On Death:

What is it about death that actually scares us?

Advertisements

When I was growing up, I always took great delight in the autumn season. I’m not sure if it was because my birthday was coming up, hockey season was around the corner, or simply because of the beauty of the Canadian wilderness in fall.

The ordinarily green landscapes would be stroked orange, red, and yellow by the paint brushes of the gods. Fields full of grass became oceans of amber. Bronze sunsets would tint the city gold and set the sky ablaze.

And yet, everything around me was dying.

Autumn
A Canadian Autumn [Source: canadianmusichalloffame.ca]

It’s curious to think that I don’t know of a single person who has wept for fallen leaves, or wilting flowers, or dying grass. We innately understand this is the way of things. We know that spring will come, and the cycle of life (and death) will renew itself.


Why then, do we fear death? Why do we see our own death as the end of the straight line we’ve travelled since birth? Why is it so uniformly regarded as something negative?

Whether we’re afraid of what comes next, or dying painfully, or just the thought of our lives ending, it’s the ultimate boogeyman in the human experience.

Even the Romans, as battle hardened and fearless as they were, refrained from uttering the word “death.” By doing this, they gave power to the very word.

Death is certainly a part of life, and is certainly inevitable. It comes for us all. Does this give it power over us?

Of course not. We do not fear sunsets and sunrises, we do not fear the passage of time, we do not fear breathing. Yet these things are all inevitable. Inevitability doesn’t give something strength, but fear does.


The fear of death is death’s only weapon against us. Like the monster under our bed, it grows in ferocity and size as long as it remains the great unknown. In tackling the fears that surround death, we free ourselves from its grasp.

kiss of death poblenou barcelona 3
The Kiss of Death statue in the Graveyard of Poblenou, Barcelona, Spain. [Source: http://www.kuriositas.com]

Why, exactly, do we fear death?

(1) We fear death because we don’t know when it may come.

We fear the idea of dying young. 

I think of Jimi Hendrix, Alexander the Great, Amy Winehouse, Frédéric Chopin, John Keats, Tupac, and Tutankhamun. They all died at extremely young ages. Yet I would be willing to bet they lived lives more rich and full of experience than many of us rotting away in a cubicle.

On the grand scale of time and space, the difference between living 30 years and 80 isn’t even a blip on the map. Whether we die old or young we’re only here for an infinitesimal period of time, a period of time we cannot control.

We only have the power to make those years count.


 

(2) We fear death because we don’t know what comes next.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I usually have no idea what day of the week it is without ample reminders. Every day is a surprise. I’m at peace with the fact I generally have no idea what’s coming next.

We didn’t know what came next when we escaped the womb and came into this world kicking and screaming. We didn’t know what came next when we shipped off to university.

Sure, there was a little nervous energy, but we were generally excited about that great unknown. It was all new and beautiful.

Life can change in an instant, and that’s exactly what death is – life changing in an instant.

Whether death is the start of a new life or the end of an old cycle, change is never something to be feared.

It is only our concern with what may come in the future, or what happened in the past, that binds us to the wheel of life and death. By remembering that the present moment is the only moment, we free ourselves from that ever spinning wheel.


(3) We fear death might hurt.

I think I can speak for all of us by saying life usually hurts. Breaking bones was a price of playing the sport I loved, for example, and I broke pretty much everything above my waist – twice.

We’re riddled with coughs and colds and aches and pains and pimples and gas. We battle the seasons; we’re freezing in the winters and choking on smog in the summers. The suffering of life is unavoidable.

It seems a bit absurd to worry about the suffering of death, when our suffering is constant and unrelenting in the life we’re living. As far as we know, death is a release from our daily human suffering. Death is the absence of pain.

I’ve seen many people and animals suffer in life – but have never seen one struggle in death.


Nothing can be grievous which occurs but once; is it reasonable to fear for so long a time something which lasts so short a time?” – Michel de Montaigne, How We Weep and Laugh at the Same Thing.


I often wonder if a rose would be as beautiful if it were perpetually in bloom, or if we would cherish the springs if there was no winter. Life isn’t beautiful because it is long, or painless, or safe.

