Here’s my column for December:
In one of those interesting coincidences, my father’s death came a few hours after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, one of the events generally seen as marking the start of the so-called “financial meltdown” of 2008. So this year, between those events and the healthcare debate, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the financial system… and mortality. The two, I’ve come to realize, are deeply intertwined.
Consider the language of simplicity: in talking about creating more sustainable lifestyles, we frequently use phrases like “slowing down,” “cutting back” and “letting go” – and aren’t those phrases that we might use when speaking to an aged relative, or to someone who’s terminally ill?
It is the language of “getting our affairs in order” – in other words, of preparation for death.
No wonder the idea is having a hard time getting through to some people.
But it’s true: something really is dying, something that we are each parts of, and that forms a part of each of us. Our consumption-oriented culture is coming to the end of its natural life, as are the philosophies that fueled it. The good news is that there is something better waiting on the other side of the transition – but nonetheless, just as with our personal deaths, it’s understandably tough for us to accept the idea, much less to prepare accordingly.
In hospice and bereavement groups, we learn about the so-called “stages” of dealing with death identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross – denial, anger, bargaining, despair, and acceptance. The process is not strictly sequential, as it happens – we can pass from any one stage to any other, and may revisit each one repeatedly.
But there is yet another possible stage: serenity, even joy, if we can not only accept but embrace what is happening, understand it within its larger context, and look ahead to the future. The process can also be seen as one of healing, of completion and summation, of not just “passing on” per se but passing something of value on to those who will follow. Unburdening ourselves of what is not essential, rediscovering and reconnecting with what is truly essential, we find our spirits no longer encumbered.
We can look on this transition in another way, too. Twenty years ago, the peoples of Eastern Europe saw that their systems of governance and economics were no longer functional – and like flocks of birds that realize the time for migration has arrived, they moved. The time has come for us to move as well.
Not everyone wants to move, of course, or sees the need to move. We see the denial, the bargaining, the anger everywhere. We clutch at straws. We think we can squeeze a few more years’ energy out of the rocks, rather than moving to sustainable energy sources. We pretend that there will be no changes to our oceans and atmosphere, rather than contemplate how much we waste unnecessarily. We demand to keep what we have, rather than think about we will leave for others after we are gone.
Nevertheless, the diagnosis is in. It’s alright: you can let go now.