Our awareness of ourselves as mortals humbled us with respect to the immortals – to the gods, to the earth, to nature, to art. It imposed sensible limits on our ambitions in their realms. And our common mortality made us respect those who were equally mortal with us – our fellow human beings and the other inhabitants of our earth, the animals. An acute awareness of being mortal also created the basis of our hunger for immortality – you can only hunger for what you are aware of not having. Religions were formed to answer these hopes, some better, some more honest than others – but all in all humanity lived in hope of something more than a short brutish life on earth (and this is not the place to argue about all the admittedly detrimental effects of false or corrupted religions!)
Now I ask: what is the matter with us, or what could be so special about us, that we are so uniquely oblivious to – or perhaps beyond – death? Are we superior to all those civilizations through the millenia that gave this event so much importance? Could that really be true? The minimal thought, time and effort we give the subject suggests we just might be that conceited, that arrogant. And that naive.
“We lived in death’s vicinity. But it was not death itself that was grievous. Its indecision, its omni-presence, constituted its horror and and its greatness. It was not the long-spared it loved but the quickly-felled. Yet, it transformed us with each passing year, led us through the secret chambers of the soul, awakened the angel in the good and the spirit of Cain in the bad. It filled us up and boarded us over, cast out fruit from us and created a sea of misery from a drop of melancholy. Thus it grew up over us like a triumphant tree.
Death is like a foreign continent, about which none who tread its ground will report back. Its secrets engage us so intensely that its shadows darken the path that leads to it – that is, we do not distinguish sharply enough between death and dying. The distinction is important, in that much of what we ascribe to death has already been completed in dying, as our glance and imagination still probe now and again into the intermediary zone. As distant as death might still lie, we can already taste the climate surrounding it.