Life is beautiful for the simple fact that we are mortal. Death is what makes life a special gift. Every moment can be our last. For this reason, everything we touch, smell, hear, taste, and see is magical.

Death is our constant reminder to appreciate this life that we’ve been given.

Appreciate the people around us, the things that we have, and the healthy bodies we’ve been given.

Memento mori.

Be good to each other,

– MG.

 

A Letter to my Unborn Child:

What can we truly promise our children in this life?

To my unborn boy or girl:

I’m not sure when we’ll meet. I’m not sure what you’ll look like. I’m not sure what your name will be.

I am almost certain, however, that it will be difficult to find a wife that will let me name you Germanicus, Octavia, Aurelius, Augusta, or any other name of my choosing.

I’m unsure if you’ll take an interest to sport, art, or literature. I’m unsure about your sexual orientation or you skin colour. None of these things are, or will be, a concern to me.

I couldn’t possibly love you any more or any less than I already do. Existence and creation are love, after all, and you will spring from that very same eternal source of life – but I digress.


Germanicus
Germanicus Giorgi? [Source: Wikipedia]

You’ll quickly learn that we humans have a cruel obsession with guarantees. We dislike when the world around us isn’t concrete and stable. We constantly fight against the perpetual uncertainty that is life. Guarantees create an illusion of safety for us, and we are content to live our lives in that illusion.

Though I don’t remember mine personally, I’m sure your birth will be a difficult time for you. You are uncertain what to expect, you are completely dependant on others, and you are unable to defend yourself. It is for this reason that I search for guarantees to give you to put your thoughts to rest; to create an illusion of safety for you.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed there isn’t many I can give you.


I can’t promise you protection. Danger comes hand in hand with stepping outside of your comfort zone and truly experiencing life. I don’t want you to play it safe. I want you to climb mountains and travel the world. To protect you would be to keep you close. To protect you would be to smother you. I want you to come, to see, and to conquer.

I can’t promise you happiness. I can give you comfort. I can give you warmth, bread, and a roof over your head. I can give you private schools or new hockey gear, but nothing I can give you will ever make you happy. You are, and always will be, responsible for your own happiness. I will help you down that path as much as I can, but happiness is your choice.

I can’t promise you I’ll know the answers. I’m a human, just like you. We are fallible; we make mistakes. I want you to never be afraid to fail. It’s okay to make a mistake. Too often do parents play the charade of perfection in front of their children, and reprimand them for not being perfect themselves. I’ll be as new to being a parent as you will be to being a child. We’ll both mess up along the way, but we’re in this together.

I can’t promise you I’ll always be there. I want you to embrace your independence and to realize how efficient you truly are. I’m going to let you figure some things out on your own. I’ll probably find it difficult and will intervene more than I should, but that’s part of my learning experience.

Big picture, we’re all mortal. One day I’ll pass on from this silly dream. When that happens, the more I’ve let you trip and fall along the way the more you’ll be ready to face this world alone. I need you know to how strong and capable you are.

I can’t promise you’ll be popular. Kids can be mean. They grow up in a society that makes them feel extremely uneasy in their own skin. Many of them will project those insecurities onto you. It will hurt.

I’ll take the time to show your true worth. You’ll learn, as a child of the stars, how perfect you are. I can’t promise you’ll be popular, but you’ll be in a place to take pity on insecure bullies rather than being hurt by them.


“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” ― Franklin D. Roosevelt, Great Speeches.


In the end, the only thing I can really promise you is that I won’t promise you anything – except for my eternal and undying love.

Your proud dad,

Michael.

On The Things We Want:

Race cars, Barbies, video games, shoes, a new hockey stick, the list goes on. We were shamelessly invested in the fantasy of our birthday.

Another year has gone by, and another birthday arrives to remind me. It’s funny to think how much things have changed since we were children. The world used to stop for our birthday. We were kings and queens for twenty four hours every year. I remember my twin sister and I would start counting down the days as soon as October came around. It was always the most exciting part of the year.

Then, slowly, birthdays became less exciting. The countdowns started later, and the parties became less extravagant. Eventually, we stopped caring. Some of us have started to dread the day we turn another year older.

