Okay. Let’s get back to that Elephant in the room. By which I mean that obvious truth that no one wants to talk about, and that we all pretend isn’t there. The one that, whenever I happen to bring it up in general conversation, causes those around me to shudder and say, “Stop being so morbid”. That massive great, grey wrinkly Elephant that goes by the name of Certain Death.
Now there are two significant words in that Elephant’s name. ‘Death’ is the one that usually presses people’s stop buttons. Generally speaking, I have found that death is not a welcome topic for discussion in polite after-dinner conversation. We all sort-of know it happens to other people. And we all sort-of-sort-of know that it will one day happen to us. But we don’t actually believe it. We know it as a fact ‘out there’, but we don’t truly know it in our hearts. And because of this inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the unavoidable, we live our lives as if there really isn’t any Elephant in the room at all.
But, depressing as the whole Death bit of this Elephant may be, the really freaky thing about it is that it is Certain. In fact, it really is the only thing of which we can be truly certain. Which is, frankly, a bit of a bummer. How we’d love to be certain that the car won’t break down on the way to the airport, or that Arsenal will win the cup, or that interest rates won’t go up, or that our daughters will pass their exams, or that our sons will keep their jobs. How we’d love to be certain that a late frost won’t kill our tomatoes, or that the rain will hold off till we’ve got the hay in, or that the sun will shine during the one week of the year when we go on holiday.
But apart from death, we can’t be certain of anything. Nothing can be relied upon. Nothing is permanent. All things must pass. For all of our reaching and grasping and clinging, the world slips through our crossed fingers like sand, leaving us nothing but friction burns. And in between our nostalgic reflections on the past, and our dreamy hopes for the future, we preen ourselves in front of the mirror that we have erected in the middle of the room to block our view of that damned Elephant, and totally fail to notice the only moment that exists.
But every now and then the Elephant stamps a gnarly foot, and trumpets to get our attention. And this is where I find myself at the moment. Sitting in the big room called Life, noticing the Elephant, and wondering what is to be done about it. Or, as Stephen Batchelor so so aptly puts it in his book “Buddhism Without Beliefs“:
Since death alone is certain, and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?
Well, first of all, I think I should make a cup of tea.
And then I think I should chuck another log on the fire.
And then, in the peace and solitude of this Simon-away, dogs-asleep, TV-unplugged house, I think I should have another go at stilling my wayward thoughts so I can meditate on this oh-so-cheery question, and try really, really hard to “awaken a felt-sense of what it means to live a life that will stop.”
I’m sure Friday nights used to be more fun.