Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Dying of the Sun and Other Thoughts

I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately.

I know, it’s not Samhain or the dark of winter, so why on earth this preoccupation with the cessation of life?

We’ve just passed the Summer Solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere. Even though it’s bright, sunny and blazing hot, this is the point in the year when the sun starts dying. The days reach their lengthiest and begin shortening. Though the weather will remain hot for some time, the angle of the sun will start shifting toward the south, and those afternoon sunbeams will start to feel tired, like they’re ready to be done with it all.

To me, Midsummer feels like a deflation, a sudden turnabout from the waxing year to the waning year. From the moment of the solstice, I’ll be looking down a long slope into darkness. Of course, this is as it should be. Dark balances light, always.

Sunrise over the Caribbean, Belize City, Central America. Photo by Ray Mathis.

What really got me to thinking about death right now is this: I have several friends whose fathers have just passed away, or are in the throes of doing so right now. That’s a hard thing. But somehow, even though I can feel all the very human sorrow and pain, I also feel like there’s a bit of myth wrapped up in these events, making them into something greater than they might at first seem. It may be a coincidence that the dead and dying are my friends’ fathers, but then again…

In Celtic tradition it’s at Midsummer that the Holly King battles the Oak King, vanquishing him until the darkest night of winter. One aspect of the god retreats to the abode of the dead while the other rises up among the living.

Now, none of the lovely men my friends are mourning is going to miraculously come back to life at Midwinter. But it’s not wrong that they died. It’s not wrong that we all die, eventually.

So much of our modern western culture is based on Judeo-Christian precepts that it’s sometimes hard to unravel them. The attitude toward death, however, is pretty obvious: It’s a bad thing. We should do everything we can to avoid it, to escape it. Dying is a failure. This ‘Death Is Evil’ attitude has followed us into the Scientific Age, urging our doctors to keep patients alive at all costs, to force their bodies to continue functioning under the power of machines and gadgets, even when all quality of life is gone.

Though it’s a hard choice, my friends and their families have given their fathers the blessing of dying peacefully, without extreme medical measures, without prolonging their pain. To me, this is a way to respect our loved ones.

We don’t let terminally ill animals suffer; why do we force our own family members to do so? I’ve thought long and hard about that question. It’s all wrapped up in cultural expectations, religious undercurrents, and primal fear. It’s a hard issue to deal with. But we all have to face it, sooner or later.

So here it is Midsummer, and I’m pondering death. What are your thoughts on the matter?