For me, birthdays have become routine. It always involves a little bit of cake, some close friends, some family, and too many vodka shots. Lately, birthdays have been followed by a day or two of recovery (in bed, with Netflix). For the most part I couldn’t tell you a single thing that has separated one birthday from another. Except for this year.


Something happened that has never happened before; not a single person has asked me what I wanted for my birthday. It was with this realisation that something strange dawned on me. This was the first time in my life I could have answered that question from the bottom of my heart.

Growing up, we used to love the question of what we wanted for our birthday. It gave us a chance to voice all of the superficial and material desires that raced through our little minds. Race cars, Barbies, video games, shoes, a new hockey stick, the list goes on. We were shamelessly invested in the fantasy of our birthday. We were convinced the day was so magical it might actually produce all of these things that we wanted.

But those weren’t the things we truly wanted, were they? Those wants were the result of targeted advertising aimed at the minds of tiny children and young adults. Those desires were what someone else convinced us we wanted and needed. Those wants came from being convinced we weren’t good enough the way we were. Those desires were someone else’s idea of happiness, a happiness of the material kind. Our birthday lists were so long because pursuing material happiness is endless. Material desires will always leave us searching, wanting, and needing more.


Just a couple of kids who have no idea what they actually want in life.
My two sisters and I: just a few kids who had no idea what they actually wanted in life.

Part of my journey to Australia was inspired by the growing resistance against the idea of waking up one day and being sixty years old. I was terrified I’d work for the weekends for my entire young adulthood, scrape by with the money I earned over fifty hour work weeks, and spend it buying things I didn’t love or need in order to pursue somebody else’s idea of happiness.


And that’s not to say I don’t like the idea of the picket fence, walking in the garden with the girl of my dreams, with miniature versions of ourselves running around (hopefully stressing us out less than I did my parents), with a family dog chasing them around the yard.

BUT maybe that picket fence isn’t in the suburbs. Maybe it’s at the end of a long dirt road that twists and bends, with a few large evergreens on either side. Maybe my nearest neighbour is half a day’s walk away. Maybe the food we’re eating is picked from our own garden. Maybe I’m running around all day with the kids and the dog, because I don’t have to put on a suit every day and leave my family before the sun rises and come home after the sun sets. Maybe my kitchen smells like the jasmine, basil, and mint growing in small pots in the sunlight pouring in from the window. Maybe my wife laughs at me when I buy her a necklace, not because its not from Tiffany’s, but because we both know she’ll never wear it. We both know we’ve never measured or demonstrated our love in this manner. Maybe we can lay in the grass together like children, after ours have gone to bed, and look up at the stars without a veil of light pollution obstructing our connection to the heavens. Maybe we’ll fall asleep under those stars because she feels so warm in my arms. Maybe my arm will fall asleep too, but maybe she looks too beautiful to disturb her when she’s sleeping.


This scene from Gladiator gets me every single time.
The picture perfect driveway: this scene from Gladiator gets me every single time.

Maybe I’ll find a way there. Maybe I’ll have my picket fence on a plot of land. Maybe I’ll be the boy of her dreams. Maybe I’ll be the loving father I know is inside of me. Maybe I won’t. Maybe it’s not in the cards for me. Either way, I know which journey I want to take. At least it’s not someone else’s version of happiness. At least it’s not someone else’s vision of the perfect life. At least it’s my own dream that I’m chasing. At least I’m being honest about who I am.


There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman.


So, even though no one has asked me, I’ll tell you what I want for my birthday:

I want you to strip away all the of the influence society has had on your mind. I want you to search deep inside of your heart. Dive into the very depths of your soul. Find that child inside of you that was never convinced of being anyone other than exactly who you are. I want you to ask yourself – ask that child – what it is that you actually want in life.

And then I want you to go and get it.

Be good to each other,

– MG.

On Motion:

It occurred to me that everything around me was in motion. A fleet of clouds sailed across an ocean of burning suns. Finely manicured blades of grass wiggled playfully like toes in the evening breeze. The flames of the camp fire danced a crimson cha-cha.

The voices of a few people close to me bounced around my ears. Their musical consonance provided a soothing background symphony as I lay in the grass looking up at the night sky. Despite being stranded somewhere in suburbia, the stars had managed to sear through the light pollution and were sparkling brightly in the heavens above me. The crackling of the fire was calming. I was still. I felt at peace.

