Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Rage Against the Dying of the Light

Do not go gentle into that good night, 
Old age should burn and rave at close of day, 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (Dylan Thomas)

A few days ago, a man I knew casually at my university was shot and killed by a jealous ex-husband who also murdered the woman he was with before hanging himself.  My friend's name was Ittipol Buachart but I knew him as Paul, a debonair and well-traveled man who spoke impeccable English.  He was manager of customer relations for the Language Institute at my school and he led me to believe he was politically well-connected when he offered his help if I had any problems with my visa or work permit.  He also offered me a job after my short stint with the Language Institute ended for lack of paying students.  MCU's main campus is in Wangnoi, an industrial area near Ayutthaya, and the Language Institute was developing English classes for factory workers.  Because classes were scheduled in the late afternoon and commuting from Bangkok would be difficult, I declined.  Twice, Paul gave me rides in his car which he parked on campus, once to the Labour Ministry and once to a local hotel after a conference at school.  Even though I didn't know him well, his violent death came as a shock.  Raw news footage circulating on Facebook graphically showed all three bodies in a cluttered house in Lopburi.  No one would have figured that kind of ending for Paul.

Paul was probably in his early 50s, a young man, speaking relatively.  His violent death is yet another reminder that we cannot choose the way that we go.  Or when.  Death is not a comfortable subject (Thais pronounce all four syllables of "comfortable" with the accent on the second, and correcting my students is a ritual each term).  How easy it is to get distracted by life!  But "Death" in the title of a blog would be a turnoff.  Friends in my cohort are mostly in their 70s now and reading obituaries and noting the age of the deceased is a regular habit for us  Those younger have postponed indefinitely any speculation about the manner and timing of their passing.  But when someone we know dies, it's hard to avoid.

I still think often of my son Luke who died over two years ago in his mid 40s.  Since he was an obstinate alcoholic, it was a slow suicide.  Dear Holly, almost my age, died quickly in Bangkok last year from a fast-moving cancer that allowed her to sip champagne the night before her death.  But my cousin Ted died slowly from a rare disease that caused paranoia and dementia.  Joe, however, who lived not far from Ted in Oregon, died instantly from a heart attack; both he, Holly and Ted were in their late 60s.  Peter, my closest friend in Santa Cruz for many years, died in his early 60s of prostate cancer, the same disease I was diagnosed with over 10 years ago.  I don't know why it claimed Peter's life but has so far spared mine.

I'm not sure why Dylan Thomas gives me comfort and the courage to look mortality in the face.  That old reprobate certainly hastened his own demise at the age of 39.  After a month of sickness and excess in 1953, he died at a New York hospital of acute alcohol poisoning and pneumonia.  Did he "burn and rave at close of day" and "rage against the dying of the light," even though he was far from old?  Would he reaffirm that "death shall have no dominion" as he headed towards the grave?

The infirmities of old age are cumulative.  They creep up on us, a thief in the night, and rarely announce their appearance like a gunshot or a terrible pain in the chest.  Over the years, I have discussed suicide pacts with several different friends whereby we will assist each other in avoiding the indignities of a long terminal illness.  One of them was later diagnosed with Parkinson's and now he sits mute in a wheel chair, his life constricted by medication and caretakers.  Yet the twinkle in his eye when we're together tells me that he's not ready to go.   My father, who used to brag that he had never visited a doctor in his life and didn't get sick, ended his days companioned with an oxygen tank for his emphysema, sitting on a bench in the mall, envious as the elderly walkers strolled by him.  His twin brother, Ted, however, took his life with pills when his emphysema got too bad.   How can we know when it's time?

The three days I spent in the hospital last month jolted me out of my complacency.  When you ignore it for long as I have, the body exacts its revenge.  And I had prided myself for embracing a material spirituality, one that looked for no consolation in metaphysics or an afterlife.  Coming to live in Thailand was my way to affirm and celebrate the pleasures of "this one wild and precious life" (Mary Oliver).  Falling in love with and marrying a much younger woman was, I thought, not an escape from aging and death but a passionate acceptance of the pleasures of sensuality.  In this view, all physical life is sacred, and there is nothing particularly ennobling about the immaterial soul.

