Life, Death, and Finding Zen in DC Comics

Death is before me today:

Like the recovery of a sick man,

Like going forth into a garden after sickness.

Neil Gaiman, The Sandman (Vol. I)

It’s been challenging times for all of us, regardless of what place we call home. 2020 has been like some dark Kali Yuga unto itself, seeming to cram years and decades of Sturm und Drang, fear, loss, and uncertainty into only a few short months. The days blur together, and a single afternoon both slips by in a blink while seemingly dragging from here to eternity more slowly than traffic at rush hour (and vastly more unpleasantly).

During that time, I’ve grappled with the premature death of a parent, wrestled with a Whitman’s Sampler of mental health challenges (some diagnosed, others strongly suspected), and kick-boxed with the anxieties of a global pandemic whilst the clouds of totalitarianism swirl both at home and abroad. Not the best time for a quarter-life crisis, but hey, why not cram it all in?

Now, I wouldn’t have gotten this far had not Life kindly been preparing me for so many of these challenges for many years, and of her many gifts, I want to share one for which I am particularly grateful.

You see, since I was little, fear was absolutely beaten into the alloy of my soul, particularly the fear of death. Even taking away the fundamentalist Christian aspects of that fear, it’s something we all face as humans, especially in times of stress. It took many years and a lot of strange and unusual experiences, for which I’m very grateful, to come to believe that Death is not an enemy to fear, and I could not have made it this far through 2020 without those helpful lessons.

Though all the reasons why I am so much more relaxed about death are beyond the scope of this little chat, I think that I have come to agree with the position of countless spiritual teachers, philosophers, skeptical cosmologists, Stoics (particularly Marcus Aurelius), Buddhists (including the original atheist forms like Therevada), and so very many others.

Death is the process in which our energy and information patterns are transmuted and transmitted into new forms and substrates of consciousness. Our energy, the pattern that is “us,” gets recycled into the universe (or Multiverse, if you prefer), to incarnate in new forms and to go on new adventures and to create wonderful new things. Though modern America does everything possible to foster the terror of death, it’s actually part of the ride called Life, and people are a lot more rational and productive on that ride the less obsessively frightened they are of its terminus.

If you are more on the spiritual “woo” side of life (like myself), you may also believe in or strongly suspect the existence of things like the Wheel of Life that is so important in Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, and other ancient ways of thought, and you might believe that your consciousness reincarnates or “goes on” to another level in the simulation/construct that we cheekily call “reality.”

That too is a fascinating and controversial topic that deserves its own space, but if you are open to that possibility, then Death becomes simply the hallway we walk between grades — once we learn what we came to learn in one lifetime or “grade,” we get to graduate and move on to the next! We just need to be careful to work hard and do our homework to learn our assigned lessons so that we waste less time and don’t have to repeat a grade, which would honestly just be boring and annoying.

However, even if we are more secular and feel like philosophical materialists, there is something enormously comforting in the view of an awakening Universe in which all of our actions and experiences form some small portion of a beautiful, emergent whole; nothing is wasted! To paraphrase Sagan, “We are the Universe become self-aware,” and I heartily recommend the BEAUTIFUL adaptation of Stoic perspectives on life and death by Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity is Near (minds and “souls” as substrate-independent mathematical information patterns and such like).

Anyway, I was reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (Vol. I) for the very first time, and I was deeply struck by the beauty and bizarre comfort in the very last issue (which he later wrote was the issue in which he finally found his “voice” for this series). I wanted to share it here for anybody who has been wrestling and struggling with mortality and fear lately, because it sums up so many things I’ve felt along my odd little journey, and because I hope that it can encourage you a little bit as it has me!

In this scene, Dream (a.k.a. The Sandman) is spending time with his sister Death, and he marvels that humans seem so very terrified of and even hateful towards his beloved sister, and he wishes they could understand who she is and the kindly service she renders.

“Many thousands of years ago I heard a song in a dream, a mortal song that celebrated her [Death’s] gift. I still remember it.

Death is before me today:
Like the recovery of a sick man,
Like going forth into a garden after sickness.

‘Death is before me today:
Like the odor of myrrh,
Like sitting under a sail in a good wind.

‘Death is before me today:
Like the course of a stream
Like the return of a man from the war-galley to his house.

‘Death is before me today:
Like the home that a man longs to see,
After years spent as a captive.’ “

Image used under license from 123RF. The preview looked cool but now I can tell it has a goddamn dove in it which is so saccharine and cliche that I want to vom on my desk. Should I leave it in at risk of driving away readers? But who actually reads these mad ravings anyway? I did pay for it after all… Maybe we’ll keep the dove and let it stand as a postmodern parody of the fundamentalism referenced herein. Sure, we’ll justify it as “art;” that way I don’t have to pay for another stock photo which (let’s be honest) these suckers can get pricey. Wait, is this thing still on?

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