In my perceived stillness it occurred to me that everything around me was in motion. A fleet of clouds sailed across an ocean of burning suns. Finely manicured blades of grass wiggled playfully like toes in the evening breeze. The flames of the camp fire danced a crimson cha-cha. The Aurai ran their kind hands softly through my hair and down my neck, inspiring goosebumps with every gentle gust they granted me. As still as I was, I couldn’t help but notice my chest expand and collapse with the huffing and puffing of my breathing bellows. I started to run with the idea.


Nothing about us, or the milky way we’re swirling in, is meant to be still. Motion is in our very genetic make-up. From head to toe we are wired with veins, interior aqueducts dispersing and directing the life force that flows down from our mountain heart. The large part of us that is made up of water yearns to ebb and flow with the tides, our distant cousins that crash upon the ocean cliffs. Our legs are powerful propellers designed to run, jump, and swim. Our feet are designed to absorb the impact of that motion, doubling as fins when we flap them underwater.

The music of our heart is a constant drumming, the unique resonating rhythm our body constantly dances to. Our breath is constantly flowing through us, winds that whisper new life into the deepest, darkest depths of us. Our minds are magnificent machines, master of our endless mental motions.

clarity
Everything I could see was in motion.

Nature is no different. Everything around us is revolving in a cycle of motion. The sun and the moon chase each other endlessly. Rivers restlessly flow into lakes that are never truly still and silent. Fields giggle with the gossips of grasshoppers. The swaying trees of the forest shelter the busy bees, beetles, and bugs. Even mountains move ever so slightly, their rocks forming slowly over hundreds of years.

Our nature consists in motion; complete rest is death.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées.

Then I take a look at our society. I reflect on the values and norms we’ve convinced ourselves are correct. I look at all of us, in a constant war with our desire to move, twist, and flow. I see us slouching over computers in blank cubicles that are as small as prison cells. Chained to our desks, our legs bounce with the defiant motion desperate to escape its confinement. I see us slave away in factories, separated from our constantly moving world around us by thick cement walls.

We flip through magazines as we sit for hours in airports before seeking solace in the rigidity of our neck pillows during long-haul flights. I see hyper-active children incapable of sitting still being sent to the principle’s office before doctors recommend a plethora of medications to cure them of their perpetually-moving disease. We’re stuck in libraries for hours sweating over the books we’ll be tested on for finals.

The gluttonous goblins of mindless media – such as Netflix, reality TV, Fox News, and Hollywood productions – share in the spoils of mental warfare as they gobble up entire years of our lives. Even meditation has been misconstrued as something that seeks to silence the mind, rather than allowing ourselves to slowly drift down our river of the thought, observing it without judgement.


The entire journey of life is a constant motion. We are meant to consistently learn, grow, and evolve. And we’re meant to do it together.

I’m tired of being chained to a library desk. I’m tired of seeing the people I love being confined to professional prisons. I’m tired of seeing my fellow humans drowning in socially constructed quicksand. I’m sick of sitting still. I want to use my arms and legs for the propulsion they were designed to provide me. I want to be cured of this sitting sickness. I want us all to remember the freedom and peace we feel when we keep ourselves in motion. I want us all to fly, together.

Be good to each other,

– MG.

On Reliance:

Our minds are lined with shelves overflowing with advice that we’ve accumulated over the years. Mental libraries, divided by subjects such as love, life, and happiness. Many of the tomes covering these various subjects are made up of simple but memorable sayings to help us along our path. 

Though I believe these expressions are beneficial in keeping the bigger picture in our minds, I find they often lack depth and substance. One such expression I hear used often, and have been guilty of using myself, is:

if you love something, set it free; if it comes back to you, its yours.”

When I paint a picture in my head of what this expression means to me, I picture a person opening a birdcage and letting a yellow canary fly out of a narrow apartment window, or a little boy letting his excited terrier off of the leash in a park. Eventually, both owners have their pets return dutifully back to them. I think this expression serves as a powerful microcosm of the dependent relationship dynamics which characterize many modern romances.

