Beginnings and endings have a way of ‘framing’ the chapters of our lives. There is a new name, a new school, a new neighbour, a new team-mate, a new book, a new movie or television show…and new computer game, or even a new cup of morning ‘joe’. The consumer market considers the ‘newest’ to be, along with the trend-lines of consumer behaviour, the life-blood of their for-profit endeavour. Birth, both literally and archetypally, is the first experience we all share, and from the first hour of the lung’s breathing and the heart’s beating, anything and everything is possible…there are no limits to how parents, grandparents, family and friends envision this new life unfolding. Projections, dreams, fantasies, all of them wrapped in soft blankets and baby powder jump into and out of the imaginations of everyone near by.
Hope, that most ephemeral and uplifting of notions, finds its most taut springs for excitement at the beginnings, the birthings, and even the anticipation of birthings. The new dawn finds us most alert to the colours in the sky, the shapes of the clouds, the hues of pink, purple, orange, red and various shades of grey, the flickering of the leaves and the swaying of pine branches; we check thermometers and barometers, to help shape not only our choice of wardrobe, but the ’kind’ of day we might expect. For a brief moment, partly for protection and orientation, and partly for fun and fantasizing, our senses and our imaginations are somehow stimulated by and linked with the mood of the universe.
For just a moment, we are somehow ‘cosmic’ in a way that tends to dissipate through the rest of the day. Whatever might be lurking on our ‘to-do’ list for the day, the morning’s aha! tends to eclipse its requirements and expectations.
Endings, on the other hand, tend to have a different ‘energy’ and imaginal ethos. At the moment of a birth, whether biological or metaphoric, there are almost no thoughts, feelings or images of death, so over-whelming is the miracle and the potential of this new ‘life’. Of course, none of us is completely detached from the possibility of this new life ending; it is just that our conscious energies, images and concentration is on beginning and the seemingly infinite possibilities for this new life. And this model of ‘beginning’ applies throughout our lives. Projects like making a bed, brushing our teeth, combing our hair, selecting what to wear, while they become routine and fade into a mirage of early- morning-patterns, all have their own nuanced aspects and the accompanying sensibilities about our ‘relationship’ to their meaning. Of course, how each of us is introduced to any activity depends on and borrows from the memory and the legacy of our mentors, parents, and coaches and teachers. In this manner, the metaphoric glue of the culture is ‘spread’ to the next generation.
The fine print of the ‘reasons’ and the ‘justifications’ for each of these ‘life skills’ is generally administered in first tiny, and then larger and larger doses as the child grows and develops. And, even in the ‘scaling’ of those ‘why’s’ the notion of attempting to integrate the complexity with the readiness of the child has many ‘new’ steps, bearing different energies for both mentor and mentee.
In a sense, each of our encounters continues to have aspects of this ‘beginning’ social and cultural birth canal in its story. If we have grown weary of those who are brimming with ‘new’ ideas and approaches, experiments and ‘thinking outside the box’ we tend to regard such people and ideas with considerable scepticism. The dark side to each of the ‘new’ notions is that, because they are literally untried and unproven, they immediately find themselves, including those who are proposing them, lagging and even lacking in credibility and trust compared with what already exists.
Somehow, the ‘birth’ model as a moment of excitement, bursting with possibility and potential, is replaced with the much more moderate and dependable and predictable model of ‘this is how we do things here’…not some “fandangled” new way. This micro-drama plays out in the many theatres and stages of our personal and our professional life. It is the rare parent of a new-born who envisages only the ‘gold’ of profit and prosperity along with the birth of a new son or daughter.
However, paradoxically, it is the rare business entrepreneur who does not envisage the ‘gold of profit and prosperity’ in any new idea that might be proposed for his or her enterprise. Similarly, from the perspective of an organization, once operating with some degree of success, a new person or a new idea
or a new process brings with it (him/her) the inevitable question of ‘cost-benefit’ as a way of filtering out the relevance and receptivity of the decision-makers to the ‘it’. Research departments, in large organizations and universities, while delving into ‘new’ ideas and theories, rely on funding from ‘successful’ persons/agents, in order to pursue their disciplines. So, on the one hand, based on the literature and the previous findings of their current and historic mentors, the researchers seek to climb new trails and discover new facts, truths and move the frontiers of exploration and knowledge out into the next pieces waiting to be discovered.
This ‘frontier’ activity carries many of the intellectual, psychological, social and cultural features of new beginnings. Similarly, while writers are crafting stories whose themes have been shaped by others, they/we are trying to catch a glimpse of how we ‘see’ whatever it is that grabs our attention from a perspective that may have something to say that offers a new insight or resolution, or even a new tension and conflict.
With all of the various new beginnings, we also are participating in the process of last breaths, endings and their multi-layered implications. One of the more pungent aphorisms I learned from a Jewish man, who asked and answered his own question, ‘What is it that makes you laugh and cry, happy and sad, at the same time?’ and the answer, ‘This too will pass!” That perspective, however, is not one that has cultural penetration in the public square in North America. Rather, collectively we seem much more hyped to new beginnings and less conscious of and attentive to endings, death, closures, shut-downs. And from the perspective of the early years of life, in parenting, and in teaching the child, the focus of much of our energy is on ‘developing’ the child/student for his/her/our future.
