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Learning How to Die: Finding Meaning in the Midst of Collapse

Remember: no matter how dire things become, no one can force us to surrender our right to love—nature, one another, ourselves—and to be loved. These will always be ours to choose.

ELIZABETH WEST

August 19, 2022

Despite the extremely disheartening developments across the spectrum of worldly life, despair and defeat are—while understandable—not inevitable. That is the good news. We are never obliged to surrender the best of our humanity, even as things around us devolve. But in order to find our footing, it is important to begin by seeing the current reality without fear or illusion. We can be fairly certain that the tipping points have now tipped, that we are in for an epic unraveling. The planet is on fire and under water, plagues are on the loose, croplands are becoming barren, rivers going dry. Further, the shreds of sane governance that might have kept us afloat a little longer are going down in flames. The omnicidal fascists, waiting impatiently in the wings for their moment on center stage, are almost certain to speed us ever more swiftly toward the end of life as we have known it.

In everyone’s personal life—and now in the life of the Earth—there comes a point when a convergence of natural forces relays the message that we are no longer the master of our physical fate.

Personally, I believe in miracles because I have seen a couple in my day. I never rule them out entirely, and my fingers are crossed that we will get lucky. However, only a fool would count on divine intervention. Particularly after we repeatedly and decisively failed to heed all the wisdom so generously handed to us, such that we might save ourselves. It is a good time, then, to start learning how to die. Maybe you won’t need to leave life—as an individual—right now, maybe you can find a way to secure the futures of your loved ones, your kids and grandkids.  But we all live together on a dying planet and we are assuredly going to witness continued decline and demise on many fronts.

If we tell ourselves the truth, we know that things will never ‘get back to normal.’ That vain hope—often built on dreams of technological solutions to climate collapse, or a political messiah emerging from nowhere to make us all sane again—may be comforting.  I would never suggest that we turn away from the things that help us get through the day. God knows, it is getting harder and harder to do, and we need all the tools we can gather. But I also believe that this is a moment—looking death in the eye as it barrels toward us—when courage and a commitment to digging deep, whatever that means to each of us, is paramount.

Thirty-five years ago, a beloved and too-young friend succumbed to an especially aggressive cancer after what was often referred to as a ‘long and valiant fight.’ He and his doctors left virtually no allopathic stone unturned, and I spent many months—on and off –by his side at Massachusetts General Hospital, supporting him as he prepared for or recovered from one well-intended but barbarous intervention after another.

In the end, the cancer took him.

He maintained an absolute allegiance throughout to the notion that he would survive. With an impressive store of personal will, a hefty amount of denial, and best standard of care, he kept the fire lit under that belief up until about 20 hours before he passed. I think he must have felt that any admission of mortality would have given the errant cells an opening.

The afternoon before his death, he looked at me through a heavy morphine-and-brain lesion-induced fog. He looked at me, as if struggling to understand something as baffling as the world we all look out upon today, and said with horror and disbelief, “I’m going to die?”  Within hours, he was unconscious and soon after that, he left his body.

This is an ancient episode in my story. I recount it because I feel a resonance with our current and multivalent predicament, and because it points toward an opportunity that I—and we—miss at a cost. Brad clung to his life, as full of pain and fear as it was. He wanted to go on, he wanted to find the workarounds that would make up for all he had lost. There were many things he longed to accomplish and experience. He was not prepared to die. He was not willing to die.

This is the case for most of us. We want more, and we have purpose—work to do, change to make, books to read and write, music to play, love to love, kids to raise, mountains to climb and seas to sail. We are not, most of us, ready to lie down and concede defeat. But in everyone’s personal life—and now in the life of the Earth—there comes a point when a convergence of natural forces relays the message that we are no longer the master of our physical fate.

Which is inherently terrifying. So we rely on a variety of strategies to navigate the journey toward possible personal and global extinction. Some cling to hope like an overturned life raft on the open ocean. Others fight like hell for the just world they want to live in. And a lot of us, like my friend Brad, default to thoughts, often relatively unconscious, of ‘getting back to normal,’ and so put one foot in front of the other, moving inexorably toward the abyss, blindfolded and yet distracted by visions of happier times. The truth is that most of us have no idea what to do, and are simply trying to keep the flood of rising panic from drowning us altogether.

