Cover

DEATH'S GIFT TO LIFE

RON GRAHAM December 17 2001
Cover

DEATH'S GIFT TO LIFE

RON GRAHAM December 17 2001

DEATH'S GIFT TO LIFE

Cover

RON GRAHAM

In the last two years of his life, Pierre Trudeau suffered a crisis of faith. It was brought on, of course, by the sudden death of the former prime ministers youngest son. “Why him?” Trudeau would ask. “Why didn’t God take me instead? I’ve tried, but I just can’t find a reason.” Every one of us has felt the same sense of bewilderment whenever we’ve lost a loved one to accident or illness. Many Canadians experienced it at the time of Trudeau’s own death. And North Americans en masse shared it for weeks following the tragic events of Sept. 11.

Indeed, death in such terrible numbers by so hateful and calculated a method was all the more incomprehensible—a shock made worse by the smashing of the belief that it could never happen here. Reason rarely helps. For one thing, grief is an emotional and physiological reaction. It releases itself in weeping, wailing, shivering and a profound fatigue, none of which is conducive to rational thought. For another thing, no one on the planet—no pope, no rabbi, no imam, no guru—can explain why this person was taken and that person reprieved.

Faced with such random cruelty, many people have turned away from God out of despondency or disgust. And who can blame them, particularly when death comes, as it did at the World Trade Center, in God’s own name?

Israel, the mosques with the plight of the Palestinians, the gurdwaras with the creation of Khalistan. I gave up on the United Church after two Easter services. One featured the minister, dressed in a trench coat and holding a microphone, pretending to be a TV reporter covering the Crucifixion live from Calvary. The second starred a white, middle-aged, middle-class woman delivering the poignant Passion story as a rap number.

That’s not to say that I didn’t meet good people doing good deeds wherever I went. But the institutions had generally succumbed to the fate of all institutions. Their wisdom had become ritualized. Their structures had become bureaucratized. Their operations had become politicized. Worse, in striving to offer the comfort their clients sought, they tended to pamper them with soft answers to hard truths.

Every great spiritual teacher, from Moses to Jesus, from Mohammed to the Buddha, had to go alone into a desert or pass through a dark night of the soul. Their egos weren’t to be stroked; they were to be shattered. Their fears weren’t to be tranquillized; they were to be transcended. Not long ago, a friend of mine, an intelligent businessman with a fondness for scotch and cigars, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Instead of undergoing surgery, he took up yoga, trained with a qigong master and changed his diet. At no time did he ever think of approaching a clergyman. He didn’t want sentiments or ceremonies. He wanted results here and now. Miraculously, according to his latest tests, he’s found them.

Since that beautiful, terrible morning last September, I’ve

The horrors of Sept. 11 remind us that life is precious-and ennobled by spirit

In fact, God barely survived the Age of Reason in the West. Science and the philosophy of materialism proclaimed the omnipotent, omniscient Creator dead. He became She. She dissolved into Nature. It morphed into Spirit. And Spirit is perhaps best exemplified these days by Harry Potter’s school headmaster, Professor Dumbledore: wise, benign, yet annoyingly absent when Harry most needs him.

There are others, however, in this era of uncertainty, who have taken a leap of faith and hoped to land in the arms of God. The peace of God passeth all understanding, they declare, and mysterious are the ways of the Lord. And if they can find comfort in prayer and community, who’s to say they shouldn’t?

Unfortunately, most North American churches are in the midst of their own uncertainty. Faced with declining attendance, aging congregations and the indifference of the young, they are under pressure to transform themselves from places of worship and contemplation into homeless shelters, concert halls, tourist museums, welfare agencies, political forums or religious cabarets.

Looking at religion in Canada, I found the Roman Catholics obsessed with sexual controversies and authority issues. The Anglicans seemed distracted by native lawsuits and property development. The synagogues were preoccupied with the survival of

found myself discussing death with my children at bedtime, a stranger on a train, even a colleague at a breakfast meeting. I’m sure it’s been the topic of many a church sermon, therapy session and barstool reflection. Yet, among all the accounts of victims and survivors, the geopolitical analyses and war news, I can’t recall reading or hearing even one item that dealt frankly and direcdy with the real enemy for whom the terrorists were the mere agents. What did they brandish as their most potent weapon, after all, other than our dread of dying?

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Modern North American culture, shaped as it’s been by extended periods of prosperity and peace, has been remarkably successful in suppressing the reality of death. We banish our chronically ill to institutions. We lock ourselves behind alarm systems in gated communities. We dream up Star Wars shields to protect our continent from foreign missiles.

Naïvely safe, we dwell in a fool’s paradise of eternal youth. Octogenarians are given heart bypasses and Viagra to keep them spry. Middle-aged dads dress and sport like their teenage sons. The moms seek to disguise their years with facelifts and liposuction. And now we have the hope that Advanced Cell Technology Inc. of Worcester, Mass., will soon be able to offer us eternal life for a price.

