Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Life begins at the acceptance of death

"As a day well-spent brings happy sleep, so a life well used brings happy death"
 - Leonardo Da Vinci

Ageing can and should be fun
My earliest memory of anxiety is being perhaps five years old with an insurmountable problem. Distressed, I told my mum that I didn't want to die, but neither did I want to live forever. Understandably, she didn't know what to say. Most kids would be comforted by the idea of eternal afterlife, but I was just as uneasy with the idea of eternity as ceasing to exist.

The idea of forever and ever and ever and ever (etc) messed with my mind, like when a camera focuses on a screen projecting it's image so the screen shows up on the screen perpetually and you try and visualise where it ends.

Death was probably central to many of the obsessive fears I went on to develop, whether they related to health, religion, meaninglessness, ageing and achievement or any number of other concerns.

Anxiety turns the burden of proof on its head - a tiny seed of doubt fed by compulsive reassurance-seeking will grow quickly into an all-consuming fear that feels like an all-but-certain truth. Only once the pain of excruciating reassurance finally outweighs the original anxiety of the doubt would I finally let go, which offered a strangely sweet sensation of release - 'all that wasted mental energy, if only I'd just stopped thinking about it,' I'd chastise myself.

It took more than fifteen years before I found a way to do that, but I had the basic idea right. Acceptance is the key to happiness. Letting go is the only way to move forward

When your growing up birthdays can't come around quick enough. And then you hit 18 (or 21 in America) and suddenly want to hit the brakes. But in the long run happiness seems to realign with age, increasing alongside one another. So why do we get so hung up about our twenties (I have five and a half months left)? Some of the happiest, most content people around are also the oldest. They've moved on so many times, they know worry doesn't stop anything.

I think about death every day. I don't enjoy the fact I'm going to die, and I'd rather the thoughts were less frequent visitors, but hey, I'm a natural obsessive and I now know it's better to let them come and go, and to be open about it than lock them up inside or try to outrun them.

So, yeah, I let myself think about death, and sometimes relish talking about it with certain friends - it helps me understand this crazy, unlikely existence. I wish it didn't occupy my mind as much as it does, but it doesn't often cause any distress.

Currently, I'm reading the fantastic official publication of the Melbourne Emerging Writer's Festival, The Emerging Writer, and just this morning got to Maria Papas' wonderful piece 'Forgiving the Dead: Writing as Release'. In it she discusses writing and talking as tools for healing and quotes Hannah Arendt:

'We humanise what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it, we learn to be human.'

I think this is true of dealing with fear of death, the most pervasive human fear. And as Yoda said in possibly the only memorable line to come out of The Phantom Menace: "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."

Religious zealots, a lot of whom are surely driven in their faith by fear of death, prove this point nicely. Yet Atheists can be just a zealous and aggressive so I wonder whether an underlying fear drives their often religious-like activity. For the record, I'm agnostic and happy to admit I don't have a clue about how we all wound up here, and the question of 'why', frankly, hurts my brain.

The philosophy I am trying to instill into my psyche these days is all about the living in the moment. It's all you've ever got.

However, knowing that, one day, all will be gone can be a celebration of the wonderful, precious moment. I think half the reason I continue to pay to see Graveyard Train play live (six times in 18 months) is to sing joyously with a bunch of strangers about the fact we are all going to die. It's incredibly cathartic.

Because, well 'it's one life, it's this life, and it's beauuuuutiful'. Don't judge the present, don't dwell on the past, don't anticipate the future - live and love for now in a way that will ensure a happy sleep tonight.
So forget proclamations about life beginning at 30, 40 or whatever the new trendy age is (however old the first Gen Xs are probably); it begins when concern about your expiry date stops taking up valuable mental energy that should be spent living with passion and youthful enthusiasm.

Who knows whether Da Vinci was right in the end. All I know is he was right about how to achieve a happy sleep, and that the most peaceful moments in my week come during meditation at the end of my yoga classes, lying in Savasana, or 'Corpse Pose'. It's an amazing peacefulness, the kind of state I would like to think I'll feel when my time comes - in the knowledge I've lived my days well, and can peacefully release.

But I've spent too much time now thinking about all this. It's time to focus on something lighter for a little while!

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