Balancing Act

For Blake, the human body was a prison for the soul, not an extension of it.

During the past year, the unexpected deaths or devastating traumas (health, loss of partner/child) experienced by close friends and family have instigated intensified reflections on mortality, materialism, legacies, and the choices we make. I’d prefer to have such thoughts poke me a lot less often, but I’m guessing it’s actually going to be a more frequent occurrence going forward, so I’d better get used to it. Misfortune impinged on my thoughts occasionally before—untimely deaths of friends’ parents or siblings, tragic accidents, suicides—but now they occur with unsettling and unwanted regularity.

William Blake considered the awareness of mortality, of death, and of physical limitations (both inborn and acquired)—imprisonment. He believed that encasing a spirit/soul in a physical body was punitive. My life experience leads me to agree, in a way. Death is, at any rate, a very steep admission price for the potential joys life may offer, although I gratefully accept the conditions. Although animals certainly understand the tragedy of death and mourn it in various ways, I’m not sure they, like many humans, feel the constant undercurrent of impending non-existence that animates the human spirit just as it troubles the mind. When you know your time—on vacation, for instance—is limited, you try to make the most of it, inspired by that lingering knowledge that it will soon exist only as a memory (much of the appeal of TikTok seems to reside there). And when memory/the individual ceases to exist, then what? Nothingness. A difficult concept to grasp much less embrace. Unless, naturally, you believe in an afterlife of some sort, which would be a different way of being at the very least.

The television series The Good Place addresses this quandary, positing that humans thrive on a certain degree of continuity, but also on change, a condition that stimulates activity and creativity. However, in the show, when the threat of non-existence is removed, boredom sets in, leading to a voluntary urge (unlike the Viking ättastupa, cliffs from which the elderly, not wanting to be a burden on loved ones or society, traditionally committed voluntary suicide with the assurance—although who knows how many really believed it—that their next stop was Valhalla) to venture into the unknown, into non-corporeal existence, if there is such a thing. It seems the ultimate decision of a creature motivated in equal parts by curiosity and ennui.

Of course, the only reality is the ever-changing moment one finds oneself in. The more non-believers in conventional afterlives (whether immediate and with the happy ability to keep one’s identity intact and meet again friends and family or as reincarnation in another form based on one’s human behavior) focus on that fact, the happier they are (see Abraham Hicks, Eckhart Tolle, inter alia). In that scenario, the material legacy one leaves behind, one’s history—and to an extent one’s identity—vanish, a situation that’s bothered me ever since my first childhood visit to an antique store, where I encountered treasured memories—photographs, hand-embroidered handkerchiefs, well-worn furniture and clothing—stripped of their original identities and histories. These objects were once important to individuals whose identities had been severed from them. I feel always sure that the original owners would have been saddened to know the fate of their treasured possessions, picked over by strangers. The challenge is to keep one’s thoughts from drifting too far forward or backward or ruminating without resolution.

When I’m on-the-road, away from the people and objects to whom/to which I feel strong attachment (the needlepoint pillows embroidered by Grandmother Irene, the wooden Noah’s Ark with animals that my father made for my daughter, the worn arms of the rocker where Grandfather Jerry sat or the bed where Mother slept as a child) I rarely miss them. I don’t wish this, but I know it’d somehow be liberating were the material possessions to have vanished when I returned. When treasured items have disappeared in the past, I’ve felt relief (or at least acceptance) after a short period of mourning. At the same time, such souvenirs are integral parts of my identity, and I don’t want to divest myself of them. Life is such a strange and fascinating gift and transience such a challenging concept to embrace.

With people (and for some, animals) it’s different. One can’t (or shouldn’t) leave the significant people in one’s life helpless and bewildered in their time of need. Empathetic impulses are perhaps our most valuable. They’re the ones we most treasure in others and rely on to create and maintain a harmonious and healthy society. And, in the end, there’s something deeply satisfying about having the capacity to help others in the varying ways they might require it. The trick is to do so while maintaining one’s own psycho-emotional equilibrium and deriving joy from the magical gift of life all along the way. The misfortunes of loved ones function as a kind of spiritual tai-chi or yoga; activities at which I’m a neophyte. Nonetheless, dear readers, please don’t go out of your way to provide additional opportunities to hone these skills!

By michellefacos

I am a multi-lingual art historian, consultant (art, travel, writing), editor, entrepreneur, lecturer, and writer who has lived along the shores of the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and Lake Erie, in New York and in Paris, and in the forests of Quebec and Sweden. While I’ve lived a semi-nomadic existence for the past few decades, I’m inching toward a life anchored in Europe.

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