I have been thinking a lot lately about time and its overt and subtle manifestations in our lives. Yes there is a linear element to it; the words before and after, now and then give reference to the ever-changing fluidity of time and our lives within it. Linear time has a purpose, and gives us purpose to nurture things, grow, progress, and strive to make each day better than the one before.
But there are other characteristics to time. Some are obvious and others are hardly perceptible. For example, time also unfolds in seasons and cycles, seemingly going backwards to somewhere we have already been. We see this in our seasons – the promise of spring will always return again, no matter how dark and cold the winter, and while it is the same spring we have always known, at the same time it isn’t. Civilization has its cycles, as certain historians point out the parallels in the rise and fall of civilizations from birth to golden age to decline, and yet as familiar as these stages seem they are the same but different.
And then there are those things that are beyond and outside of time completely – nearly incomprehensible to our finite minds and understanding, and yet we have enough of an inkling of something beyond what can be measured and defined to know that it’s there. This is where my mind goes when I think of death – because I can’t be sure than it in fact really is “death”, as in “end”. Or rather, if it is the moment in which life and soul is no longer bound by the linearity of the finite world we know.
It’s a tricky subject to write about, but three things have been constantly on my mind this week: the passing of my best friend’s mother from cancer this year, the tragic death of a dear friend of mine in a bus accident a few days ago, and my little sister’s upcoming surgery to remove a (hopefully benign) lump in her breast. And then somewhere along the way, while visiting family in Jordan, we experienced the horrific gassing in our neighbouring country of Syria, and the current aftermath on the world’s stage, played out just a few kilometers from our home.
My heart was broken and re-broken by the two deaths occurring so close to one another, and their suddenness made me hold even tighter to my little sister and sleepless nights glued to newsfeeds, worrying for our friends and family in the Middle East. Amidst the shock and grief for loved ones and their families, selfish thoughts creep in – I’m only in my 20s, I lament, this is the season of my life to be celebrating weddings and babies, not saying goodbye to loved ones or fearing for them – a selfish thought, returning me to the victim as I struggle to make sense of these events in a way
But to say that death should be only isolated to one stage in one’s life is to lose the opportunity for greater perspective and meaning into the purpose of every stage of life – of which death is just another.
Death is confusion to our senses. There is the shock of disbelief – she is so young! They were so innocent! It is not easy to process death within the framework for love, success, and fairness that we comfortably operate within from day to today. We struggle to comprehend what of it defines as a true tragedy, and of what we experience is simply part of life, made fearful by our own failure to comprehend what is?
It is not wrong to feel angry or upset at situations of injustice that take the life of a loved one before their time. The events unfolding in Syria and elsewhere are robbed of justice and dignity. To lose friends and family before their time to a reckless truck driver or a disease that had gone undetected by doctors for a decade speak to the failure of larger human systems beyond the scope of our control.
But am I to link the identity of those I know and love with a tragedy? Each and every one of these souls lived a life that was full of joy and purpose – how can I imagine they are so easily extinguished? I need to learn to separate the injustices from the circumstances of each situation from the progress of the soul within it. This is not to ignore or become passive about the injustices that need to be combatted in our world, but rather to choose to focus on the progress and dignity of a soul beyond the circumstances of their physical death.
When seen from a point of finality, death can seem to render life a mean and pointless struggle for existence that can ultimately never be won. But when broadening our vision beyond the finite limitations that material existence forces upon us, death helps to give purpose to life. To remind us that there are limits to our time here, so we have to think about how we spend it, but that outside of these limits, there is so much more that is simply too far beyond our understanding to grasp.
These words may not be comforting or resonant to everyone, but are merely my own feeble attempts to catch a glimpse into the elusive mystery that is one’s death – and thus, to better understand our life. I will close with a passage that was shared at the funeral my friend’s mother, whose words have changed the way in which I think about death completely.
“O SON OF THE SUPREME! I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve? I made the light to shed on thee its splendour. Why dost thou veil thyself therefrom?”