Hope and anger can be cathartic, galvanizing. They make us feel like agents in this time of decline, when it is apparent that our season of dominion is at an end. If we survey the situation with clear eyes, openings to accomplish anything substantive are few. Electric vehicle?  Sure. Eat local?  Why not?  Recycle? Nice try, but…no, not really. Get out on the streets? Yes! But does anyone in power care? And that newly passed and much heralded climate bill? Sadly, likely too little too late. Of course, these are all good things, but a reality check will reveal how hollow they are—if our goal is to turn this ship around. Still, it is natural to reach for anything that conveys a little agency, that allows us to take part. Who wants to feel like an odd bit of flotsam or jetsam at the mercy of forces completely beyond our control? Who wants to sit by and watch helplessly as the whole world goes to hell in a handbasket? Anger and hope are strategies a lot of us reach for.

It may be hard to swallow, but the position of minds far better than mine (Scranton, Hedges, Chomsky to name just a few) is that we have likely crossed several thresholds. We are now primarily in the realm of palliative measures. I continue to bow—with profound respect—to the activists who are using their lives, possibly their last breaths, to defend pieces of this beautiful planet and the various worthy species (including our own), to soften suffering, or to call for justice, but I no longer hold out hope for any sweeping worldly victories. And with that recognition, I find myself asking: What is my role? How can I do this well? How do I find meaningful direction in the midst of this often frightening process of dissolution?

I am not alone in asking these questions, I know.

We humans are very good at building and expanding. We, at least in the Western-devoured, capitalism-dominated world—which now includes most of us—adore bigger and better. Therein lies our accustomed meaning. We love the ‘miracle’ of birth, we rejoice in creation. We are drawn toward becoming larger, extending our reach. This seems to apply, even when our creations are works that engender equality or beauty or understanding. Becoming smaller and less influential, losing and dying, declining and letting go—these are not things we tend to aspire to, or even try very hard to understand.

And that presents a real problem. Here we are, living in the very heart of a trajectory that conflicts in a fundamental way with our culturally inculcated values, with the prevailing principle and ethos of our time and place—capitalism. Many have warned that unrestrained growth is incompatible with enduring life on this planet, but we failed to take this to heart. We did not upend the giant, globe-strangling machine that spews toxins and death, for profit, soon enough.

Now, we are immersed up to our necks in the fall, while we have learned to worship only the ascent. Most of us know absolutely nothing about how to become weak or to die with dignity or grace or…gratitude and joy.  We’ve probably never seen it done well, and we have so very few role models. In fact, we often put those who know something about loss—our elders and homeless, for instance—out of sight, ashamed either by their frailty and bad fortune, or by our own lack of compassion for them.

Growing old and moving toward death is a developmental phase we have not devoted much energy or attention to in Western culture. We tend to look upon it as nothing more than an end to all that was worthwhile in our prime.  And so it is with the decline and death of a civilization, and potentially all life on this planet. I want to know: is it possible to find beauty and value in this decline?  Is there any kind of personal expansion that can occur while the structures that have upheld us crumble?  Are there boons we can discern, even as the gifts of youth and endless growth are stripped away, as the ease of life lessens?  What gold can we unearth in this era of loss?

We know that dead trees in the forest nourish the miraculous mycelium, but we have yet to celebrate the slow death of a tree from drought or pests or fire damage or old age. Many people I know swear they are unafraid of being dead; it is just getting there that worries them!  Is it possible to attune ourselves to nature, whose rhythms are impeccable, such that we reject no part of our journey?

Brad was a bright young man, and yet he couldn’t look at or live what so undeniably was happening to him. He held on and fought that ‘valiant fight,’ until he lost it. Because he was so determined to have a post-cancer future, he never seized the moments he actually had.  He did not pursue the conversations I know he wanted to have. He postponed his dream of touring France and dining at La Pyramide in favor of paying off his student loans. He put all his eggs in the basket of a healthy life, after ‘things got back to normal.’  He was an avid autodidact, yet he turned away from the one window he had to learn how to die. Death came while his attention was riveted by the possibility of survival, and it took him.