Naturally, and predictably, there will be events and stories about danger, accidents and headlines that report numbers of deaths from this or that ‘event’ as tragedies and moments of reflection on what might have caused them. Sadness too envelops these reflections. It is cliché to note that young people, generally, seem detached and somewhat immune, at least in their own minds, to their own mortality. And, unless a life-threatening illness, or accident or fire or storm is imminent or touches us, we tend to ‘walk as if’ we will retain the perspective of a numinous, ill-defined, and out-of-reach final date.
And while there are motivational insights, like those from Martin Luther King:
· If you have not discovered something you are wiling to die for, then you are not fit to live
· A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right.
· A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true
Recall also Shakespeare’s line in Julius Caesar:
“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
the valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
it seems to me most strange that men should fear;Seeing it will come that death, a necessary end,
(Julius Caesar Act 2. Scene 2)
Linking a silence in the face of injustice to a kind of death, while not literal, has the impact of elevating the importance of activism for justice into a moral and legitimate contest. How we will be remembered is a lens through which many peer, however silently and imperceptibly, in the process of looking back over the years passed.
The immediate, empirical and sensate celebration of birth, in all of its many forms and faces, is by contrast, so captivating when compared with the more illusive, unpredictable, unknown, and highly evocative and final notion of death. While Frye’s typology, in The Great Code, of the human story moving from a beginning in the garden through many chapters to a final city, is embedded in our minds, and while many individuals might and likely have had such a “progress” archetype imprinted on their/our imaginations, the images of finality, mortality, seem to have taken on a kind of dark and shrouded colour, tone and mood in the culture.
Some have referred to our’s as a death-denying culture. Others, more recently, have begun to consider it a natural and inevitable last act in an otherwise heavily documented and celebrated drama. The mystery of death and the tradition of silence and sorrow in the face of death, along with volumes of dirges, heavy repetitive drum beats, the ritual of horse-drawn corteges carrying the bodies of deceased royalty, for example, black hearses, eloquent eulogies and various forms of tombs, crypts, headstones and urns form a kind of gestalt of respect and honour, marking in memory the end of a life.
In between the excitement of birth, and the melancholy of death, many of us live our lives faintly aware of the early stages of our lives and even less faintly conscious of how our death might be or could be impacting our choices. The pandemic with its millions of deaths and the cloud of death hanging over and behind millions of masks, brought many up short about the fact of death. It may have shifted the cultural meme from one of denial and avoidance to a somewhat sombre and reflective perspective among some groups, especially the elderly. Avoiding and escaping an invisible, imperceptible, airborne virus whose capacity to linger, replicate, transmit and mutate seems to outpace many of its previous ancestors, serves as a catalyst for a significant shift in cultural perspective. Shutting us in, cutting us off, distancing us both spatially and facially, seems like a stealth and stormy robbery of many of the normal social and connecting activities we took for granted. The virus provided the secrecy; the response the theft.
Irrespective of our individual attitudes to the virus, we are all awakened to our own mortality in a way that no other ‘event’ in a century has caused such an awakening. More recently, people trapped in cars under 4 or 5 feet of snow, dying because rescue vehicles and emergency response units could not save them, for example, in Buffalo, have underscored the fragility of life and the unpredictability of death’s knock on our door.
And while there is considerable evidence that the negligence of the former president of the U.S. resulted in thousands of preventable deaths, from the pandemic, there have been numerous scientific discoveries, developments and protocols that have been ‘birthed’ resulting from the pandemic itself. Indeed, many more learned and sophisticated scribes than this one have noted the intimate relationship between birth and death, however and why ever the west has formed a conventional and cultural notion that death negates birth, or at least compromises it.
A man no less esteemed than Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have authored these words:
Birth and death are not two different states, but they are different aspects of the same state.
Mark Twain asked: Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? It is because we are not the person involved.
Carl Jung is reported to have written:
The sad truth is that man’s life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites-day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battleground. It always has been and it always will be; and if it were not so, existence would come to an end.
With respect to the birth-death tension, not only is the tension incapable of being reduced to only one end of the continuum, there is a mine of reciprocal benefits, blessings and insights that can and will only come from a balanced and nuances consideration of both ends of the continuum as mutually inter-dependent.
In fact, whether we realize it or not, there is nothing in our life that is not directly or indirectly (or both) connected to both our birth and our death. And it is precisely this perspective, and the consciousness of its reality, that lies at the core of archetypal psychology as conceived by James Hillman.
He writes: Soul-making is also described as imaging, that is, seeing or hearing by means of an imagining which sees through an event to its image. Imaging means releasing events from their literal understanding into a mythical appreciation. Soul-making, in this sense is equated with de-literalizing—that psychological attitude which suspiciously disallows the naïve and given level of events in order to search out their shadowy, metaphorical significances for soul.
So, the question of soul-making is ‘what does this event, this thing, this moment move in my soul? What does it mean to my death? The question of death enters because it is in regard to death that the perspective of soul is distinguished most starkly from the perspective of natural life. (Hillman, Archetypal Psychology, A Brief Account, p.29)