Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
Mine is filled with fragrant flowers. Welcome.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Memento Mori

Nothing has been so difficult in my blogging journey than to actually sit down and write this piece. When the thought of the promised end hover over your consciousness like the evening shadow and life in its wholesome design so effortlessly provide reminders through the passing of those around you--how do you, approach the subject of death? It has always dawn in me that I will too follow the footsteps of those before me but never was I always conscious of its impending, mysterious nature.

Death needs no introduction--throughout our life we are constantly visited by the occurrence of death--It either occurs in your surrounding or that, if you subscribe to any form of media, will appear in the form of news and stories. A bloody, civil war in the heart Middle East, terrorist insurgency in Africa, a boat carrying 100 asylum seekers sinks in Asia, death of a motorcyclist at the scene of a traffic accident in NKVE, a friend's mother diagnosed with cancer, you diagnosed with...
Talking about death is venturing into a realm of familiarity that is laden with smokescreen of a lingering fear, not of death itself but the process of death. As Christian scholar Ken Kramer aptly said, "There is a point in your life where you will become absolutely certain of your mortality. It comes to people at different stages of their life. For some it happens very early and for some, it comes really late,"

Nothing teaches you the meaning of life other than the experience of one's mortality. History showed us that great triumphs were achieved by individuals who had experienced their own mortality and gain a deeper, different take on life than others. At age 23, Fyodor Dostoevsky was caught and jailed for his involvement in Russian radical groups and was brought out to be executed in public in St. Petersburg.  Laid in front of his was a row of coffins for him and his cell mates while the crowd gathered to witness their death. The executioners raised and aimed their rifles at the intended target. Just moments later, a messenger came running to whisper something to the head executioner and the rifles were brought down, Dostoevsky and his mates get to live another day. The near death experience of the young man shaped him to become one of Europe's most important novelist till this day. In a letter to his brother after the near fatal experience, Dostoevsky said,

"When I look back at the past and think of all the time I squandered in terror and idleness...then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift...every minute could have been an eternity of happiness! If youth only knew. Now my life will change; now I will be reborn," 

Perhaps a much modern example of a reflection on one's mortality comes from one of the most iconic figure in the 21st century. A man most of us owed our digital lifestyle for, a revolutionary genius compared to the innovative breakthrough of Henry Ford, that is Steve Jobs. Diagnosed with a rare pancreatic cancer in 2003, he went through several procedures including a liver transplant but succumb to respiratory arrest related to the tumor in late 2011. Sharing with you his Stanford commencement address in 2005, just a year after he underwent an intricate procedure to remove the tumor, Jobs provide brutal but poignant honesty on his reflection of his life and death by telling the audience stories centered on three themes: Connecting the dots, love and loss, and death.

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart...

"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true...

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary,"

"Everyone succumbs to finitude," said Stanford neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi in a moving article on the experience of facing death, "I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed," 

Time moves much slower for someone facing death, if my understanding of Kalanithi's Before I Go does it justice. Every moment is just another knock on the door of death, that the knocking is most real and constant to someone facing his mortality. Kalanithi who was diagnosed with an incurable lung cancer at the height of his career passed away just a few months after the article was published. He left behind a loving wife and daughter, who, in the last paragraph of his article, personify the meaning of our existence in each other's lives. That we carry within ourselves the ability to fill others hearts with so much joy and love. 

"When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing,"

As I was writing this piece, the news of the passing of Singapore's former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was publicized. Odes, gigantic tributes, heartfelt messages of respect and gratitude for the nationalist were pouring in from all over the world. Regardless of political views, LKY was remembered for his leadership and austerity, his courage and sacrifices for Singapore. I dawned on me that LKY left behind a legacy of not just the most economically-advanced and prosperous nation in the region, but a legacy of his characters. It made me think of what other people might say about me if my time comes any time soon. What adjectives would they use to describe me? When I dig deeper within myself, I am forced to look at me in a third person point of view and found characters within me that I wish would not be mentioned in any conversation people might have about me when I die. I don't want to be remembered as the 'overly shy girl' or a 'girl with potential but could have done better'. I want to be remembered as a kind, gracious person but when I think of it, who would stand up and vouch for these characters that I assume I have? maybe none...maybe I haven't try hard enough. 

I dont know why the thought of death suddenly vapor around my mind and I decided that I have to find an outlet to understand it better. In Islam, death is regarded as a blessing, death is THE destination and nothing else. Death is the path every soul has to go through in a journey to meet their lord. As Fadhilah brilliantly said, we tend to think that our life is a linear journey but it is more of a circle. We were created by god and come from Him and we will soon return to Him. I hope I will always remember that I will leave this earth and my loved ones one day but I can't help but hope that when that time comes, I would have given enough of myself to the good of this world and the happiness of those I love, that I have learn to give love accordingly and receive in return, that I embodies the sweetness and honesty of our vulnerable existence and that I will learn to give much more than what I want to gain.