You act like mortals in all that you fear,
and like immortals in all that you desire.
I imagine Seneca penning this sentence in the silence of a Roman hall. The year is 49 A.D. In sixteen short years, he will bleed his veins to commit suicide at the behest of Nero. What goes through this great philosopher’s mind as he faces his final hour?
I am reflecting on mortality at the current moment. This theme is prevalent in our current time of pandemic loss.
We learn as children that death is simply part of life. When we become adults, we struggle to acknowledge the ending of things. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, after all, is the enduring refrain of our culture which struggles with plain discussion about death. Yet, it is also an important subject that should be handled with care.
Death is a delicate, unavoidable thing.
Today is an autumn day. Week by week, I have been faithfully watching numerous leaves turn deep green to straw yellow to marigold. This fall I learned the color scarlet is not the same as crimson. Also, the color burgundy is quite distinct from maroon. In addition, the hue of leaf colors changes with the time of day and the availability of sunlight. As if a leaf at sunrise is not the same leaf when cloudy skies prevail.
Autumn is the most visually vibrant season of change, and its unparalleled beauty makes fall my favorite.
The science of fall foliage says color-changing chemicals are every present inside each leaf. But it takes brisk temperatures and shorter days to enliven them. This triggers another delicate unavoidable breakdown inside the leave which manifests in changing colors. When you multiply this effect by a hundred thousand leaves, an ordinary landscape erupts into celebrated scenes of breathtaking wonder.
It’s a lot to take in. It is also too much to consider that autumn is also a kind of death scene. Perhaps we signify our fall celebrations with an easier image. We simply call it “change”.
Change, I hear, is also part of life. It happens every day in significant and imperceptible ways. Maybe to be alive is to just change, and to be dead is just the end of life and change. Maybe.
Is there any knowledge that can help this situation?
Ancient Samurai warriors gave much thought to the subject of death. A neophyte warrior of ancient Japan learned the Bushido code which prepared them for a life of service. Bushido was a code of honor. Coupled with rigorous training, this philosophy inspired an indomitable spirit in these fierce warriors. The Samurai legend is famous in popular culture. Yet this code of morals was intended to guide a warrior’s life well past his fighting days.
One important teaching for young samurai warriors got straight to the point. “Always get used to death.” This instruction was more direct than our modern mantra of Carpe Diem. In the mind of a soldier preparing for sacrifice, such contemplation carried immediate significance.
It is said the warrior’s is the twofold Way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both Ways. Even if a man has no natural ability he can be a warrior by sticking assiduously to both divisions of the Way. Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.
~~ A Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No Sho) by Miyamoto Musashi, Japanese philosopher, (1584-1645)
It is a simple idea, however difficult to embody. Though Bushido cannot be condensed in one short passage, these several century-old writings left much to consider. Miyamoto Musashi was one great warrior and writer of many. He promoted this intentional contemplation of mortality to help one pay deliberate attention to what matters. Warriors do not waste time.
The seasons will continue. We must do our best to take care, regardless the drama of the hour. (On this point, I am sure Seneca would agree.) It is enough to do our work today. When possible, take a moment to admire the impermanent beauty of the autumn leaves.
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