Saturday, February 03, 2007

Contemplating Death ... and Life

The last 24 hours have been filled with thoughts on the end of the road. No, I'm not suddenly missing my Prozac or any such event that may cause concern. Rather the current state of introspection has been triggered by the news of the passing away of a former fellow graduate student, who I'll refer to simply as L for privacy.

L was a charming young girl from Africa, greeting whom was part of my morning ritual when I got in to work. That someone in that position, a seemingly heathly woman no more than a few years ahead of me, could have her presence so suddenly terminated is enough to jolt you. And that got me thinking, if I could look back at my life, in some other world, if you will, what would I see? I remember reading somewhere that death is a funny event, because you know it will come, and yet you're never ready for it. But at least people of a certain advanced age spend time contemplating the issue. Here I am, in what might consider the prime of my life, and yet who knows what fate awaits me.

No, this isn't some depressed cry about not wanting to go. Rather it is a realization of the somewhat sober fact that my life hasn't amounted to that much. If I were to pass, how would the world be without me? Save my family, I dare say not by much. To be sure, friends will expend some tears remembering how life was, but as time goes by, I wouldn't expect too many people to notice much of a change.

And maybe that's how it's supposed to be. People die all the time, life is about moving on. I try to live my life trying to make sure that people never shed a tear on my account, so why should death be different? Ah, but I think that's where some of us have the same affliction as presidents, the need for a legacy!

Knowing death is coming has an interesting effect - it gets you to contemplate life. This idea is not new; in fact, it's one of the reasons I love the book 'Tuesdays with Morrie' (which you have not read is an absolute must-read!) But the death of someone so much like you tends to get your attention and make you focus. There's a Hindu prayer that seeks the Knowledge to transcend from death, not in a bodily sense but rather to transcend the body. So maybe in that spirit, it's only fitting that death of a body becomes a catalyst for renewal. What more fitting memorial than a pledge to reform your life?

"Reform your life" sounds like something an evangelical might say in a religious context. And yet the reality is that the vast majority of us, including yours truly, are living immensely mediocre lives. Now the vision of a reformed life might differ - reactions to the impending mortality of our existence triggers pronouncedly different responses. Some choose to embrace their passion, be it art of sport, choosing to leave their imprint for generations to come. Others opt instead to live every remaining moment seeking out the greatest joy that can be sought, in the form of food, spirit, adventure, or embracing the unaccepted.

The way forward for me, I believe is to try and improve my societal footprint. That word has been used in an environmental context, and certainly that is important, but the idea that mortality could come sooner helps me realize all those aspirations I once had, eventually consigned to the heap of impractical, as I embraced society's ideas on money and love, and the sensual paradigm (our contemporary emphasis on sense pleasures, rather than higher ideals). The character Justin Moreward Haig, in the not-truly-fictional novel 'The Initiate', advises a man who has left his wife of many years for her infidelity, that a fool is one who, because of his vanity, doesn't mind being considered a hero, while a hero is one who, because of his lack of that attribute, doesn't mind being considered a fool. What then do you call a man who throws his beliefs for the voice of "reason"?

Of course, the great challenge is memory. Moved by the death of a close friend or loved one, it's easy to pledge action, but as anyone who has ever made a New Year's resolution knows, a pledge isn't really that much...


Su said...

Beautiful. Your writing skills are exemplary.

Tuesdays with Morrie is one of my favorite books as well. I love his emphasis on giving back to the community and truly serving the community we belong to wherever we are.

Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?"


Anonymous said...

Nicely said, Karteek. Very interesting thoughts, and I'm sorry to hear about your friend.

I left you a brief message on my journal so if you get the time, stop by.