The problem with this expression, and the picture it paints, is it associates the notion of love with both ownership and reliance. I think both the notions of ownership and reliance are contrary to that of love, yet they’ve found a place in many of our intimate relationships.


The one you love is not a car. You didn’t buy him from a salesman. She does not come with ownership papers. In order to set something free you must first be the owner of it (or at least have it in your possession). You had to of restricted his or her freedom in the first place. It seems tragically contradictory to fall in love with something when it is wild and free – whether its a bird soaring in the sky or the beautiful stranger you met on the train – only to try and capture and cage it. We have allowed the complex toxins of private ownership to leak into the simple, pure, and unrestricted stream of love. Loving someone isn’t releasing them. Loving someone is never wanting to cage them in the first place.


Reliance, in my opinion, is a much more subtle and dangerous form of ownership. The canary doesn’t return to its cage out of love, it returns because its the only source of nourishment and drink that it has ever known. The canary has grown to love its chains. It no longer believes in itself. The canary is in a state of dependency and has learned to fear a life without the cage. It fears being apart from the owner it depends on for safety, warmth, food, and water. The decision to return to the owner is both self serving, and convenient. The relationship has, from the outset, fostered a sense of real necessity.

The Bird Cage (1910) by Frederick Carl Frieseke
The Bird Cage (1910) by Frederick Carl Frieseke

I see so many words which emerge during conflict in today’s relationships that expose the same sense of necessity. We have to stay together. We need to work things out. We can’t just give up. These words are followed by the revealing of the foundations of reliance the relationship has been built upon. “She is the only one who understands me.” “No one else will accept me like he does.” “We’ve been through it all together” “I can’t be happy without her.” “I’ll be alone without him.”

We pile up these imagined conclusions as though our world didn’t exist before this person came into our lives. We begin to perceive life with this person as essential to maintaining the things we value in our world. These things range from the relatively narrow in scope, such as a specific circle of friends, a shared living arrangement, custody of the children, or the new puppy, to those broader in scope, such as our ability to be happy, accepted, appreciated, or loved. We become the canary. Our reliance becomes our cage.


I think it’s important to note that not all reliance is bad. Being committed doesn’t mean being caged. Too many people confuse commitment with a lack of freedom. Being in a relationship doesn’t mean being reliant on someone else. I really do hope the people in my life that I love the most know they can rely on me. I hope they know they can come to me for any type of help – for advice (although I can’t promise it will be very good advice), when they are feeling blue, need a shoulder to cry on, a wing man for the night, a hug, the shirt off of my back, or all of the above.

I want my significant other to rely on me. I want her to be certain she can rely on me for unconditional love, acceptance, and support for the rest of her days.

But there is a major difference between being in a relationship where you can rely on one another, and one where one (or both) of you feel like you must rely on your significant other. 

In the former situation, a couple is adding additional wind under each others’ wings. In the latter scenario, one or both partners are chained to the other by shackles cast in iron reliance.

The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” – Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays.

We must be the canary without the cage. Be responsible for your own happiness, acceptance, self-belief, growth, success, and well-being, because no one else can ever give you those things. Don’t create your own prison by accepting the delusion that someone can.

And, as much as you may want to, you can’t provide any of those things for another person, either. So don’t be the one caging another canary with promises to provide them with those things. 

Instead, accept that you are responsible for your own life, and others have the same obligation to themselves as you do. The sooner you do that, the sooner you’ll find another canary just as wild, free, and as perfect as you are.

There is nothing more powerful than a love that is born out of love. I can’t think of anything more pure or beautiful than two souls soaring together for no reason other than the mutual respect and endless love they share for one another. That is a flight that will last an eternity.

Be good to each other,

– MG.

On The Journey:

I think when any of us take that leap of faith in ourselves, pull up our ancient roots, and jump outside of our comfort zone, these buried feelings will naturally float to the surface. We need to embrace these feelings because, in the end, they will always be our greatest pillars of strength.

Airport regulations had determined this was as far as we could travel together. I put down my carry-on bag, kissed my mom, and hugged my dad goodbye. I told them I loved them, picked up my bag, and trudged toward the terminal.

