A friend of mine died yesterday.
I received the call earlier this afternoon. I was preparing to go to a gathering here with my community in Northern California when my phone rang. On the other end, another good friend tells me that my friend was killed in an accident.
Like that, the life of someone close to me ended.
I have spent a lot of time learning about how different cultures honor death. Not in the fearful, look away and warehouse the sick way the modern world does it, but in a deeper, more connected and understanding way.
Author Stephen Jenkinson says that we live in a death-phobic society. As he travels around the world giving talks about death and leading what he calls “sweatshops” as opposed to workshops, Jenkinson brings a new and ancient perspective at the role of death in the continuation of life. From what I can gather, in Jenkinson’s brilliant storytelling and deep, often challenging teachings, there is embedded a fountain of wisdom that calls all of us to live and die in a way that honors the sacredness of life and of all that is. That demands we live in the full appreciation of the blessing of each moment of life that we are given, and that we honor our deep indebtedness to all that has lived and died so that we may be here by giving to all that lives and dies while we are here. One day we won’t be.
The death of my friend was not like the death that Jenkinson speaks of. It was unexpected, unseen, and he had no time that I know of to consider his death walking towards him. It is not so for all of us that remain here now. Though it could be.
When I wake in the morning, I often give gratitude for the fact that I awoke another day. Not always, but often. Writer, teacher, and shaman, Martin Prechtel teaches that we are one of a very few cultures that awake each day expecting to live. We take our coming days as a given. So we mortgage our lives for the future. We expect that the future we were promised and are working for will someday arrive. And in the slipstream of busyness, far off goals, and future aspirations we let the rhythms of our days slip us by.
What happens when we arrive at that door when it all will end? What happens if it catches us unaware? Will we have lived this moment in a way that honors the sacredness of it? The fact that it, like every one preceding, is a miracle that will not happen again?
When we spend our time selling now for then we forget that there may not be a then. It way come to a crashing halt well before our best-laid plans have brought us the results we dream of.
What I know of my friend that died is this: he is a good man. He is someone that I shared stories with around a fire just last September in the Northern woods of Minnesota. He was a “no bullshit” kind of guy. The kind that at first didn’t seem too impressed by me when I met him years ago. But when we connected it went deep. He told me stories about the struggles he went through in his life, challenges that would make most people collapse under the emotional and psychological weight. He told me how he had moved to Montana to heal. To be close to the land. To work helping the people where he lived.
He was far from being the type to tell you to just think positive, or expect that the world would create safe spaces for you, much less tell you that the world owed you, or anyone, a participation trophy. He was the kind that would look at you, see your actions, and know if you were worth your salt. And he had a deep knowing in his eyes and an ability to judge because he had been through it.
Last September as we shared stories on the deck of the dining hall at Camp du Nord in Northern Minnesota, during the Minnesota Men’s Conference, he looked at me and laughed as I shared some of my recent trip-ups, stumbles, and other humble adventures. He said, in his gravely voice, “You know what? You’ll land on your feet. You’re like me. You don’t need to take anything with you, because you’ve got you. I know wherever I go, I’ve got me. I can count on that.”
Some of the simplest conversations have the biggest impact.
We never know at what point our lives will end. We never know if the last conversation we had with that friend, that lover, that family member will be the last ever. But we continue living as if it will all go on and on. As if, like our self-indulgent materialism, there will always be more. But there won’t.
There comes a time when we have to have a reckoning with our days. Where we have to turn our attention towards death as see that this: that we’re here, while we’re here, is the biggest miracle there is. What you, and I, and all of us have, is today. Right here. Right now.
Are you living in a way that honors that? Are you loving the people near you as if each time you are with them could be the last? What would your life look like if you did?
These are questions I ask you and me. I ask them because I don’t have the answers. But I can live in a way that heads in that direction. I hope you start considering it to. Because it could all be over in an instant.
My deepest condolences to the Wilde family, and to all those of us that were touched by my friend’s life. May we live in a way that honors him, and all those that came before.
Photo: Getty Images