Many of us disapprove of the circus, feeling it to be cruel and barbaric, scary and potentially lethal. Yet, we cannot resist the temptation to nip along to see, often through slitted eyes, the death-defying acts, the sight of huge and dangerous cats being controlled by a human being, the ghastly funny-sad faces of the clowns, the freak shows large and small. We thrill to the fear factor, and to the colour, the variety and the unknown hovering behind it all.
So it is with the circus that is death: We are unable to resist watching the graphic programmes on the television, reading horror books and detective stories, gawking at horrendous car crashes, feasting our eyes upon the evidence of the recently-departed.
We fear – and yet we engage.
Circus. Death. They have more in common than you might think. Read on…
I have long been terrified of death. I think a lot of that is down to the whole Christian, Death-as-the-wages-of-sin upbringing – and, underneath it, a never-discussed current of death-fear flowing inexorably from my mother. So, apparent reassurance about some kind of angelic life beyond the grave became tainted with the utter gut-wrenching fear of an abyss which seeped from her every pore.
We do not, as a society, treat death as something natural, cyclical, normal. We have made it the enemy, the dark horror, the epitome of all that is grievous and taboo and sinister.
For most of my life, I have tried to force that fear into the dark cabinets of the subconscious – or have gone into panic mode about the nothingness so many of us fear, or the actual moment of no longer breathing, the potential agony of it all.
I am not alone.
The strange and sad thing about it all is this: We see the death of animals all the time; our roads and verges abound with road-and-predator kill; we eat the flesh of creatures (not thinking of it as, basically, death on a plate); we celebrate the beauty of Fall/Autumn – with its inherent irony that death fuels that colourful, and then stark, magnificence – and yet too few of us truly claim death as our common humanity’s inevitable end; too few of us live, as Carlos Castaneda/Don Juan had it, with death always over our left shoulder.
I think there is an underlying assumption (unspoken, unthought even) that, somehow, if we deny the reality of death, it’ll deny us the experience too; that, if we hide from death, the scythe will not find us; that, if we are special enough, death will make an exception for us!
But, moving from general to personal, what are my repeated doctor visits about if not acute fear of death? Am I not, actually – and under the individual symptoms – simply asking, ‘Am I dying?’ and hoping for the temporary reassurance of, ‘Not this time…’
This is no way to live a life.
The film made me cry. My whole body tensed watching it. I felt scared, then moved, then, amazingly, inspired and bolstered. Jenkinson is RIGHT, gods damn it! It is not human to fear death. Nowhere else in nature is the death terror evident. We have claimed that fear as part of our religious brain-washing: The trade-off for Salvation is, with sickening irony, craven fear of both life and dying – mainly because the whole concept has been tied in with sin and suffering and punishment.
My body convulsed, post film, as all the vulnerable instruments tuned up and joined in the orchestra’s loud symphony of pain. And, yes, the little girl part of me was wailing, ‘Am I dying?’
The reason I wept was in recognition of something fundamental: This constant Pain Watch is not living. This constant thrumming of the Death Watch drum is beating a rhythm so loud that it often drowns out the sweet pipes which play the Love of Life melody so beautifully.
I do not regret watching the film; in fact, I am so glad I did. It felt like something I very much needed to do. It felt utterly appropriate, given the mini-death that a divorce actually is, that I should be facing the bigger spectre I have tried to push away for so long.
I am going to die. One day, I’ll be dead. My body will be still and pale; the spirit which animates my face will be gone. I will be cooling flesh and then host to the amazing bacterial miracle which allows our bodies to be consumed from within and then recycled. I will decompose. The hands which are typing this piece will stiffen in rigor mortis and the skin will slough off like a glove. If I am not cremated, the bones of my skeleton will, eventually, push through. All that is Alienora physically will disperse, go back to the source one way or another.
Isn’t it wonderful, though, that nature is so clever, so economical with its beings, so green in terms of waste disposal? That built-in obsolescence has something truly beautiful and intelligent about it: Waste not, want not on a grand scale!
I, the warm breathing me, will disappear. We all will when our time comes.
But something of me will remain. Call it my spirit, my soul, my essence. Call it the impact I have had, and will continue to have, upon others during my life. Call it the power of love and memory. Call it the spark of the divine, the light we all have.
‘Death feeds everything that lives…’ (Stephen Jenkinson)
Yes, it does.
Facing death-as-an-absolute-truth is what I need to be doing now – because in the reality of our end we find the freedom to dance and sing and embrace life with all our strength and passion. We find, and are able to use, the strongest rays of our individual light sources when we know that they are surrounded by, and illuminate, a vast darkness.
Death is not going to go away or be denied or make an exception for an Orange-Haired Alienora! Nor should it! Death is the final adventure in life. It is the Path Working from which there is no bodily return (at least, not in our current form). It is the portal to a new country, a new form of existence.
One day, I will die – but now, on this sunny Tuesday in latest May, I am vibrant and alive and, despite current pain and fear, passionately in love with life.
And fear begins to give way to curiosity and interest and a shimmering of wonder.