It is reformation day. Four hundred and ninety-nine years ago Martin Luther wrote a letter criticizing the corruption in the Catholic church. He had no idea what he was starting. It is also All Hallow's Eve. The leaves have begun to journey to the ground. The mornings are cooler. The political parties are finally done debating. The politicians somehow forgot to reference this season of dying back and contraction. Jimmy Carter tried it once, and it was political suicide. Then, along came Reagan, with his famous ‘Morning in America’ ad speaking of a prouder, stronger, and better America. America bought that idea like a Black Friday special at Walmart.
But, there is no morning without night.
There is no spring without fall and winter.
There is no better or great again without allowing death.
There is a Sumerian legend that tells the story of the argument between Emesh and Enten, or summer and winter. They are arguing over who is more important to the life of the world. They finally take the debate to Enlil, the wind, who declares winter more important. Winter brings water from the mountains. Water feeds life. The dying back feeds the flowing forth.
Out in what has recently been referred to as North Dakota, there is a gathering of humans whose ancestors’ bones have been feeding that very soil long before it’s recent naming and ‘civilizing.’ Maybe from those who never bought into the ‘magic’ of modern culture, or maybe from watching (like a parent) as a child tears the wrapping paper off of their gift only to demand another gift seconds later, or maybe just from a deep listening to place… there is a voice saying: “Enough!” The childish entitlement to the last dregs of over a million years of stored sunshine that we tore the wrapping off of less than two centuries ago has to stop or it will destroy us. It is time to stop pretending we deserve more, better and greater forever.
Pretending is expensive on so many levels. In health care, forty percent of Medicare dollars are for care of people in the last month of life. Pretending that we have not run out of oil is the same. Pretending that we can technology our way out of this is one of the biggest distractions. I would refer you to James Howard Kunstler’s Too Much Magic for an in depth look at this.
“But how do we continue without growth?” seems to be the question no one is asking. How did continuing and growth become one and the same? Why aren’t continuing and death ever seated next to one another? In Norse mythology there are two human survivors after the end of the world. This country is in desperate need of a story like Ragnarök so that we may redeem what it means to continue.
I started working with hospice about fifteen years ago. I don’t prescribe how continuing and death fit together for people, but if you want a front row seat to that question, go listen to someone who has been told they are dying. You will have to arrive without a comforting agenda or collapsed ‘fix it’ listening…these are only armor for you. You will have to arrive being willing to put down pretending that things don’t end and being willing to pick up talking about how they end.
If you are able to pull this off, you might catch a rare second of wondering ‘what does it mean to continue when my individual life will not continue?’ If everyone in our society could truly do this for just a few moments it would be revolutionary (and we are in desperate need of a revolution).
Revolution brings with it images of violent revolt, but it need not be so. Revolution involves the ending of life and birthing of the new. I have seen both of these happen in stunning beauty and without violence.
John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” I paraphrase President Kennedy by saying that those who make peaceful endings impossible will make violent endings inevitable. I have seen the tricks and tools of the intensive care unit cantilever lives out over the void based on the belief that one individual life is entitled to continue. I have watched invasive tubes inserted into the bodies of humans with the ‘hope’ of prolonging life. Now we watch invasive tubes cut into the body of the earth. This way of refusing death acts the same way on all levels
When the wheel of life inevitably turns, the final act for an individual usually involves breaking the ribs while performing CPR in a last-ditch refusal. This so-called ‘doing everything possible’ is almost always preferred to the ‘giving up’ of dying.
Once again, the course of our individual lives parallels the life of this country. We are squandering resources trying to keep pretending that we have not run out of petroleum. We are willing to risk the water that sustains us for another millisecond of not ‘giving up.’ We are accepting more and more invasive and violent means as necessary to keep going. We are pretending times one million.
As a country, we are at an ending point -- a point when things are asking for us to hold space for their dying. While this is incredibly scary, our inability to hold space for this revolution and transformation will bring us only more and more violence.
What are our politicians’ responses? Imagine our country as a patient in the intensive care unit. Two family members arrive to take in the situation...
The first is the spouse of the patient. She is adamant about continuing all technological and medical interventions, no matter how invasive or dehumanizing, to keep things going on as long as possible. Increase the ventilator settings and IV drips to maintain blood pressure. She has a medical background and can competently make suggestions while refusing to acknowledge what is actually happening.
The second family member is the patient’s son, who has flown in from New York City. He hasn’t really been in contact with his father for years. His approach is to make great proclamations about the type of care his father deserves. “He should be transferred to the BEST hospital with the BEST doctors.” He questions and insults the medical staff caring for his father. He repeatedly and childishly rants about a former time when this would not have happened.
Having worked as a hospice nurse for four years in Chicago, I have seen both of these scenarios many times. I have seen many people die, but I don’t believe that this is the same as seeing death. In the above scenario, neither family member is seeing death. I can state from experience that this typically means that the family member will not die well. They may end up in a long-term acute-care hospital with their body rotting while they are connected to ‘life’ support.
I would not choose this option for us as a nation. But, this seems to be what is happening as corporate and political structures are unable to die to serve something greater than power and money. No politician will suggest contraction and dying. (It’s always morning in America.)
So what will it take for things to end well? What will it take for our nation and culture to let go of the idea that we are entitled to ever-expanding life without death to feed and nourish it?
Maybe we need a movement. A party not seeking votes, but a contraction. A party committed to that, which no longer serves the larger life, ending well.
I call it the American Death Party.
Is it political? Yes. As Pete Seeger said, “You can get together and drink beer and that’s political, because you are affecting the body of politic.” Start tending to the body of politics that includes all your relationships. Include your relationship with the soil, your relationship with the more-than-human, your relationship with those you struggle to relate to, and your relationship to your personal end… because every true relationship includes within it the end of that relationship.