Staring at the sun

IN A restaurant recently, an elderly lady in a big family dinner beside us asked a little girl, probably her grandchild: “Do you know what Purgatory is?” Even as the girl was still shaking her head, the lady explained solemnly: “It is a place where your soul goes to when you die, where you are burned of your sins until your soul becomes white, and ready to go to Heaven.”

That is a ridiculous idea that is not even a Catholic Church tenet, but developed vividly by a very good medieval fiction writer, Dante Alighieri, in his “Divine Comedy.” While the idea will probably give the child nightmares for the rest of her life, the lady made the poor girl, probably for the first time, contemplate death.

Psychologist Irvin Yalom says this is like “staring at the sun,” which is the title of his 2008 book on confronting the terror of death. It is a beautiful metaphor: like the sun at daytime, death hovers over us all of our lives, but it’s only once in a while that we stare at the sun or contemplate death. Yalom explains that this is not really a morbid practice. Rather, think of death—that is, the termination of your existence, not that guy you hate so much—and every day of your life is something to relish.

That awe is what that most no-nonsense of philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, expressed: “Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.”

I have been made to stare at the sun recently with my elder sister Ruby’s passing away last March 4 in New York.

She lived a full life, dying at 60. I believe she was fortunate “to stare at the sun” for weeks as she was confined to a hospice, after her cancer worsened to the terminal stage. Sad that may seem, but she was given precious time to look back and relish the life she lived, to realize how lucky she was to have friends take care of her even to her dying day.

My sister’s death, though, is quite a reminder. I am the youngest among four siblings. Our eldest Edgardo died at 39 in 1979, of cancer. Another sister, Emily at 44 in 1993, of cancer. Now, Ruby. My wife Raquel died at 53 in 2001, of cancer. There therefore is that voice in my head saying, “You’re next.” But I take some solace in the thought that the life spans of my siblings from the eldest down have been increasing.

To think of death is to be transported to a different dimension, where one suddenly sees the pettiness of our silly little lives. Think of the brilliant core idea in “The Matrix” movies: All our joys and sorrows are merely constructs inside our mind. It is all a game we have been so deeply engrossed in.

For most of mankind’s history, death was when one’s inner “I”—the “soul”—migrates to some kind of territory, may it be the ancient Egyptians’ Fields of Aaru, the Greeks’ Hades, the Islamic Jahanna (with its 72 virgins for the martyr), or, of course, Christianity’s Heaven filled with cumulus clouds.

The modern scientific worldview has made such afterlife territories as unreal as Alice’s Wonderland. There is much scientific evidence that a person is a construct of two systems. First is the network, evolved through millions of years, of billions of neurons firing in our brains and, second, the system of cultural constructs created by collections of brains, organized as a society. But if both systems’ operations end—and the fields of psychology, anthropology and sociology are replete with case studies of such occurrences—how could there be “somebody” to migrate to some other dimension?

On the other hand, there is the idea of reincarnation, which says that one’s consciousness (which is different from the ego, and which still can’t be explained by science) reemerges in another form of human life. Indeed, there have been many well-documented cases of reincarnation. A thesis I found most fascinating is that of physicist Frank Tipler whose 1994 book “The Physics of Immortality” argues that given the exponential growth of humanity’s intelligence, our species, perhaps after a hundred million years, will be so advanced that it will have the technology to resurrect every living human who has ever existed. A devoted Christian, Tipler says that is the explanation for his religion’s teaching on the “resurrection of the dead.”

Zen and other Eastern mystical disciplines, as well as their European counterparts (notably by Gurdjieff and by recent gurus as Ekhart Tolle), remarkably seem modern in that they do not talk of such after-life territories. Instead, these disciplines ask you to undertake certain rigorous mental and emotional disciplines to look inside your mind, to discover for yourself the “true reality,” which is made up of the stuff of consciousness, which they say is pure bliss.

With the lifting of the cultural taboo on discussing death, studies on its nature have surged in the past decade. Princeton University philosopher Mark Johnson in his 2010 book “Surviving Death” argues that immortal is he who is “good,” who identifies his interest in humanity’s interests, especially in “humanity’s onward rush.”

In his book, the psychologist Yalom suggests a way of relieving one’s fear of death. Why fear the oblivion of death, when you came from another oblivion: the one before you were born? Life is that shining moment between two oblivions.

While that may seem a sad notion to some, it really encourages one, he says, “to savor not only the preciousness of each moment and the pleasure of sheer being but to increase our compassion for ourselves and for all other human beings.”

I and my family are extremely grateful to Ruby’s friends, especially to Janet Meneses, Carlito Peralta, Tess Fallarme, Robert Angeles and Mila Villanueva, all in New York, for taking care of my sister. Ruby undoubtedly found life precious with friends like you.
From the Philippine Daily Inquirer