In all of nature, “life” blooms, and then expires – whether by damage or by just plain aging. It is then renewed into a more highly developed form of its old self, or instead into yet another incarnation altogether. Where there is not renewal of that original life, there is likely a renewal of a life that is adjacent to that death. As when a leaf disintegrates into the dirt as fertilizer for the tree. Or ground up cornstalks become food for cattle. Nothing truly ends; but every thing changes.
My mind turns to reflections on death as I pass through certain milestones of my aging. 50 years ago on a hot summer evening in May, my classmates and I graduated from high school. We were now ready to go out, face the world, and live the expected vision of our lives. Just six months later, I was a typically confused college freshman eating lunch in the dining room of my fraternity house, when the news came that President John Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. An hour later, sitting in my Freshman English class on that Friday afternoon, together we heard the shocking confirmation of his untimely death.
The memory of that moment, and all of the subsequent moments that followed over that long weekend, are deeply etched into my conscious memory. They are always with me to this day, recalled with little effort. Just as my father remembered sitting in a restaurant eating lunch when the news came over the radio of the death of Will Rogers in an Alaskan plane crash. Or as my two now-grown children likely remember their very personal day on 9-11. Kennedy’s death, and the subsequent assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy five years later, irrevocably changed me. Their deaths were also my death – the death of my innocence, the death of the protective cocoon of my small-city southern upbringing. But those deaths in turn served as a rebirth for me - a new person of different beliefs and a broader understanding of human reality. Just as I would be renewed (“born again”) and recast numerous times over the course of my ensuing life.
Death is not a singular event at a singular moment in time. Death is a series of events occurring at irregular points in time that lead to constant change and renewal. Just as Buddhist enlightenment or Christian encounters with God is not just one moment of instantaneous transformation, but a constant sequence of smaller insights and shifts that collectively take us to a new place, continually becoming yet another version of our prior selves.
Regardless of our age, we have already been through death many times over. It is the separation that occurs when our grown children leave home. When we leave our colleagues at an old job that no longer fits us. When we move ourselves to an unfamiliar locale, away from all that we have known before. When we necessarily discard a previously held idea or belief that is proven to be invalid. When we surrender yet another self-illusion and its resulting arrogance. When we enter a new stage of our chronological life. When close friends and family leave their current existence and “pass on.” Each of these transformative events, however sad in the moment, concurrently renews us for our next phase of life.
Nothing in nature stands still. Life is always moving to “the next.” But it is a physical law that nothing can move forward until it turns loose of where it is, what it is holding on to. This is a spiritual truth also. If all of the death that we see in nature is simply a stage in transition to something new, why would we presume that human life has been created any differently? In truth, “death” means simply that what was no longer exists; what will be is just beginning. As unknowing as we may be about what our next renewal will be, we can be confident that we are in fact being renewed into that which is most appropriate for us. Just as in all of Creation.
© 2013 Randy Bell