As I ponder how to live purposefully on a planet that is currently passing through the portal –environmentally, politically, economically—I find myself thinking of another good friend whose death I attended many years after Brad’s.  I met Yun Sooo when she was 83 and dying from metastatic melanoma. The scope of her vibrant physical life, which could easily fill a thousand pages, had narrowed considerably, but her mind was at its peak and her spirit in its glory.  She confided in me soon after we met that she had just embarked upon the most thrilling adventure of her lifetime.  She said, ‘To be able to observe and to participate in the process of dying with full consciousness outshines any explorations I have ever undertaken. I watch with anticipation and excitement to see how this unfolds, how I respond, who I really am as I lose control of my life.”  Yun Sooo had a long run, unlike Brad, as well as the benefit of wisdom accrued over the decades. Her approach to dying—courage, curiosity, a willingness to be present to whatever life brought on the road to death—was a revelation.

She inspires me, as does Brad. I don’t want to miss this incredible moment in time and in my life, simply because it frightens me.  Do you ever wonder how it is that you ended up here at this very instant, when things are exploding, imploding, rotting on every front?  Could it be a privilege to be alive and awake in 2022, to be a witness, and a participant, almost inevitably impacted by fire and flood and fascism?  Is there an inherent challenge here that—if taken up—could lead you to a vaster and more magnificent expression of your own life?  Perhaps this feels counterintuitive?  Paradoxical?  Likely so.  But it might be worth considering.

I know that I need to learn how to die, both as an individual human being, and as part of this grand experiment, which appears to be wrapping up. I need to show up for this chapter, just as I did for the years of creating, and nurturing those creations. It has been my good fortune to know a few people who accompany the dying, through their work with hospice. I look to them for guidance as I continue to try to make sense of this increasingly terminal world, to help answer my queries about how to live meaningfully. Their courage, willingness to sit with the entire gamut of emotion without pushing anything away, acceptance of decline and loss as natural parts of life, honesty tempered with compassion, intentional offering of an open heart—these help me to shape my understanding of how to be a good human—both to myself and others—in these upcoming minutes, days, years….

Of course there is grief—and anger—when we contemplate the loss, the suffering.  And it all must be honored.  But if these are allowed to overtake us, if despair and hopelessness are left to eclipse all else, then we may miss our opportunity to prise from this process all that It has to offer, to transcend our egos’ addiction to survival at all cost, to become who we always believed we could be, to live as if each breath and each thought and each word matters.  We may miss the only chance we have to learn to die well.

It is unlikely we will change outcomes on the planet by living and loving as if we were almost out of time, but surely we can change ourselves. And those we touch. We can choose to have the conversations that we fear, but deeply want to have. We can give away what we don’t need today instead of saving it for some imaginary future. We can stop to appreciate the weeds that grow up through the cracks in the sidewalk, thank the birds that somehow continue to nest and breed, send love to the insects who soldier on to our great benefit. We can pause to honor the fish and the polar bears and the people who perish. We can look for ways to twine the grief and pain with gratitude—that we are alive and able to feel so deeply. Even when it hurts, even when we know that all we love will not last. Time may not be long for many of us, so perhaps, dive into that gratitude? For that which has been easy and good and beautiful, and for that which asks us to become so much more than we ever imagined was possible.

We have a huge privilege. However, the window to embrace it is not wide. There are many whose lives have been or will soon be consumed by desperate pursuit of survival. If yours is still mostly in your hands, then please, don’t waste this narrow and spectacular opportunity. Even as you attend to the mundane, using whatever tools you need to stay afloat, go ahead and learn how to die. Start by taking the radical step of showing up, heart open to all that is, even and especially when so much is dying around you. Resist the instinct to flee, fight or freeze. This is not about surviving, it is about living. While the world we have known dies.

And then explore what this segment of the journey can mean and hold for you. Look at what you are able to receive from this dying planet, and what gifts you have to share with it. Don’t be afraid. There is literally nothing to lose, other than the opportunity to be present. If you want company on the road, it is out there; some of us will make our way alone. No one knows the ‘right way’ or holds the patent on how to navigate something this big and uncharted, no one can tell you how to live while we die. We are all finding our way, alone and together, in this unprecedented collective project. But please, don’t miss out. It could be that this is the most brilliant and meaningful time of your life. As my friend Yun Sooo affirmed: this is the time to find out who you really are.

Remember: no matter how dire things become, no one can force us to surrender our right to love—nature, one another, ourselves—and to be loved.  These will always be ours to choose.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

elizabeth

 

ELIZABETH WEST

Elizabeth West has a lifelong interest in revolution, and in exploring the interstices where love, truth, imagination and courage meet, sometimes igniting wild transformation. Her political writing has appeared in CounterPunch and Dissident Voice. Write her at elizabethwest@sonic.net or visit her website.

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