The Undiscovered Country

StillLifeWithASkull

I’m often reminded of a Zen Buddhist parable.

As the story goes, there was a man being chased by a hungry tiger through a forest. As fast as he was able to run, the tiger was faster. It was only a matter of time before the beast caught and devoured the man, but he kept running, desperate for some means of escape.

Suddenly, the forest came to an end, and the man burst out of the trees to find himself on the edge of a cliff. The tiger roared behind him, and without thinking he leaped over the edge. His hand caught hold of a thick branch protruding from the cliff, and he grasped it tightly, clinging to the rock face. Looking down, he saw a sheer drop, with no chance of climbing down safely. One move to the right, or to the left, and he would surely fall to his death. Discouraged, he looked back up to see the tiger’s face looming down at him, its lips curled back in a snarl, teeth bright and shining.

The man closed his eyes, and when he opened them he discovered that there was a single strawberry plant growing out of the cliff just above him. Not more than a few feet away from his face hung a single plump, red strawberry. Moved as if by instinct, he shifted his weight on the branch to reach up, pluck the berry, and place it in his mouth. As his eyes closed again for the last time, the juices ran over his tongue and into his throat.

It was the single greatest experience of his life.

Living here in the Cosmos is an exercise in balance between the existential horror of our own mortality, and the sweetness of the meaning we find and make in it. We know that the very fact of our existence is the culmination of a genetic lottery won before our parents’ parents’ parents were born. Why us, why here, why now? We don’t know the answer.

What we do know is that we are all born to challenge. Our first breaths are forced on us unanticipated and unwanted, as we are pushed or pulled from the safety of the womb. We leave our warm home, the only home we’ve ever known, to enter the cold, bright chaos of the world. The boundary has been crossed, the hero has been chosen, and the adventure has begun.

This is an adventure tale that has been told and retold for thousands of years. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, we find death and grief encountered with bracing honesty. The god-man Gilgamesh finds his wild-man friend Enkidu facing death because of the whims of the gods. Distraught, Gilgamesh cannot understand why he should receive mercy while Enkidu is condemned to death. He begs the gods to save his friend, and promises to spare no expense in making sacrifice. But there is nothing he can do. Linked together in life, they cannot stop their separation at death. Both friends rail at the injustice and futility of it, and Enkidu wishes aloud that he had never been born, that he had never been introduced to the world. But then he reconsiders. If he had never come to be, he realizes, he would not have experienced the joy and love that he treasured in life. His bitterness washes away, and he blesses those who were his friends in life. In the final irony of the story, though Enkidu thinks that he dies in solitude, in reality his friend Gilgamesh is still by his side, weeping.

It is this connection we seek, as we journey together through life. Leaving our mother’s womb means losing the connection of blood, but it is exchanged for the connection of spirit. To the ancient Greeks, the word pneuma meant “spirit,” but it also meant “breath.” Thus, the first breath of a newborn baby is also its first spiritual act, establishing its connection with the world beyond the mother and father that birthed it. Sitting here, breathing together, we are participating in the same spiritual act. We are compelled to do so. We cannot help doing otherwise. As a species, we share this connection which runs so deeply, so strongly into the past that to inhale now is for us each to take into ourselves a molecule of air that was exhaled by Julius Caesar as he was being assassinated, or that was laughed by Alexander the Great in India as he contemplated his empire, or that was inhaled by Siddhartha Gautama as he sat underneath the bodhi tree and achieved enlightenment. As surely as we breathe, we are all connected.

We are connected to each other as fellow human beings, all of us the children of a common mother and common father, separated by continents and millennia. The blood that courses in my veins courses as well in yours. We are also connected to all manifestations of life, existing as but one of endless forms most beautiful on the branching and tangled tree of life. All of nature opens out before us, acknowledging us as family by virtue of our biology. We are also connected to the Earth itself, a rotating rock in space that provides our chemical identity, the very literal bonds of our existence. And finally, we are connected to the Cosmos that envelops and supports us, that birthed our Sun with billions of its stellar siblings, the cosmic foundry of our base substance. We are not just animated clay, we are sentient starstuff; we are the Cosmos made aware. We are atoms that feel love, and loss. We are remarkable.

But we exist not only in space, but time as well. And our time is limited. Thus we all have to learn to say good-bye, not just to the people who we mourn today, but to everyone we will ever know. How can we accomplish this impossible task?

The honest answer: I don’t know.

But here’s how we can try. Every person begins making connections the moment they’re born. Those connections do not simply end when they leave us, just as the air they breathed does not simply disappear. They may stop breathing, but we continue to breathe the air that they shared with us. We continue to value the connections, the secrets, and the memories that they gifted to us during their time alive. Of course we do. All of life is a complicated tapestry of connections made between us and our friends and family, and their friends and family, going back through the generations. Every step we take is one that was prepared for us by those who came before, and is made by us to prepare the way for those who will come after. The gods may be fickle, but we don’t have to be. We can honor the memory of those we love by revisiting our connection with them, here today and tomorrow, and then the next day and the next. Eventually that connection won’t be something we have to consciously touch on, it will be something that flows through us, just as we breathe while sleeping.

The great naturalist John Muir found great solace in the beautiful connections modeled by the natural world. His solution to the “impossible task” of confronting mortality was simple: “Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed start, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.”

And perhaps that is the answer. Yes, the gods are capricious. Yes, our mortality is inevitable. Yes, we mourn the ones we lose. We are supposed to. Just as we are supposed to reach out, pluck the strawberry, and enjoy it.

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