Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Death Offers Meaning to Life

Death visiting a dying man. This picture is from Wikipedia.

I've read three different but related pieces of writing that have sparked some meditation today the meaning death gives to life, at least for me as a Baha'i. The first the one was an article that dealt with a new area of psychological research called Experimental Existential Psychology:

"The developing field, called experimental existential psychology, or XXP, explores how people find meaning and purpose in their lives. A topic that was once the province of poets and philosophers can now be examined under the cold light of science, researchers say. How people deal with existential concerns could help explain a broad spectrum of behavior, they believe, from political and religious leanings to altruism and the pursuit of riches to patriotism and terrorism. Already, experiments have shown that when people are reminded of their own deaths, they become more patriotic, more conservative, more family-oriented, more security-minded. The fear of death also provokes a need to feel connected to others, to have a clear sense of identity, to know how one fits into the world, and to feel one has free will." (READ THE WHOLE THING)

Another was an article about the efforts in the Durham North Carolina area to fight the problem of school drop outs by African American male children by having more African American male teachers:

“Jonathan (an African-American student) said he dropped out because he ‘felt discarded, like he wasn’t needed’ after a negative encounter with a principal,” cited a national report titled The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropout by Civic Enterprises and Peter D. Hart Research Associates. The report noted that while students have generally have specific reasons for dropping out of school, the common denominator in most cases is a “slow process of disengagement” from their educational experience." (READ THE WHOLE THING)

The final piece is from my friend Phyllis who has a beautiful column about death that just came out today:

"We miss so much of life by avoiding contact with death. In six days that held more than many months ever could, my family and I came to know a level of awe, love and joy that we hadn't even imagined was possible. The beauty of the intimacy in accompanying someone on his final progression toward death, and making that journey together as a family, still moves us to tears that drive any words of description even farther from our reach. But I suspect our ancestors would know exactly what we've experienced." (READ THE WHOLE THING)

All of these different writings by different authors have a common thread for me which is the psychological impact of a sense that one's life does or does not have meaning. Even the story about kids dropping out of school mentions the students experiencing a "slow process of disengagement". I believe that many of these kids (just like many of the adults in their lives) are in the grips of a profound nihilism, a sense that their lives don't really mean anything, so why should what they are learning in school mean anything? The article focuses on the idea that having more African American male role models in their lives will have a positive impact, but my experience suggests that many of these potential role models are hounded by the same feelings of meaninglessness in their lives that the children have. If my life really doesn't mean anything, why should I dedicate my time to educating the next generation? One way of understanding nihilism is that it is a maladaptive response to the profound lack of authentic spirituality in the modern and post-modern world. The Baha'i Writings offer this comment about the lack of spirituality and it's relationship to world problems:

"Indeed the chief reason for the evils now rampant in society is the lack of spirituality. The materialistic civilization of our age has so much absorbed the energy and interest of mankind that people in general do no longer feel the necessity of raising themselves above the forces and conditions of their daily material existence. There is not sufficient demand for things that we call spiritual to differentiate them from the needs and requirements of our physical existence. The universal crisis affecting mankind is, therefore, essentially spiritual in its causes. The spirit of the age, taken on the whole, is irreligious. Man's outlook on life is too crude and materialistic to enable him to elevate himself into the higher realms of the spirit. It is this condition, so sadly morbid, into which society has fallen, that religion seeks to improve and transform. For the core of religious faith is that mystic feeling which unites Man with God." (Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian, p. 86)

It is this "mystic feeling that unites Man with God" that seemed to be what attracted Phyllis to that family in the hospice who had experienced what her own family would soon have to face, the death of a loved one. One of the great gifts I've received since embracing the Baha'i Faith is that I now experience death as something which is organic, necessary and fundamentally spiritual. I often meditate on my inevitable physical death as a means of intensifying that "mystic feeling that unites Man with God." As a Baha'i I have a clear sense of who I am (a noble, rational soul), what my purpose is in life (to know and love God and promote an ever advancing civilization) and how I can fulfill that purpose (through recognizing the Source of God's Guidance and striving to follow that Guidance). Knowing that my journey through this world will eventually end (physical death) and that I must spend this time preparing for the next part of the journey (toward reunion with my Creator), energizes my daily activity. This may be what the research into Experimental Existential Psychology is trying to better understand. The reality of death does not so much fill me with fear, but rather provides a sense of spiritual clarity and motivation. This is not to say that I don't experience any fear regarding death, just that the focus of my fear is not death itself but the possibility of having wasted my time in this world. I'll close with these Words of Baha'u'llah:

Just as the conception of faith hath existed from the beginning that hath no beginning, and will endure till the end that hath no end, in like manner will the true believer eternally live and endure. His spirit will everlastingly circle round the Will of God. He will last as long as God, Himself, will last. He is revealed through the Revelation of God, and is hidden at His bidding. It is evident that the loftiest mansions in the Realm of Immortality have been ordained as the habitation of them that have truly believed in God and in His signs. Death can never invade that holy seat. Thus have We entrusted thee with the signs of thy Lord, that thou mayest persevere in thy love for Him, and be of them that comprehend this truth. (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 140)

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts today. What do you think?