I am continuing the series that discusses a selection of polar opposites and takes a look at whether there has to be a duality between them. In this entry I want to look at Life and Death from a slightly different viewpoint. I will admit up front that I am no expert on death, having had very few close people in my life die, other than a handful of elderly relatives for whom death seemed to be a natural progression of their existence, albeit a sad one for those who remained. Still, I have a desire to know more about mortality, mine and others, and perhaps that is because I have not had to encounter it in its full power.
A few weeks ago I wrote about a walk, with a difference, to the top of a mountain. As we walked towards the summit of Mt. Disappointment, we went through a peculiarly fertile patch of forest. It was on the weather side of the mountain and so perhaps received more rainfall than neighbouring areas, and it probably saw very little winter sun. The ground was thick with the remains of thousands of years of falling leaves, bark and even tree trunks. The decomposing mass of vegetation was being consumed by fungi, bacteria and insects. Our feet were surrounded by the remains of so much death and decay and decomposition.
And yet this death was then the source of life for innumerable species of flora and fauna. Fungi, ferns, flowers and trees had found life and made home in this rich and fertile environment. Larger animals fed on the countless insects that had made home amongst the rich source of food.
So what was it? Was it a cemetery or a maternity ward? Of course the answer was that it was both. Death had given way to life and it was impossible to tell where one stopped and the other began. The Buddhists are familiar with this and teach on the cycle of rebirth. We in the West have mixed views on death and its finality. Some see it as a doorway to a better existence while others see it as the final step in our mortal journey.
Today I don’t want to touch on the subject of human death, but rather look at those minor “deaths” that we experience throughout our lives. Of friendships, of opportunities, of our vocation. Like a few weeks ago, I don’t want to offer empty platitudes, because some of these experiences can be grievous. But I do want to offer the idea that the death of a previous known experience can, like the forest, become fertile ground for new beginnings.
Perhaps that is what sets us apart from the animals – our ability to look beyond our immediate circumstances and glimpse a new future.