We’ve managed to turn Death into an abstraction or, worse, an entertainment. It’s a disaster flick or Ludlum thriller; it’s a video game or tabloid headline; it’s something that happens to other people in faraway countries on the 6 o’clock news. At Walt Disney World, my eight-year-old daughter and I lined up, not once but twice, to ascend the Tower of Terror in order to experience the sensation of plunging to earth from a tall building. What a scream.

‘Yes, death is real, death is near, death is painful. We saw that. But we also saw that humans have the capacity to die with a courageous spirit and a loving heart.'

Small wonder that so many men and women—smart, sophisticated individuals in the financial and cultural capital of the world—could look up into the sky, watch two commercial aircraft smashing into two crowded skyscrapers, and only think, “It’s just like a movie.”

It’s not that other societies, past or present, have valued life less; it’s that they have seen death more. Too many of their babies have succumbed to disease and

malnutrition. Too many wars, both civil and foreign, have decimated millions of their citizens. Too many plagues, earthquakes and droughts have been visited upon their lands. Though their grief is undoubtedly as intense as ours, they wouldn’t delude themselves that death is just like a movie or couldn’t happen here. They know it’s always right beside us, wherever we are, a mere instant away. While it’s mad to embrace death like Osama bin Ladens suicidal fanatics did, it’s only slightly less mad to deny its inevitability altogether. Death is an intrinsic part of the natural order of being. The wisest know that it will come and no one will be spared. In fact, the certainty of that knowledge gives them much of their wisdom.

In the face of that certainty, as evidenced by so many of the farewell phone calls made from the World Trade Center and the hijacked airplanes, nothing much matters beyond love and compassion, service and self-sacrifice, family and friendship—spiritual values, I note, as opposed to material ones.

We overheard those calls, we took their messages to heart, and in the following days and weeks we experienced the surreality that every band of mourners feels when it walks away from the graveyard. How can life be carrying on as usual? Why isn’t the whole world shedding tears? How can those people still be laughing, those children playing, those couples kissing? Why is everybody rushing about, fussing and feuding? What madness. What ignorance. Don’t they realize that they’re going to die?

Then, in our sorrow, we were convinced that nothing would ever be the same, least of all ourselves. Would we ever again be lighthearted? And we made vows, as earnest as New Year’s resolutions, to rearrange our priorities, reassess our values, become wiser and kinder, because life is brief and leads only to the tomb.

For days following my father’s funeral, I remember, I went around the city giving $ 10 bills to every homeless person I met.

But that generosity passed and I slipped back into my stingy habits. Life soon felt normal again because I hadn’t really changed within.

Thus, life across North America has begun to feel normal again. The fellowship of strangers on the streets of Manhattan is fading; cool irony, sick sarcasm and Canadian tourists have returned. We’re all adapting to new security measures just as we adapted to social and political changes in decades past, just as the people of Belfast, Jerusalem, Kigali and Sarajevo I have adapted to them in recent years. I And our political and business leaders are 1 already urging us to get back to the freni zied getting and spending of recent years, I as though another somatic entertainment device is the cure for what ails us.

We’ve even resumed bombing innocent civilians in far-off places—for the sake of a righteous, if not holy, war—without a moment’s pause to think whether their suffering and outrage could possibly equal ours. Soon, if all goes well for a while, we will start to believe once again that we are invincible, immune to the grim fate to which history and nature have condemned us.

But is that a normality to be wished for? Or is that the madness and ignorance we recognized so fleetingly, yet so clearly, when the walls of the twin towers came tumbling down? Wasn’t the only bright light to emerge from that dark, dustenshrouded debris a spiritual lesson?

Yes, death is real, death is near, death is painful. We saw that. But we also saw that human beings have within themselves the capacity to die with a calm mind, a courageous spirit and a loving heart— so long as we live with a calm mind, a courageous spirit and a loving heart. The truth is, we are blessed with the priceless freedom to make wise use of our period on earth, not to gain some promised afterlife but to leave without cause for repentance or regret.

It’s neither morbid nor depressing, therefore, to be constantly aware that we will die. Such awareness is a marker against which we can keep setting our values. It makes precious the hours, the minutes, perhaps the seconds remaining to us. The world becomes even more beautiful, more wondrous, more fragile as soon as we truly grasp that it— and we—must end.

That’s why the philosophers used to keep skulls lying on their desks. That’s why the saints lived lives of prayer and good works. And that’s why we must never forget the ruins at Ground Zero. E3

Toronto-based Ron Graham (www.rongrahamcanada.comJ has written books on politics, history and religion, including God’s Dominion, nominated for a Governor General’s Award in 1990.

Is North American culture suffering a spiritual crisis?

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