This goes against the accepted wisdom that old age is the time to prepare for death.  Phra Cittamasvaro, the British monk, who could be the closest I have to a guru here in Thailand (though not for the reasons he might think), has faulted me for the pursuit of worldly pleasure when I should be getting ready for the end of it.  Buddhists generally believe that the moment of death is important and it would be well to be meditating mindfully when it happens.  Other than as a stress reliever (and perhaps good for the heart), I no longer find myself much attracted to meditation (this may change, just as atheist soldiers always pray in foxholes).  And now we're back to speculating on the manner and timing of one's passing.

My right knee is giving me some grief.  Years ago I was told I needed an operation to repair it, but now the cost would be too great.  I'm on the lookout for a nifty cane.  For the last few months my left eye has been not been carrying its share of the work of vision; I've self-diagnosed it as chronic conjunctivitis but this could be wrong.  My fingers and a few toes are twisted by arthritis but remain able to walk, grip and type despite the sting and ache.  Of course my innards are as much trouble as always, with mysterious twinges and pains, and erratic (and colorful) bowel movements.  Although my weight has remained consistent at 81 kilos (up 5 since I came here 5 years ago), my stomach expands and sags.  Wrinkles abound and my neck resembles a turkey's.  You don't want to ask an old man how he is.  The boring recitation could go on indefinitely.

"Be Here Now" was good advice when Ram Dass published in 1971 his influential book on the spiritualism of the hippies, a movement that celebrated the physicality and potentiality of life.  I'm still a hippie at heart (although I was a worker with family responsibilities during the 1960s).  Even though Sakyamuni began his journey toward awakening upon learning about sickness and death, thinking about our own death takes us away from the here and now and prevents us from seeing the cracks where the light comes in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
--Leonard Cohen, "Anthem"
Then should we "rage against the dying of the light" when our time comes to go?  If by "rage" you can also mean passionately embracing life rather than its absence, then I suppose so.  In the book of Deuteronomy in the Bible, God says:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.  So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants.
I hope to choose life always, even at the moment of leaving it.


Dion Peoples said...

Very nice Will... very good. I was in the office on Monday. I sit next to Paul. Seeing his desk and knowing that he is not coming back was just strange - beyond that, actually. :-( Like I mentioned elsewhere (FB), he was very kind - as the gentleman you describe - usually the first person in the day to say 'HELLO Dion', to me... I'll go to the CHANTING of ABHIDHAMMA for him on 2/2/2012. I think his cremation is on Saturday, the 4th - but I am not so certain.

Dhammadarsa Bhikkhu said...

Thanks, Will for the bad news about Paul. So sad! I don't follow the traditional Buddhist ideas about life and death (even the linking of the two words, which I think should be birth and death - both with psychological meanings, as seen in the early suttas, along with "god/s") and believe the Buddha taught to enjoy life, but do it responsibly; in a way that does not harm oneself and others. Even monks (!) are supposed to live a happy life; the four jhaana are said to be happy abidings here and now, but they aren't interpreted in a way that shows how it could be so.

Anonymous said...

So sorry to hear about your friend

I appreciate your outlook on life that you followed up with.

Good Luck to you

Ian Hollingworth said...

It is said that in Thailand when men are depressed they can go and have a drink or a massage. Women do not have the same options and the result is sometimes suicide.

Our neighbour committed suicide last week. She was an unhappy woman caring for an older disabled husband while trying to hold down a job. I watched over time as her means of transport went from car to motorcycle to bicycle. There was a downward spiral she could not cope with.

It seems to me that death is the one thing you do in life that needs the most planning. Not for yourself but for your loved ones. I am aiming to be cremated in Thailand and my ashes flown back to the UK to be scattered near my parents' graves.

After reading various expat forums I have started to make up a folder of instructions that will help my wife to navigate the procedures she will have to undertake when I go. I have begun to explain things to her step by step.

She seems convinced that because Thais have a lower life expectancy than farangs she is likely to go first. God know what I would do if that happened. She is the reason I am in Thailand and I know in my heart she is the last woman in my life. I may well go back to the UK and live out my remaining days near to my final resting place. At least then I would be less trouble. By then I would have done all I wanted to do in life.

So I'm with the accepted wisdom that old age is the time to prepare for death. But my focus is on preparing my loved ones rather than myself. As for myself, I agree with Christopher Hitchens. He was determined to be doing something useful at the time of his death.

Don't worry, death will come when it's ready to. In the meantime don't waste time consciously "preparing yourself" for it. Use your time to help the myriads of people on this earth who need your support and I suspect you will be well prepared for the end without realising it.