Truth comes in various languages, and when important voices leave us, we mourn.
“I tell students when they come to my class, they come to learn how to die.” – Cornel West
In January 2016, the deaths of some prominent musicians and celebrities overlaid on my reading of Daniel Klein and Thomas Cathcart’s fantastic book Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between. Of course, that was the beginning of what has seemed like an endless string of losses in the worlds of music and celebrity. Here, I will not recount 2016’s string of celebrity losses that have garnered so much attention from those of us who loved their art, nor will I rail about why celebrity death somehow elicits more grief from many of us than our fellow humans who die on a daily basis from war or from lack of clean water or basic needs. The focus here will be on death as our destination.
Like human birth, human death represents one of those rare experiences that everyone shares but no one can remember or describe to other humans. Not all of us will grow old. Not all of us will get married. Not all of us will have children. However, every waking soul has been born and will someday die. We can chronicle neither of these for our fellow humans. We can observe others’ births and deaths, but cannot communicate our own experiences with these starkest human realities. No one chooses their birth, no one escapes death, and no one gets to write home about either of them. It is funny and tragic and human. The birth part has already occurred and the death part looms ahead in the future. We hope and pretend the death part waits on us somewhere far, far away from today, but for some of us it awaits in our next car ride or doctor’s visit. If nothing else, 2016 should have taught us that death does not wait “out there”—it walks with us and sleeps next to us. It lives in the shadows of even our mightiest heroes. This might be scary, but it is mostly human.
Because no one writes home from the grave, our lack of experience, perspective, and knowledge (rightly, on some levels) fosters fear of death. Many of us simply avoid thinking or talking about death altogether. However, pondering the loss and death of pop stars, actors, or other famous folks inevitably leads us to consideration of that moment when we someday shuffle off this mortal coil. Our hyper-connected existence keeps it in our face via newsfeeds and social media (again, 2016 excelled at this!). Immortals prove mortal: David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, “Princess Leia.” No human avoids death, just as no human avoided birth. While births are celebrated, death is feared. However, it is vitally important to recognize that bringing a life into the world carries with it the immense weight of bringing a death into the world. Learning how to die is equally vital.
In the book referenced above, Klein and Cathcart offer some wonderful observations about death including but not limited to this one: we make jokes about taboo conversations. This is part of what makes comedy, music, art, and other “third ways” of understanding so appealing and effective. Why are so many jokes about sex, death, and relationships? Frankly, most of us are not very good at talking “logically” about these realities, so comedy offers us an alternative way of addressing them. This speaks to why comedians often find themselves in hot water when they “cross a line” regarding sex jokes or make a joke “too soon” about death. They are often dealing in taboo topics. It is risky.
Musicians and all kinds of artists work on and sometimes beyond this line as well. Jokes and songs and film and paintings and photographs—they speak a language we find hard to utter in “normal” conversation or in our uniform texts and emojis on iMessage or Facebook. Sometimes art is right on, sometimes it misses the mark, and sometimes it crosses lines or is “too soon.” Most of the time, these results come from honest groping for understanding. At least, that is what I choose to believe (of course, I guess some do this simply for “shock value,” clickbait, or other reasons, but that is another post for another day).
The larger point here is that birth and death are givens for human beings. On a daily basis, the horrendous loss observed in stark images and stories from war, terrorism, accidents, or natural disasters put existential weight on us individually and collectively. Fear is easy. At their best, artists remind us of how to die by teaching us how to live. That is what the quote from Cornel West at the top of this post is addressing. It is what so many great songwriters teach us. It is why Princess Leia is an intergalactic hero. And, without sermonizing too much, it is the message of Christ. To live is wonderful, but death is our ultimate destination, our ultimate rest, our ultimate home, our ultimate Sabbath. It is unknown and scary, but a lot that stems from an inability to let go of claiming my life as “mine.” The more I can understand that I am a creature, that my life is given to me as a gift, the more I can live in gratitude and die in freedom (to be clear, I am a very long way from doing this as well as I would like). I do not seek death, but a faithful life until death is a worthy end (which is a beginning…). This is one reason we lament the losses of our most visible artists: they are fellow creatures who speak truth through their creativity via art, characters, jokes, and other mediums.
Some call 2016 a post-truth world, but when Leonard Cohen speaks “Hallelujah” or R2D2 plays the hologram call for our “only hope,” we get it. Truth comes in various languages, and when important voices leave us, we mourn. However, one of the beautiful aspects of art is that most of it can be spun again on the turntable, viewed again in the gallery, re-read in the pages of a book, or re-watched on the screen. Their creative work remains, helping us to learn how to die. Personally, I need all the help I can get.