It all felt rushed. It felt like it somehow wasn’t enough of a goodbye, but deep down I knew there was no such thing. We all know it. We will never truly be ready to take a leap of faith, especially a leap of faith in ourselves.

I wanted to look back as I was walking away, but I couldn’t risk letting my parents see their twenty six year old man-child of a son with tears in his eyes. So instead of seeing them one last time I just kept walking, step-by-step and teary eyed, until I found my way through security and into my seat on a plane heading to the city of angels. Those were the first official steps of a personal journey that was long overdue.


Sanzio,_Raffaello_-_Putti_(Madonna_Sistina)_-_1512-1513
In my entire (short) stay in L.A, I didn’t see one single angel. [Artwork: Part of the piece “Sistine Madonna” by Raphael (1512)]

I remember the feelings swirling inside of my stomach after I had left LAX and was floating from cloud to cloud somewhere above the pacific. Each moment took me further away from a net of safety I had kept under myself for my entire life.

Without that net to fall back on, my fears and vulnerability were naked and exposed. I felt a deep sense of loneliness, fear, uncertainty, and had absolutely no trust in myself.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”Lao-tzu, The Way of Lao-tzu.

I think when any of us take that leap of faith in ourselves, pull up our ancient roots, and jump outside of our comfort zone, these buried feelings will naturally float to the surface. We need to embrace these feelings because, in the end, they will always be our greatest pillars of strength.



AFRAID:

I had just taken a massive dive into the depths of the great unknown. It can be dark and terrifying in there – for any of us. The journey can be anything. Whether you’re changing schools, considering a swap in professions, or moving to a foreign land, always remember that the inherent fear that accompanies such a leap does not define you.

It is the bravery you’re showing in facing that darkness that makes you who you are. You are strong and brave for even taking those little steps into the unknown.

The best part? You will never break. You may feel like you’re bending at times, but the unknown will never snap you. It will only show you your own durability. It will show you that you’re not made of glass, you’re not fine china. Instead you’ll see that you can bend and twist. You are as strong as the blacksmith’s hammer and as unbreakable as the anvil he hammers upon. The great unknown will teach you to trust in yourself.



LONELY:

I remember the feeling of loneliness eating away at my insides as I lay in bed over 18000km from everything and everyone I had ever known and loved. I had confused not having those people with me in the physical sense with having lost them completely. Yet time alone has the unique ability to change profoundly how we understand the things nearest to our hearts.

In time, we learn that we are never truly alone. The relationships you have with those closest to you have created bonds of immense love that you carry within you always. That love shines through you.

That love returns to you perpetually in the form of those people in your life that love you just as dearly as you love them. You will see that you don’t need them physically present to have them by your side.

Love is the one thing we can possess as humans that transcends both physical space and time. With this understanding also comes the realization that we’ve actually brought our safety nets with us. That reassurance is our protective light. For the dark depths of the abyss feasts only on those who are alone and unprotected. The courage and strength we get from knowing, deep down, that those close to us are still supporting and loving us is all we really need.



LOST:

Even with a rough plan of obtaining my Juris Doctor in place, I still had no real sense of moving forward and no real end goal in sight. I was lost. But something inside of me forced me onward. I kept moving, and so will you. We keep moving because we know inherently that it’s better than standing still and letting the entire world spin around us. We keep moving so we never get stuck.

And then a funny thing happens. We look back at our own footprints in the sand and we realize it’s never been about where we’re going. It’s about the thousands of steps we’ve taken along the way. It’s about the steady hardening of our soft little paws. It’s about seeing how we grow with each step, each moment of progression.

It’s about the pieces of yourself – what makes you whole – that you’ll rediscover and collect along the way. For on your journey you won’t be finding a newer, better version of yourself, you’re simply remembering who you’ve always been. And who you’ve always been has always been perfect.

So keep your head up. Keep yourself moving. Travel down your personal path, whatever it may be, every single day. Some days you’ll only muster a few small steps, and that’s okay. Just as long as you stay the course.

Be excited to look back on the steps you’ve left behind instead of stressing every day about where you may or may not end up. It’s never been about the destination. It’s about the journey, and yours belongs to you.

You are not alone and you will not break. Trust in yourself, because you’re already on your way.

Be good to each other,

– MG.