I think we can say that it’s in the nature of the culture I live in, and that most of the people I know live in, and that there’s a good chance you live in, to ignore death. Is there an active form of the word, ignore? We hold death off, push it away, turn our backs on death.
Honestly, is this any way to treat a friend?
I am slowly learning that the priorities I hold when I let myself live in the belief that I will live forever are the priorities of a deluded person.
I was on the third day of a nine-day trip in the southern California desert at 4,000 feet, doing a workshop entitled In the Life Lodge: Forgiveness, Apology, and Reconciliation with School of Lost Borders. After our three hours of morning circle discussing the West of the Shield, 1 the guides sent us out to walk like we did every day. This was the core of the practice in the desert, walking alone with an intention and letting the land work on me.
It was 12:30 and we were all supposed to be back at 4. Eleven of us, we all wandered off in different directions. With my daypack and a jug of water, I walked out onto the great flat plane that is the Eureka Valley, and oriented toward the one lump of land in the middle distance.
Our base camp was up at the northeast end of this plane, against the Last Chance Mountain Range. The Eureka Valley is about 28 miles long, 10 miles wide, pitched slightly downhill from where we were, so I could see its whole expanse from camp. But if I walked any distance, then got into a wash or behind a line of rocks, our tents and the cliffs we camped by were uphill and I could easily lose site of them.
With the lump of land out ahead of me, I picked out a white zigzag that came down the mountains behind our camp, a place water must run sometimes, as a point to orient behind me. So the lump defined what I walked toward, and the zigzag was where I was from, and if I paid attention to the line between these two points, I’d find my way.
I walked out. After a while I couldn’t always see the tents or the cars, but I could always find the zigzag down the mountain marking where I was from. The walk was useful, with insights into how someone I love, but have conflict with sometimes, sees our relationship, and into apologies I need to make as a result of that.
When we all returned to base camp we circled up again to tell our stories and get mirrored by the guides. After I told my story, Meredith Little, one of the founders of School of Lost Borders, said, “So you oriented both in front of you and behind. You knew where you were coming from and where you were going to. You never got lost.”
As she said that, I realized this was a reason I started on the path to becoming a hospice chaplain: to make my future death a point of orientation. Staying aware that death is where I’m going helps to keep me on track in my life. It’s not the goal, but death is a landmark, a point of terminus.
When I get cognizant that my trail has an endpoint, that this walk is not infinite, I walk differently—I’m clearer about the value of where I put my actions and my attention, how I spend my time.
Sometimes I hear people who believe in G_D question how people who are atheists could be moral without G_D. To me, this shows this group of believers to be deeply cynical about the nature of humanity. But I do think that when we ignore the fact that we are all mortal, and thus limited, we set ourselves on a falsely large time scale, and this allows us put off doing the right thing. We undervalue the time we have—a year of our lives, 24 hours a day, 365 days, reading The Onion, carries a very different weight in a 70-year life, than in a life that is indefinite. If I’ll live for hundreds of years, and the people I love will live for hundreds of years, why not stay angry at them? There’s time for reconciliation later.
Orienting on my death helps me to set my priorities, and to get back to them when I wander off into the infinite high grass.
- As I write this, I think I should post about the Four Shields model, a simple nature-based model of how life progresses for humans and for the world in general. It uses the four directions and is a part of the rites of passage work I’m training in. For the moment, I’ll just say that some things represented by the West are: adolescence, autumn, internality, introspection, self discovery and individuation