I have finished my doctoral class for this semester as of yesterday. It was a cold, rainy night and a tense ride home in darkness, fog, and traffic. I am now commencing five days off before I deal with the home stretch of Fall semester for my students, and my day job.
Though today is a relatively warm 50 degrees, one should not be fooled; winter is certainly coming. The trees are largely bare, and the grass is beginning to take on a straw-like hue. This week I lost another friend and colleague to a brain tumor, and this has made me start thinking about death.
Death is not an evil, in spite of our dread of it. Physical human death never comes at a good time; whether the person is 20 or 90, we are never quite ready to say goodbye. It occurs to me that death is viewed differently by the dying person and the survivors. Some people are terrified of death, especially if they feel they have more work ahead of them, more life to live. Others welcome it as a relief from what has become a life of suffering. Many who have near-death experiences don't want to come back to life. If their evidence means anything, death isn't something so terrible.
It is a different matter for survivors. The intensity of feeling about the death will depend on how close you are to the person, how much it directly touches your life. We can read the obituaries every day and never blink an eye. We don't know many of these people. For the families and friends, there is a void. If the dead person wasn't liked, or if someone had to spend many years taking care of the dying person, the death may come as a relief. Yet, even in such cases, there are the unresolved conflicts, questions that are not answered.
Death can also refer to loss and change, and is absolutely critical to living a full life, paradoxically. If we are always stuck in the same place, then we never grow as human beings. If we are not made uncomfortable, if we do not have our assumptions shattered, or hit "rock bottom" on a destructive streak, we may never stop to look at the bigger picture. In the class I just finished, we read Philoctetes, a play by Sophocles. Philoctetes was a favorite of Heracles, and after Heracles' death, Philoctetes retained his bow and poison arrows. Philoctetes was needed by the Greeks (Acheans) to win the Trojan War. But when he (in one version) accidentally tread in a sacred place, he was bit by a viper, which left him with a festering leg wound that gave off such an awful stench, Odysseus and his crew voted to leave Philoctetes on an island by himself. Later they come with Neoptolemus (or Diomedes, in some versions) to try to convince Philoctetes to return with them. What ensues is Philoctetes cursing them, saying he will never submit because of what they did by leaving him. On the other hand, when they turn to leave, he continually says, "Don't go!" He is at a death point, but it is not a physical death--he does live, and is healed of his wound after leaving. Philoctetes is stuck in his victim status. He was genuinely wronged, there is no doubt. But when the opportunity comes for positive change, he pouts and would rather nurse his wounds and his pride. The impasse is broken by a deus ex machina--the spirit of Heracles, now a god, appears to him and tells him it is his destiny to go. But this is not a cop-out device on Sophocles' part. Heracles is the better part of Philoctetes--his inner strength and heroic qualities. These have been hidden by his psychological wound, which makes him prefer to stay a wronged victim than risk changing his life.
I see this as a good example of the Hegelian dialectic--Philoctetes is in state A, the Greeks come and present opposing state B, and Heracles represents the synthesis--he is still a victim, but he chooses to take the risk. When someone is stuck in bitterness, depression, or despair it is important that they are ready to make the change. Often we look at others in these states and encourage them to "move on and get over it." But the timing has to be right; otherwise, no real change occurs.
We might say, "But the change would be for the better! Only a whiner or someone with a persecution complex would choose to stay in the state of suffering." Not true. Most of us like change less than we admit. This is why even happy occasions, like buying a new house, moving in or marrying a partner, or getting a new job with more money can cause anxiety. The potential for something better is there--but what if it isn't better? You can't go back to where you were. It's a case of "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know."
I am probably as guilty of this as anyone. I do believe in the power of the unconscious, because it never fails to let me know when I'm getting "stuck", or the tell me the truth of a lost situation. Naturally the message is symbolic--we all know that dreams are strange. But the message still shines through.
Sometimes the message is direct. My friends and colleagues knew that my marriage to my husband was really "over" for years, and I really should have left. But when they said this to me, I wasn't ready to do it. I wasn't happy where I was, but I felt there were too many financial risks at the time. I was attached to certain things about my life that I wasn't sure I could give up. But when the time was right, after we'd gotten rid of most of our debt load, I remember waking up from a dream, and hearing a sentence in my head: "Now it is time to get divorced." I got up, made some tea, and sat on my porch contemplating this statement. It gave me some anxiety, but I realized that I had a golden opportunity. I did the math, and figured out that I could get a place of my own on my salary, even though money would be tight. So, I took the plunge and never regretted it.
In other cases, there is a dream to be interpreted, and sometimes it does nothing but present the conundrum. In my last serious relationship post-divorce, I had a dream where I had a number of people in my house. These were mostly women, and some of them were people I didn't personally care for--they represented negative aspects of personality (like perpetual victimhood). At one point, they told me that all the rooms were taken and I would have to leave. I started feeling anxious, wondering where I could possibly go? But then I remembered that this was MY house, and they were merely tenants. So, I told all of them to leave. I woke up with the phrase in my head, "Take back your house." I had allowed the other person in my relationship to compromise who I was, as well as social expectations, and this was a violation of my own Self. We broke up within days of this dream.
The final example involves John Foxx. While I was still traveling to see his shows, I remember having a dream of him fairly early on. I was in a classroom, and a woman was lecturing on something. He walked right in, and stood in front of me, looking at me. Naturally everyone including the teacher noticed, and most people seemed amused. It was clearly a disruption of the class, so I got up and went out the door with him, to find out what he wanted. As soon as we stepped out of the room, he quickly walked away. In the second significant dream, we were in a large office building, and I believe we both worked there--I seem to recall being a temporary employee, he was more permanent. He would stop me to sit down, and would start to tell me things--things I'd been wanting to know--but he'd get one sentence out, then say, "Oh, excuse me for a minute, I just have to take care of this." Then he'd be off, following a delivery person to take some of what they were bringing for himself, and stashing it away. Again, people were amused by it. This went on for some time, until I got annoyed. He kept telling me to wait, that he was going to finish his thought, but I spent more time waiting, and it seemed unlikely he would resume the conversation. I had noticed that there was an office door with my brother's name on it. (My brother has been dead since 1989.) I told him, "If you want to talk to me, I'll be in my brother's office." He said, "What do you mean, your brother's office?" So, I explained it to him. Later he did come down, and said, "You know, I'm very busy, I don't really have time for this." I replied, "Yes, I know--you're busy spending a lot of time taking things that should be shared with others and keeping them for yourself." I remember that he sort of smirked in his usual way, and that was the end of the dream. The two dreams are related, and the meaning became quite clear to me. The last dream coincided with my last email from him, and thus signaled the end of our friendship.
All of these represent deaths of different kinds--loss of people, beliefs, habits. Often it is for the best, ultimately. Sometimes we waste too much of ourselves on people and situations that leave us stuck. But I think that loss is as much a shattering as it is a void. Something explodes, and despite our best efforts, we don't clean up all the shards. Things reappear--associations we have with people and situations. And we want to be done, we do not want to return to the past. But there may be some fragment of the death, paraphrasing Monty Python, that is "not dead yet". It may not be about the individual or external situation; it is more likely about an internal conflict or belief that we are reluctant to relinquish. When people follow prophets in religious cults who turn out to be false, the belief doesn't go away; it is rationalized into something else. Some battles are too big for us to take on at the time of the death, because more than the external situation is at stake; rationality is no help. They need time and a new opportunity. This is why people speak of "karma" that repeats itself. We did not see then; we might see now.