There's No Substitute for Death
Remember your substitute teachers from grade school? Remember that uncomfortable silence that fell upon the classroom like a cold mist when you realized that this *stranger*, this wholly unknown property, was at the helm? It seemed as if you had just gotten yourself to the point that you had made a rough peace with the ghastly idea of even having to attend school. You had learned what to avoid, how far to push, when to back off, when to attack. In fact, there was a comfortable familiarity with the predictable routine of shambling into class each morning. That gnawing fear that had lodged itself in your solar plexus like a glowing bar of plutonium had finally retreated. Why, going to school was almost fun!
And then... substitute teacher. The fear, the stomach-contracting paranoia, came flooding back. It was almost like the first day of school all over again. Well, that’s our situation now, isn’t it? Sure, I can empathize with your existential discomfort, but let me ask you something: did you ever once ask yourself what it was like for the substitute teacher? Did you ever once try to rise above your narrow and narcissistic self-regard to contemplate the fact that this was equally unknown terrortory for the substitute teacher? Well, DID YOU, you little brats? Hmm?
Well, I certainly didn’t. Which is why, in the time-honored manner of the grade school bad-boy miscreant who grows up to be a cop, I’m going to assume the role of Mister Iron Fist. Boys will sit on the east side of the classroom, girls to the east, please. No talking, no fidgeting, eyes straight ahead. Lisa, that attire is entirely inappropriate for class, go home, change, then you may return. A little more cleavage, please. Just kidding. Not really. I didn't say that. Bob, shut up! Speaking of inappropriate attire, get back to your exotic dancing. "Y-M-C-A, it's fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A!"
Anyway: this naturally raises the subject of *change*, of metamorphosis (and don’t expect me to riff away with Bob’s jazz-like fluidity and panache). That change is a necessary part of life is a tired cliché, yet it would seem that never before has the obligation of acclimating oneself to and integrating change been more paramount than it is at present.
I sometimes reflect upon what seems to us to have been the essential *changeless-ness* of life prior to the last three centuries or so. One apparently led one’s life in the leisurely, stately rhythm of the procession of seasons. Hunt, farm, warm yourself by a fire at night, wear furs in the winter, etc. etc. Aside from falling off a cliff, the fastest a human could travel was on the back of a horse. Most never ventured 30 miles from where they were born. Basically, this was your life, day after day, year after year, century after century. And it would always be.
What is it then about our human organism, the human neurological system, that managed to adjust to this incredibly fast-paced manner in which we moderns live? It would seem that three centuries is scarcely enough time for the human brain to develop a processing capacity that could absorb what some would say is the unnatural change-flow that we humans have to negotiate.
Well, perhaps the truth is that nothing has changed regarding the human capacity to absorb change. What’s the greatest change we can experience? I think it would probably be death, wouldn’t you? Nothing like shuttling off the old mortal coil to make one marvel at just how changeable things can really be. Death: Prince of Changes. In this respect, the premoderns were certainly more acquainted with change than we moderns are. Death was a ubiquitous side-by-side companion for them in a way that it is not for most of us modern Westerners. Death in childbirth, death by disease, constant tribal warfare, etc. –- you were lucky if you reached the stoop-backed, gnarly age of 40, which was the old 70.
Q: So it’s good that we aren’t acquainted with that kind of traumatic change, isn’t it, Will?
Will: Not necessarily. Being exposed to death -- having to live under the constant threat of death -- can teach us much about the transience of physical life and about the always urgent need to be present and aware; it compels us to ponder the great ontological questions.
Q: Ah, so it’s a bad thing that we live in an age where death does not play such a prime role in our quotidian lives?
Will: What kind of barmy calliope music do you have rattling around your vacant braincase? Who would want to live with death as the nutty next-door neighbor who’s always popping in unannounced?
Here’s something else to consider: while we must change in order to grow, we moderns have the luxury, indeed, the individuality and self-autonomy, to consciously and creatively shape the changes we must experience, in a way the premoderns did not. You might say that you can arrange your own birth -- which is to say, death.
Of course, we always have the option of resisting change, in which case change will be forced upon us. Don’t like leaving the house to go about the untidy business of engaging the world? That’s a good recipe for being trapped in a house fire. Avoided eating sardines all your life because, well, they just looked icky? Well, you might just find yourself at a reception thrown by your fiancé’s beastly mother and, er, all there is to eat are sardine canapés, and, umm, you’re just so hungry you’ll pass out if you don’t eat something, and...
True, that was a bit of a lame example, but it could happen. Anyway, I'm sure you get the idea. Change is growth. What marks us as creatures unlike any other on earth is our divine capacity to consciously change ourselves, to grow, to expand and deepen our psychic horizons, our very consciousness. To what extent are we capable of growing? Well, a certain Someone once brazenly pointed out that we are “gods in the making." This is another way of saying that you must eat the sardine before circumstances force sardines upon you. "Sardine." "Sar-deen." "sar-DEEN." What a strange word for a miniature fish....
So knowing what we do about the necessity of change, why do we have a tendency to resist change, including Bob's odd and irrelevant insertions into my original pristine text? Obviously, change is uncomfortable, at least in its initial stages. We feel ourselves vulnerable when in new, unknown territory. Don’t ever underestimate the power that vulnerability can cast over the soul. We all know people who would rather continue living in miserable conditions than leave the familiarity of those conditions and face the uncertainty that comes with change. Remember, too, that change and growth imply entering new arenas of intimidating personal responsibility.
We might ask, why are we so comfortable with the familiar when we are indeed designed by God to change and grow? I think the human soul has a natural pull toward an ultimate rest, or stasis. There is a name for this ultimate stasis and rest: heaven. The comfort of familiarity to which we cling can all too often be an ersatz heaven. As we all know, the greatest of human follies is the desire to construct an earthly heaven. It is not only leftists, fellow-travelers, and fallow trivialers who go about the idiotic business of trying to establish earthly heavens. In a certain sense, we all do that when we resist the changes necessary for our spiritual growth, opting instead for the ersatz heaven of familiarity.
What does all of this imply? Well, basically this: earthly life is not supposed to be all that comfortable, and expecting it to be is a fantasy. The search for divine stasis and ultimate rest in this life will always be in vain. We must always be as accepting of and open to change as we can. The saints did not and do not spend their lives looking for divine stasis, as many would believe. Those who are familiar with the lives of the great saints know that theirs' was anything but a comfortable life -- that in fact, their lives were filled with incredible hardship and challenge. Their lives may have been cloistered in one sense, but they were always setting foot in unknown lands. In some ways, we might define a saint as someone who is wholly open to change.
We should know, however, that the best way –- the only way, really –- to prevent the coming changes from overwhelming us is to always keep a soul’s I on that which does not change: the immutable, the Eternal. In a sense, all of Creation is governed by two principles: that which does not change (the One) and that which is always changing (the Many) –- and the One interpenetrates the Many. Change without knowledge of the One is meaningless. But only absolutely.
So now after my little soliloquy about change and the necessity thereof, I’m sure you are all a tad more accepting of me as your substitute teacher, no?
Van, I see you passing a note to Joan back there. You want to read that note out loud to the class?
By the way, I’ve noticed that the blog Eject! Eject! Eject! is proposing an online community of virtue-minded citizens. When I read this, I thought, what a great idea! In fact, I thought it was a great idea when I first encountered the reality of it here in One Cosmos.