Recently, I’ve started meditating on death.
It’s an old Buddhist tradition that’s meant to help you live better, confronting the fact that you could die at any moment. It makes sense in a twisted sort of way. Still, I approach it with caution. I can’t think of a better time for my anxiety or depression to flare up than when I’m contemplating my mortality. After all, depressive realism assures me there’s a lot to think about.
I could die in a car accident.
I could get blown up by terrorists.
I could die in World War III, which looks like it’s coming closer every day.
The roof could cave in on me as I write this.
And let’s not even start on climate change. I could die of thirst or hunger. I could be stabbed to death in a war for dwindling resources. I could die sweating blood as some tropical disease spreads its oily fingers down toward Antarctica.
In the face of all this, it’s difficult to remember the fact that I’m statistically safer and luckier than the vast majority of Asian women throughout history, and I should be grateful. But I suppose that’s not the point. I will die. We all will. So I think about my death and I wait for an anxiety attack.
Oddly, nothing happens.
Philip Gourevitch wrote in his searing, must-read book on the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform you that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families that death was beautiful. He would know. I think about death and its beauty, and how hatred and colonialism and powerful people doing nothing led to up to a million humans being hacked or clubbed to death by their neighbours. I think about Charlottesville. I think about the fantasy books I adore, which claim that love is the antidote to hate. I think about all the people I would murder to protect the people I love, and I don’t think that’s quite right. Love and hate are too similar.
I think, desperately, about any other emotion I could use as a guide to be a better person.
It can’t be anger – that’s too close to hatred. I could definitely kill someone out of anger. And I’m becoming uncomfortably aware that in general, I’m becoming angrier. Despite all our progress, the world and its clickbait headlines and terrible news seems designed to goad us toward rage. And I can’t help be but suspicious when someone is manipulating me toward something.
It can’t be sadness – it’s too paralysing.
I circle back to love and think about the English language and its imperfections. In other languages, they have so many more words for love. The Ancient Greeks had six. Because there are different types of loves – fiery loves, quiet loves, longing and heartbroken loves. None of them seem quite right as a guide to stop the world going to hell.
I remember I’m meant to be meditating and think about Buddhism. Then I think about compassion.
You could theoretically kill somebody out of compassion, but only in a select few circumstances. And I can live with those circumstances.
I wonder what I would see if I looked at the rioters in Charlottesville with compassion.
I think I would understand that it’s unlikely you would get so many people marching because they are stupid. That statistics suggest that only a very select, psychiatrically-abnormal few actively want to spread hatred and murder and ugliness because they are psychopathic. That means that the vast majority of these marchers are angry and hurt and looking for someone to blame. And that jeering at them, shaming them, spitting at them, firing them… all of this widens the divide between us. It makes it easier for each side to look across the ideological abyss at the other and see subhuman scum, not fellow homo sapiens who live and breathe and think and have difficult relationships with their parents. It makes an environment where the words ‘genocide’ and ‘civil war’ and ‘human rights abuses’ can thrive.
Not to mention, at the end of the day… what we hate about Nazis and what they represent is that they saw the rest of the world as lesser. It’s a thread that pulls through all our history’s genocides. The only time we can turn on our fellow humans – we, the most social animals on earth, who need connection like we need food – is when we see them as things that are not human and can therefore be exterminated without remorse.
Aren’t we doing something uncomfortably similar when we dismiss them as white trash, mouth-breathing, inbred rednecks?
I’m not a saint. I’m very far from it. I understand that if the alt right caught me at the wrong time and in the wrong place, they would happily murder me and my family. The thought makes me horrified and angry and sad and I need to remember I’m meant to be meditating and to take deep breaths without crying. I don’t have the words to express what I think about Charlottesville and the rise of the alt right, but then I remember Gourevitch again, and how he listed his response to the literal decimation of Rwanda: “revulsion, alarm, sorrow, grief, shame, incomprehension.” That sounds right.
I understand that if they attacked my family, I would go down fighting. I would have no qualms striking back. I would stomp on necks. I would gouge out eyes. I would fight to kill. I wonder if that makes me very different from them at all. We’re both acting on that same human instinct to fight to protect what’s ours. We’re just using different targets.
I breathe in. I breathe out. I think about my body rotting away one day, which it will. I think about my skeleton turning to stone and then to dust. I think about the enormity of time and the sun moving closer to swallow the little blue ball we fight and bleed and die over.
I think I’m really bad at meditation, but maybe it’s ok. Because when I reach that image of being dead and bodiless, of floating in space, of comets passing and the planets and the billions of stars reaching out to each other through the endless expanse of nothingness… everything falls away. I realise that nothing I do while I’m in a body will matter in a billion years, so I might as well be kind.
History today looks back on many of our past and current horrors: Australia, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Nanking, the Red Terror, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Korea, Sudan, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq… the list is endless… but history says that each and every one of them is not a tale of good and bad guys. Gourevitch says in We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families that it’s a tale of better and worse guys… in some cases much, much better, and much, much worse.
I can’t stop world wars or climate change on my own. I know that. I can’t control whether or not I walk down the street tomorrow and a balcony collapses over my head, or a bus driver loses control and crashes into me. But if this is a tale of better and worse guys… I know what category I want to be in.
So I breathe in and breathe out, and I focus on my breath. I think about my inevitable death and resolve that all I can do is be a better person. To try compassion and kindness.
And maybe get better at this meditation thing.
With thanks to / Further Reading
Philip Gourevitch: We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families
Mark Manson: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
Reddit contributors: Ex Neo Nazis and Racist Skinheads of Reddit – What Changed your Mind?