“Life is like arriving late for a movie, having to figure out what was going on without bothering everybody with a lot of questions, and then being unexpectedly called away before you find out how it ends.” ― Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology
I’ve been thinking a lot about loss lately. About the beings whom I have encountered or have touched me on my sojourn. And the many who have departed from my presence leaving an absence, an emptiness. I’ve lost several friends and family over the years, a few more recently. And one thing I have learned about grief, especially after having the enormous privilege of working with the terminally ill in hospice for many years, is that it is a beast we can never tame. We can only try to live with it, often uncomfortably, and respect its mercurial nature. And yet our grief is also meant to take us deeper. Deeper into the experience and mystery of love and life itself.
It has become all too common in western thought for people to shun the most fundamental of questions. This is often because to do so often means inviting ridicule. These pesky questions are considered a “waste of time” or a thing that toddlers, freshmen philosophy students and old sages do because they supposedly have “nothing better to do.” It is derided as “New Age” nonsense, ironically ignoring that these are the oldest of questions. They are left to the priests, and the clerics, and psychiatrists who too often chide us for thinking too much, for feeling to deeply, or for daring to touch the face of God without their assistance. And who often offer a prayer or a drug to numb that sense of awe we have a birthright to.
There is a verse in the Upanishads which reads: “The little space within the heart is as great as the vast universe. The heavens and the earth are there, and the sun and the moon and the stars. Fire and lightening and winds are there, and all that now is and all that is not.” This understanding of the nature of our multiverse is nothing new. It can be found throughout history and spans spiritual and philosophical paths, from the Jewish and Christian mystics, to Islamic poets, to Buddhist pilgrims and Aboriginal seers who grappled with the dreaming world. And yet how many of us are merely pantomiming our way through this life? How many are participating in a kabuki presentation without searching the layers for meaning?
This is a sort of cultural conditioning and it serves a purpose. It reinforces conformity to a system, an ethos. And the less we question, the more our souls atrophy. After all, this is a system is designed to manufacture hungry ghosts. Empty shells with no capacity, no depth, forever roaming the deathscape of consumer capitalism with artificial and insatiable desires for meaningless things. Enslaved to numbered papers, pixelated screens and Gregorian clocks. If more people took time to ask these questions of themselves and of society perhaps things might be turned on their head. The supposed “order” of things, the accepted injustices, prejudices, endless wars, cruelties, ecocide, mindless consumption, inequities and banalities, might be questioned and perhaps even jettisoned.
Grief is the beast we need. It teaches us to cherish and to remember and to preserve. It shows us how to love and be loved and to find the courage to do both without hesitation. And it is a beast that demands our attention. When we deny its lamentation it comes to us by other means. Addictions, obsessions, nightmares, anxieties, depression, aggression, dis-ease. It inserts itself through the very fabric of our being and, if ignored, will devour our souls whole.
As the ice caps melt and plastic brims in our seas, as mad leaders jostle for a piece of the rotted capitalist cake, as more species fade into a distant memory and the Arctic burns, as the waters become fouled or dry up, as homeless shantytowns grow and nuclear arsenals burst, as jackbooted fascists suit up, corporations engorge themselves on misery, and authoritarian dictators join hands, our questions have taken on a new collective urgency. They signal our willingness, or not, to participate in the story of us. And it is an existential one.
So, before the movie ends, shouldn’t we ask the questions? Might that not be the greatest use of our time yet? There may not be any definitive answers. Perhaps only a silence. But getting an answer may not be what is important here at all. The questions are passages for greater understanding. They deepen us. And maybe that is why those with the most to lose don’t like them being asked in the first place.
Kenn Orphan 2019
*Title painting is one I did several years ago entitled “Just Before Dawn.”