Everything I understand about life has been taught to me or rather I have learnt through observation of the natural world. The cycles of nature demonstrate both the beginning and end and that death must follow life. In the natural world, animals do not possess the conscience that human beings do and can horrify with their behaviour towards death. A wild goose recently landed on the lake near where I live and could be seen chasing baby ducks (as their mother watched helplessly) with the sole purpose of drowning them. To the rational mind the goose was guarding its territory but the lake is vast after all and the ducks were there first etc. The goose eventually flew away and the duck along with her remaining offspring carried on paddling peacefully. Some days the lake is so perfect - light blue placid water with barely a ripple- it is hard to imagine anything bad could happen there. That is until something comes along which we cannot explain and which we simply must label either good or bad.
Science relies on evidence to prove (or disprove) the existence of fact. Human beings however are much more than mere sentient machines. I once had a revelatory encounter with a lady of sixty-something on one of my daily walks. The lady in question had just returned from visiting her ninety-year old mother who had been condemned to languish in an old people's home as she awaited death. (There can be no worse fate than being an old invalid at the mercy of others and frankly, science should not be delaying the inevitable.) The lady, let's call her Jane, felt compelled to share with a complete stranger that she was so traumatised watching her mother staring at the ceiling unable to care for herself and for all intents and purposes biding her time until the arrival of the Grim Reaper. Not only did Jane dread losing her mother but the expectation that the Reaper would arrive but never knowing when, had reduced her to a jabbering wreck. She had stopped eating, could not sleep and had begun questioning her own life from an entirely negative perspective. She regretted not marrying, she bitterly cursed herself for not having children, and she saw nothing good in her life or about herself. I listened intently as the hound wandered ahead and whilst I clutched a plastic bag full of a week's wine and water bottles to be dropped into the communal recycle bins along the way. The hound and I have a set routine rooted in simplicity, perhaps veering on rigidity, albeit inflexibility at times but our walks are for me a sacrosanct moment for reflection and meditation. During each walk I can feel the stillness within my being and without this daily routine I would be a needy shell seeking approbation at every turn. Ironically the pursuit of a calm centred spirit requires a degree of unsociability and often the last thing I care to do is to listen to someone else's problems.
The real reason for Jane's bitterness of course, was her feeling of helplessness. The fear of her mother's demise had dredged up everything she disliked about her own life. Plus when our parents die we realise how little time we have left, which can be a truly terrifying prospect. Even more daunting is the unknown that is essentially death, the definitive end not just of a person's life but also of our relationship with them. Both of my parents have died and I find it hard to have feelings of affection when I think of them because they are no longer here and also because in life, we loved each other badly. Death casts us adrift literally. The ties that bind people together disappear and the sensation of being alone is the hardest to bear. Death causes us to weep for ourselves rather than only for the departed.
I return to nature, to science and to Jane. What we cannot explain must elude us. That quite simply is the mystery of life. In nature there is absolute truth- we live and therefore we will die. The seed grows into a plant which flowers and in turn produces seeds. The cycle of nature is both finite and infinite and just is. In truth, all that causes us grief or even happiness is a product of our perception. What we choose to feel or think is not necessarily connected to what is. Put crudely, life is only what we think it is. Life and death are the great pretenders, the illusionists who compel us to make sense of the hand we have been dealt with and even that is the luck of the draw (or karma, for some). Every day we are challenged and struggle to make sense of our world but that doesn't mean we have to give in to fear, worse yet, to a fear of ourselves.
Why not challenge ourselves to just be, for a change? A good way to start is to pare the extraneous stuff down to a simple, uncluttered state and to offload anything that ultimately does not contribute to happiness. The change can be remarkable. We come into this life with nothing and that is how we leave. Rather than being controlled by things, possessions and appearances that have no bearing ultimately, why not conquer our thoughts instead? After all, the best way to cheat death is to live.
Photo copyright S. van Dalen