Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Truth of Death

Death is sad.  Death is tragic.  Death is something to be mourned.

These are the messages we are given from very early on about one of the most enigmatic and inevitable experiences of human existence.  Death is an emotional path that requires an expression of grief, some kind of outlet for the torrent of feeling that results when we walk through it.  That, at least, is what we mean whenever we talk about death, usually in hushed voices with solemn looks on our faces.  

But, we never talk about or, perhaps more accurately, never realize that our perception of death is completely informed by our experiences in life.  Death only derives meaning from the knowledge and memories we bring to bear on it.  This is why we don't universally mourn every death we experience in the exact same way.  Death isn't necessarily something that is sad or tragic, and it certainly isn't always a cause to mourn.

Let me give you an example that runs the risk of making me look like a resentful jerk but best illustrates the point I'm trying to make.

Years ago, when I was in between colleges and preparing to go back to school to earn my teaching degree, I worked at a local store I will not reveal owned by a woman I will not name.  I am being deliberately vague because I did not like this woman, but she has passed on and still has family in the area.  Although I intend to be as honest and accurate as I can in this blog post, I have no wish to disrespect their good memories of her just because mine are not.

My experience working for her was a series of belittling events in which she insulted my intelligence, my then-current life/career choices, and even members of my family.  She was never overtly mean and nasty, but her approach was a subtle needling here, a snide comment there, none of which she could ever be called out on without her being able to do some back-peddling and all of which created an atmosphere of unease and discomfort whenever I was at work.

The interesting thing is that she was like this to many people, not just me, and she earned a reputation for being a rather nasty sort.

My time working for her ended when she called me up at home to ream me out for having rung up some items incorrectly on the cash register.  I was at fault - it was certainly a stupid, careless mistake - and, as owner of the business, she was well within her right to hold me accountable for it.  However, calling me at home, interrupting my private life with her rantings and accusations, was completely uncalled for.  

It was then I decided to end my employment with her and move on.  I went to the business that day to see her.  In one if my then-rare moments of diplomacy, I said to her, "I feel like I'm not doing the kind of job you need me to do, so I think it best that I resign before you feel forced to take action of your own."

The thing is, I knew she would never take action of her own because it felt like she enjoyed kicking me around too much.  So, I turned in my key and business shirt and never looked back.

I found another job and went back to school full time.  On the last occasion I saw her, she continued her needling by asking me, "Why aren't you done school yet?"  I answered her like I always did in the most unaffected way I could muster so as to not give her the pleasure of knowing she was bothering me.  Years later, long after I had finished college, I learned her business had gone under from circumstances beyond her control.  Then I heard that she had gotten really sick and eventually died from her illness.

And, at the news of her death, I felt...nothing.  No sadness for someone I once knew no longer being alive.  No emotional quaver causing me to reflect that maybe she wasn't as bad as my memory made her out to be.  There was no personal feeling on my part except complete indifference.

Now, that isn't to say I was totally heartless about the matter.  I certainly hadn't wished her any harm, and the family she left behind had my deepest sympathies for having lost a loved one.  But, I was personally unaffected by the news.  A person who had been in my life regularly for nearly a year, and I felt nothing whatsoever about her passing.

The reason for my indifference was simply because this individual had been a consistently nasty presence in my life.  Some might say I should be magnanimous and realize she was perhaps dealing with her own issues that caused her to act that way.  That I should follow the example of Atticus Finch and try to see things from her point of view, to understand her perspective, and maybe find the good deep down inside her.

Well, I have done that.  It is what has allowed me to not be resentful towards her and kept me from feeling any bitterness.  I realize there was indeed another side to her that I didn't see.  I'm sure there were family and friends who were enriched by her presence in their lives.  So, I don't hate her - I find it a shame that she got sick and died, and I felt and still feel a deep sympathy for her family.  However, I was not able to honestly mourn her passing as I could not conjure any personal warm memories of this woman.

An old saying, often attributed to Maya Angelou, states that people will always remember how you made them feel.  This is true enough, but I would add to it that a person's memory of feeling becomes his/her basis on how he/she remembers you, on what kind of a person you become inside the living memories of other people.  This is why I was able to actually mourn the passing of celebrities like Christopher Reeve and Princess Diana, two people I had never met and didn't know, because I was able to associate them with positive feelings and memories.  Obviously, the same is true for any of my family or friends who have passed on.  But, in the brief time I knew this woman, she was, purposefully or not, a negative presence in my life.  That is how I remember her, and it would be disingenuous of me to pretend otherwise.

What I take from this is the reinforcement of truths I've known for a long time but continue to fall short on:  Always treat people with respect.  Always be kind.  And, always bring positivity to any situation.  To do otherwise for any of these ideals runs the risk of you becoming someone a person can't bring themselves to mourn when you pass away.  There are fewer things more tragic than a person examining their memories of you and finding nothing that makes them miss your presence in their lives or at least feel a twinge of sadness at the thought.  As much as I can help it, I don't want to be the cause of someone's negative feelings.

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