Living With My Desk Skull

In this guest post the “Spirited Crone” Sande Ramage tells us how she looks death straight in the eye with a real skull on her desk!

Amongst the debris on my desk sits a small skull. It’s just big enough to remind me that I’m not long for this world.

No, I don’t have a diagnosis that may make you feel awkward, other than being terminally human that is.

Keeping the end in sight instead of trying to clutch at immortality is life-enhancing; a way to live that enters into the soulfulness of our existence. Put another way, it’s a reality check, a way to figure out what really matters.

I’m not alone in this view. Philosopher Stephen Cave argues that striving for eternity shapes everything, even our choice of breakfast. But that leads us astray and stops us from facing up to the challenges of living life well.

In his book, Immortality, Cave suggests that humans have relentlessly pursued immortality through four paths:
1.      staying alive in the same body – keeping the existing body going
2.      biotech interventions – pills, potions and surgery
3.      resurrection – the religious idea of heaven someplace else
4.      legacy – we live on in our deeds and generations to come.

‘But aren’t you meant to believe in life after death,’ said my colleague, staring at me intently over his espresso.
‘Depends what you mean by that,’ I said, mindful of the physicists who reckon we emerged from stardust and to stardust we will return. Although it’s a sparkling improvement on mere dust, it’s still a hankering for immortality.

The religious writer Karen Armstrong said the afterlife was a red herring that kept us avoiding the real issue.’
‘What’s that mean?’
‘She thought religion was supposed to be about the loss of the ego, not about its eternal survival.’

‘So, when you say you’re about death as a priest you mean death of the ego?’
‘A bit of both, I think. I’m not so keen on destroying the ego, but absorbing it and getting it in better balance.   Moving past the need to be top dog, which is, when you think about it a bit, probably part of the quest for immortality.’

‘What about physically dying then?’
‘I think that’s the last great task of a human being, where all of our existence comes together in a process of reconciliation.’

‘Reconciliation? You mean getting right with God?’
‘If you mean God as a bloke in the sky with destruction on his mind then no. But if you mean God as the great mystery, the unknown, then I’m saying yes to that kind of reconciliation.’

‘How do you do that?’
‘Sometimes, it’s a process of putting things right with the living. That’s why it’s good for family and friends to gather whilst someone is dying. Other times, it’s just letting go of the need to stay alive, to allow it to be finished. Put another way, it’s to quit hunting down life at any cost.’……

Living with my desk skull is a daily spiritual practice. Like the medieval philosophers before me, it reminds me of my impermanence, the need to embrace that and, as a result, step soulfully into my mortality.

*******************

Sande Ramage, also known as The Spirited Crone, writes about spirituality one word at a time on her blog  https://spiritedcrone.co.nz/. She is a spiritual care practitioner in Aotearoa, New Zealand with a focus on the possibilities of spirituality beyond institutionalized religion. Sande also offers spiritual direction to people wanting to chart their own spiritual pathway.

 

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The 99.5 Percent Solution

A short cartoon, just one frame of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, has provoked an awful lot of thought on my part. Snoopy is taking it easy as usual on top of the doghouse and Charlie comes round to vent to his buddy and perhaps imbibe some wisdom. He has some news for his dog: “Someday we’re all gonna die.” Snoopy retorts, “But not on all the other days!”

I told this joke last Wednesday in an unlikely place for a not only Reform but female rabbi: A Chabad Center. At this very Orthodox venue, where the male host would not shake my hands in case I was “unclean” from a feminine characteristic (never mind my postmenopausal age), I was invited to be on a panel alongside an Orthodox rabbi to discuss, “how to make our lives better now.” No sweat, I could handle that question. I was less sure about the venue. I Tweeted, “What was a female Reform rabbi doing in a place like a Chabad Center in Bedford Hills NY? To discuss our mortality but of course.”

The Charlie Brown joke got surprised laughter from the crowd of Boomers and Generation Xers. Whew, I would be alright. But really, the cartoon captured in one sentence one of my main observations that night, which is that contemplating death can tune us in so much more to life, and to what we want to continue and discontinue for our remaining allocation of days. Snoopy the sage also intimates that we should appreciate and savor all those other days that are left.

Savoring life by staring at death may be a commonplace. But how about this? I told the group that sometimes my work in hospice intensifies some of those days that I get to live. On such an occasion, objects seem more present, more “there.” Sounds are richer, reflections off of water brighter, overheard talk more poignant, smells more pungent. I stand in the inscrutable swirl of existence.

During the question and answer period, many questions hinted at fear of death. They asked if people tend to accept it near the end, or whether everything falls into place for them at that point. I sensed the yearning for ultimate answers, which of course no honest human can provide. I gave the consolation prize of explaining how chaplains at least strive to clear away inhibiting agendas and provide a safe sacred space with open-ended questions. This and abundant time to listen lets persons articulate their thoughts without censoring them for family and friends. This way they can then clarify to themselves what their life story has been about.

But you know? Maybe humans don’t have the answers, but Snoopy makes a good point: Around 99.5% of the time that we are alive we are not going to die. Why worry about that less than 1% exception?