Life asked death, why do people love me but hate you?
Death responded, because you are a beautiful lie and I am a painful truth.
My last blog entry was about sleep. This one is about another kind of sleep…the permanent kind.
When I am surrounded by the safety of my home and blanketed by the comfort of my routine, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about death. But two weeks ago, I was very far from both home and routine while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. The combination of the distance needed to cover to get to Uhuru peak, the cold temperatures, and particularly, the altitude provided me with ample opportunity to ponder my mortality. Most of this contemplation did not occur during the daytime climbs that were tricky, but not treacherous. Rather, it occurred at night when I attempted, usually unsuccessfully, to sleep. In addition to having no appetite whatsoever once above an altitude of 14,000 feet or so, I found it difficult, if not impossible to sleep because I was breathing too hard to get my mind and body in a relaxed state. I was breathing so hard because there was so little oxygen in the rarified air on the mountain. I tried meditation and controlled breathing to relax to no avail. I found myself staring at the ceiling of my tent, backlit only by moonlight, for most of the night. As tedious and tiring as this was, it was preferred to the alternative of closing my eyes because, when I did, my brain would flash images before me of horrific faces with bulging, desperate eyes. These were not hallucinations (which I understand some people do experience at high altitude) but rather my brain’s not so subtle way of telling me to get the hell off of that mountain!
At the time though, I wasn’t completely sure it wasn’t a premonition of my death. Not having a great deal of experience in the symptoms of altitude sickness and therefore not knowing whether mine were cause for concern or not, most of my comfort came from the fact that although I may have felt like hell, I didn’t feel like I was dying. Fortunately, I rebounded and actually felt pretty strong on the final push up to the peak. Looking back on the experience now from the comfort of being much closer to sea level, I am happy I pushed through the trials to get to the top of that mountain.
Now on the plains of the Serengeti, death is also a much more immediate presence than in my home routine. There, most of the information about death is through an intermediary like a newspaper, a television, or a computer (all of which I use extremely infrequently for news). Here, there is no intermediary. Your senses are assaulted on a regular basis with the sights, sounds, and smells of death. The plains are littered with the fallen. The stench of decomposing (mostly wildebeest) bodies regularly fills your nostrils. All stages of carcasses are visible, from recently deceased bodies that more closely resemble a sleeping animal to only the skeletal remains with hoof and horn, but devoid of flesh and fiber. The scavengers of the plains tend to the bodies. Marabou storks, the only bird that makes the vulture look attractive, patrol the field looking for morsels to eat as they perform their grim duties. The vultures, like sentries stationed in the treetops, are vigilantly on the lookout for their next meal.
Death is not subtle here. It grabs you by the shirt collar, shakes you and says, “can you hear me now?” The battle between life and death is taking place every moment of every day on the Serengeti and has been ongoing for millennia. Predator and prey are locked in a constant struggle for survival. The success of one, means the death of the other. Most of these struggles play out in just a minute or two. Either the predator gets the jump on the prey or the prey is able to use its speed, agility, or strength to live another day.
I witnessed several of these battles recently on the Mara river, one of the two major rivers the wildebeest cross during their great migration to greener pastures. This is an amazing event of nature and seeing it was one of the highlights of my trip. During the first four crossings, I saw hundreds, perhaps thousands of wildebeest crossing the river and saw one or two unfortunate creatures attacked, pulled underwater, and drowned for later consumption by a crocodile. (Interesting fact….crocodiles prefer rotten meat and will frequently let their prey sit in the water for a couple of days before they consume it.)
On the fifth crossing, a wildebeest toward the end of the herd was attacked by a crocodile. Based on the previous crossings I saw, I thought this would end fairly quickly and badly for the wildebeest. But what unfolded was an epic battle that played out over the next 30 minutes and left all onlookers biting our collective nails over the outcome.
