I remember the first time I understood death. It wasn’t in relation to my own mortality, but instead, I was a child reckoning with the fact that my parents will one day die. I’ve had the some luck of not knowing death in any intimate way until very recently at 30 years old when I lost my dad. I wasn’t surrounded by extended family or grandparents and when people died in Lebanon, it was generally distant deaths, typically more sensed through my parents’ grief than my own.
I'd heard the phrase “talking about death won’t kill you.” But admittedly, I’ve turned my gaze away from any thought or conversation of death for most of my life. In some strange, superstitious way, I did believe that talking about death might kill you.
But after losing my dad, I can’t unsee death and the nature of it all around us. This pandemic has brought so much death and yet the numbers become conceptual, something we aren’t able to truly internalize any longer. Now I’m considering a different notion of talking about death. Sure, talking about death won’t kill you, but it might open you.
Sure, talking about death won’t kill you, but it might open you.
There’s a Buddhist tradition of meditating while staring at a corpse as a way of reflecting on a fragility of life. If I’m suggesting that we should talk about death, then what better way to do so than looking at it directly in the eye. Maybe meditating on a dead corpse is a bit of an intense place to start. Seeing my dad’s lifeless body was one of the most traumatic experiences I’ve ever had. Sometimes I have to literally shake myself back to groundedness to fall asleep because the image sears into my mind involuntarily. The stillness of his body, the blueness of his skin, and the uncanny valley of his lifelessness was staggering, to say the least. And stranger yet, my dad was gone a month before he died, his mind was frail, his body was frailer. He would ask us about the whereabouts of his mother and sister, both who had passed away years ago. He hardly had the energy to speak or move. And in the final three days, he simply slept and let only his shallow breathing comfort us. But when he passed away, something indescribable happened. I can’t make sense of it. I keep asking, what is different now?
But when he passed away, something indescribable happened. I can’t make sense of it. I keep asking, what is different now?
The irreversibility of it is astonishing.
It’s not as if the cancer had any chance of being reversed, so why was this so different? His state before and after, in some striking way, illuminated to me the miraculous nature of our fragile little lives. I don't mean I instantly believed or confirmed an understanding to some concept of the soul, but I had a sublime awareness of our inherent animation. We are animated and that animation is worthy, is a force of love, because we so deeply love it. But is this animation simply a beating heart and breath going inward and out? A biological machine in an illusion of experiential symphony? What changed in my father?
We are animated and that animation is worthy, is a force of love, because we so deeply love it.
Suddenly all the metaphors of literature made perfect sense: a slipping through the veil, a life rounded with sleep. It’s so subtle, and in some fucked up way, it’s so precious, to watch someone dissolve into the abyss. I remember thinking over and over, we’re coming too, don’t be afraid dad, we’re right behind you. In the presence of his body, a surrender and stubbornly-arrived-to humility was entirely unavoidable. So perhaps meditating on a corpse is not too intense a place to start after all.
I wrote a tragedy this past year a half called The Hooves Belonged to the Deer because, unconscious to myself, I needed to wrestle with my avoidance of death. I started writing the play in the first month of the pandemic. Death was in the air and at our doorstep, but I never believed it would come barreling in. Within this process of writing, I'm learning that tragedy is necessary, and in fact, entirely natural. To avoid tragedy is to avoid life. To avoid tragedy in lieu of a relentless hope and endless championing of marginalized communities (as has been the case in my playwriting) can become an empty gesture. It straddles the line of naivety. And I don't mean writing about trauma - both Harun and The Green Line reckon with trauma, but they aren't tragedies. Tragedy is necessary because each of us will have life fall out from under our feet. Tragedy invites us to look into the abyss. If I, as an artist, don’t reckon with tragedy (if I as a human don’t reckon with tragedy) I don’t become the cartographer mapping a return from the abyss. And I do hope to return, even though something has been irreversibly disfigured.
Death avoidance is an egoic sensibility. It is defined by a binary with Death on one side and Immortality on the other. Death avoidance is stamped into my psychology because of a Capitalist sensibility, which privileges the material immortality and rejects the downward turn of our lives. I recently finished reading Jenny Odell’s How to do Nothing, and I’m thinking a lot about how I direct my attention. Death avoidance is the attentional withdraw from the very real framing of our lives. I will never be immortal. You will never be immortal. And we will all die.
I think the quest for immortality is an engine that can thrust our passions and our conceptions of life. We are all, in some way or another, living with a legacy project in mind. Writing a book, our divine social media shrines to ourselves, and even the reproductive reality of having children seem to be engendered in our own personal legacy projects. At the very least I live in that way, even if I don’t always consciously think it. I care what people think of me, I care that people think well of me, and I care that I die with my name and my character outlasting me in a decent and honest way. But lasting with who? People who will also die? Until when? Civilizations will also die. The sun will burn and the universe will cease to move one day, unravelling and abandoning any reality we can comprehend. The immortality project is a fallacy, and the direction of our attention doesn’t need to be so haphazard as a binary of Death and Immortality instructs.
I'm not suggesting not to write that book or not to have children or that it doesn't matter what people think of us after we die. The illusion of this binary, Death vs Immortality, is a fragile understanding how we might live our lives. It leads us to compulsions of intense control, like the fascist impulses we see within ourselves and within the leaders around us, where we believe that if we dominate enough of our reality, we might overcome death (spoiler: we don't.). The alternative is a nihilistic sensibility, where, since immortality is not achievable, anything goes, the universe doesn't care and neither do I. I've experienced both ends of this pendulum as I processed and continue to process what happened to my dad.
So what is the borderland between Death and Immortality?
Well, that’s Life.
A liminal space of observation and awareness. Yes, it’s terrible to have lost my father this year, but it would have been much worse to never have had him to begin with. If he had never been born at all. Or maybe not worse, but perhaps not-a-phenomenon. And for now, we are phenomenal.
Death is not a thing to heal or overcome, but a frame to inhabit. My attention pulls toward death now because of my loss. I see it everywhere: I now see the tragic loss of an old friend from high school, the countless elders whom I know who died of COVID, and even the death of Betty White, in newer, much more exhaled ways. These are a serpentine reminder of the inevitability of death. I’m not promising a silver lining. I’m offering a sublime reframing. Life can be defined by a clarity and a maturity of our relationship with death. This reframing might place us in a reciprocal relationship with our ecology and with one another.
Death is not a thing to heal or overcome, but a frame to inhabit.
If we aren't immortal and if death is coming, then all we can really be clear of is that we're having a subjective experience together. And this experience can be defined by how to do good with one another. We can maximize love and wellbeing and I never speak those words in a sentimental way, I mean them very seriously. If we resist the disorientation of nihilism, we have an opportunity to be together in ways that, even momentarily, can make our lives feel complete and full. You know this feeling when you're spending time with your favorite person and laughing a side splitting laughter. I felt this moment when, in his last few months, my dad earnestly said "these are the best days of my life, I'm surrounded by the most important people and I get to see you every single day." And I believe him. By talking about death, we can also resist the perpendicular impulse of fascistic, narcissistic control. It's all leaving, so what use is it at commandeering the sinking ship? Play the music and dance.
Perhaps talking about death can, ultimately, help us live.