Compassion And The Existential Slap

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Painting by Andrea Kowch

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” Aldous Huxley, Brave New World


“All that live must die, passing through nature to eternity.” — Shakespeare


Do not wait until your final moments to embrace the light. Let things move you. Be patient with your mind. Do not destroy yourself because there may not be much time left ~ do the harder thing and rebuild.
We are not society’s expectations, we are not the constant flow of information we receive, we are not modern zombies ~ we are spirits yearning to find freedom within the constraints of a society that has never loved us. Yet, the world has always loved us ~ so love it back. It is here, waiting for you to see it. Waiting for you to show up.
It is still here. We are still here. Make something of it.

~ i.e. kali ~

In my twenties I was advised by Krishnamurti to consider death and its implications for how I live. Coming from a culture that hides from death, that was a new idea to me. Most Americans wall themselves off from the actuality of their own personal death. If they are given a death sentence by a doctor it’s a shock, even if they are old. Yes, we know death is coming but our common attitude is- not yet, not yet.

The appearance of our imminent demise is called “the existential slap.” It’s a wake-up call to consider the meaning of our lives. We are suddenly put in the position of considering where we have loved and where we have failed to love. Have we lived on the surface or have we deepened into any wisdom? Have we grown into our promise or not?

The culture we live in is determined to keep us from considering such things. It’s not uncommon to see old folks hanging onto their youth through plastic surgery and childish pursuits. We live in an adolescent culture that disrespects age and fears aging. We cling to youth and the appearance of youth.

The existential slap doesn’t happen in cultures that live with and respect all the seasons of life. Our culture resists nature at every turn. Respect for natural processes contradicts the basis for our society, from Puritanism to the chemical industry, to how we imagine our physical health, we tend to think in terms of war. Struggle against nature is a concept installed in our minds from childhood.

For us death is always tragic, a great misfortune, to be resisted until your dying breath.

Maybe we should rethink that. It’s interesting to me how Mexicans celebrate death and allow themselves to consider it in detail. A whole day, the famous Day of The Dead, is given a place of honor in their pantheon of celebrations.

Protestantism has sterilized the messiness of life. It’s engaged in making it neat and clean. Underneath all that is fear, revulsion, a kind of paralysis in the face of the mysteries. The only problem is that when the mysteries are gone so is the beauty and meaning of existence.

We don’t understand death. We don’t know what happens afterwards. We may comfort ourselves with religious descriptions of harps and pearly gates but we’re still afraid of it.

Shutting it out of our minds is not the solution to our fear of death. Facing its inevitability and considering what it means on a personal and universal level can lead us to greater human depth. No one who has died and been revived has described it as something ugly and fearful. Doctors often report that patients ask “Why did you bring me back?”

The perspective of such a person is that what is important is fundamental kindness in life. We are usually blind to the precious beauty of everything. Knowing we are here for only a brief moment gives a needed perspective so that we can appreciate what we’re given.

Fearing life is not so different from fearing death. Both fears go to the same roots. Compassion comes from seeing that we all share the same fate. We live and then we die. Making that voyage from new life to the final breath as meaningful as possible requires empathy and kindness.

Written by

I occasionally write fiction and also about creativity, loving, language learning and travel. I’m a longtime painter and reader.

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