THE other night we were flicking through the channels trying to find something to watch. We ended up on an old movie with Natalie Wood, who was once one of my favourite actresses. I felt so sad that she died young, and spent a moment reflecting on her brief life. We flicked again. There was Heath Ledger looking beautiful and fragile. Maybe it was because it was a Saturday night and there were so many old movies showing, but on our third try a young Burt Lancaster flashed on to the screen.
For my partner it was too much to bear. ‘‘Everyone’s dead!’’ he said, almost alarmed. For most people it never sinks in. We never get over the shock that people we love or admire die. The fact that actors and actresses are beautiful, famous and seemingly immune always fills us with more fear when they die, or get Parkinson’s like Michael J. Fox. We get a more acute sense of mortality breathing down our necks.
Part of the problem is that we live in a death-denying culture; certainly in an age-defying/denying one. Which leaves us all very exposed and vulnerable when the inevitable keeps happening. Believers in Eastern philosophy don’t behave this way. The Buddhist mantra says: ‘‘Keep death as a friend, always on your shoulder.’’ Meaning that if we know it’s there, we’ll walk with reverence and gratitude every moment we remain alive. We’ll be passionate and kind and not take anything for granted. Death denial is also life-denying because if we’re going to live forever — or, better still, if this is just a dress rehearsal and we’ll be back to do it better next time — then we fritter away time doing things that don’t inspire us.
I’ve always had a relationship with death. From a very young age I was exposed to Eastern philosophy and adopted the yogic path. I feel my choices have been better as a result. When my daughter was young, I did something unusual. I took her to India with me down the burning ghats of Varanasi along the Ganges River, where bodies are burned on big funeral pyres as part of a normal daily ritual, amid the shopping and singing and bustle of the city.
I wanted her to understand the transience of life. To get used to the idea that we die, so she could live with purpose. To pose the question I have asked myself time and again: ‘‘If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, what would I do differently today? If I knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would I do or say now?’’
It’s a hard but fulfilling way to live.
Give your comments