath breathed in the Sinai of thy heart. Wherefore, free thyself from the veils of idle fancies and enter into My court, that thou mayest be fit for everlasting life and worthy to meet Me. Thus may death not come upon thee, neither weariness nor trouble.
O son of Justice! Whither can a lover go but to the land of his beloved? and what seeker findeth rest away from his heart’s desire? To the true lover reunion is life, and separation is death. His breast is void of patience and his heart hath no peace. A myriad lives he would forsake to hasten to the abode of his beloved.
O son of Worldliness! Pleasant is the realm of being, wert thou to attain thereto; glorious is the domain of eternity, shouldst thou pass beyond the world of mortality; sweet is the holy ecstasy if thou drinkest of the mystic chalice from the hands of the celestial Youth. Shouldst thou attain this station, thou wouldst be freed from destruction and death, from toil and sin.
It is even so with the end of this earthly journey. In the next world, man will find himself freed from many of the disabilities under which he now suffers. Those who have passed on through death, have a sphere of their own. It is not removed from ours; their work, the work of the Kingdom, is ours; but it is sanctified from what we call ‘time and place.’ Time with us is measured by the sun. When there is no more sunrise, and no more sunset, that kind of time does not exist for man. Those who have ascended have different attributes from those who are still on earth, yet there is no real separation.
So when you sense death’s approach, or even if you don’t yet feel that mythical Reaper hovering nearby, know that the Baha’i teachings assure you of the existence of your innermost being as an eternal one. All of us, those teachings promise, are destined to die to this temporary place and move to our permanent home in the spiritual world.