When the wildebeest emerged from the water after the attack, it was apparent that the crocodile had only grabbed the skin of the wildebeest’s neck. The wildebeest, although tired from the crossing, struggled mightily to free himself from the crocodile’s grip. Fortunately for the wildebeest, he was attacked by a relatively small crocodile and so as he struggled to free himself, he was actually dragging the crocodile a few feet along with him. This tug of war continued over the next several minutes with the crocodile trying to pull the wildebeest under water and the wildebeest using every ounce of strength he could muster to escape the jaws of the crocodile.
Then the wildebeest actually did pull away from the crocodile but was so exhausted, he could not move far enough away from his adversary. The crocodile pursued in the hope of getting a more secure bite on the wildebeest. This time, when they emerged from the water, it was apparent that the crocodile had locked his teeth only onto the wildebeest’s mane. With this poor grip, the croc still couldn’t get enough leverage on his prey to pull him under.
Once again, a battle ensued, with the wildebeest pulling frantically while scanning the area for some sort of help, but seeing that none was coming. During the crossing, it’s every wildebeest for itself. Then, during one of the wildebeest’s surges, he escaped the crocodile’s grip but once again could not get enough distance between himself and the croc. The croc approached again and this time clamped his jaws down on the wildebeest’s left hind hoof.
Another stalemate ensued with the wildebeest refusing to be pulled under and the croc refusing to let go. At this point, the croc had a firm hold of its prey and the wildebeest was beyond exhausted from the battle, so I assumed the end was near for the wildebeest despite his valiant struggle. If the croc didn’t kill the wildebeest, it seemed that the river currents would. Miraculously, the wildebeest broke free once again and this time mustered enough strength to get enough distance from the exhausted croc to prevent yet another bite. When we saw the wildebeest finally emerge onto the shore, the assembled on-lookers, who had been watching this drama unfold, broke out in cheer for the exhausted wildebeest as he trotted off to rejoin the herd with, amazingly, only minor injuries. As to why most of us were “rooting” for the wildebeest to prevail in this epic battle is a story to be addressed on another day. Let’s leave this story on a high note with this wildebeest living to see another day on the Serengeti.
The name Serengeti, by the way, is a Masai word meaning “endless plain”. Although the plains of the Serengeti may be endless, life is anything but endless on these plains. In fact, life on the plains is very often as Thomas Hobbes described it, “nasty, brutish and short”.
We get occasional reminders in our lives that death is an integral part of life. It could come in the form of a death of a colleague or loved one or a health scare or close call of our own. Here in the Serengeti, the reminders are in big bold letters on your calendar and task list right under “do laundry”, “grocery shop” and “schedule annual physical”. Here you see that death is life’s yin and life is death’s yang. One cannot exist without the other. As long as there is the one element, there is the other. Life is a coin with two sides. At some point, a wildebeest has to die for the croc to live, or the croc will die if the wildebeest all pass safely. And regardless of whether we live in a world of prey and predator or far away from it in the safety and comfort of our homes, we all will have to come to grips with the fact that we cannot avoid the grip of death. As the Qur’an reminds us, “Every soul will taste death”. `
We are caught up in an eternal dance between eternal partners, neither one good or bad, right or wrong, completely happy or completely sad despite all of our judgments to the contrary. We can’t invite one guest to the party without the other crashing. As Joseph Campbell liked to remind us, we have to say “Yes!” to it all. We can’t accept only the beautiful, awe inspiring, and miraculous aspects of life and reject those things we find unpleasant, distasteful, or painful. It’s very difficult and part of our work here to finally accept the painful aspects of life as part of the price of admission. It’s a package deal.
I knew I didn’t want to die on Kilimanjaro nor do I want to die here on the Serengeti. I do believe that when I’m ultimately faced with my impending death, I will come to accept it, but probably not without some serious soul searching and struggle. Confronting your own mortality as more than just a concept takes some time, grieving, and adjustment. And although I know in my head that I could get struck by lightning, hit by a bus, or (based on my current location) attacked by a leopard tomorrow, those things feel like extremely remote possibilities and so I don’t lose any sleep over them. But we never really know how long our dance on this side of the plane of existence will last. I, for one, am hoping to shake my booty for a little while longer and appreciate the journey just a little more having had these experiences on the mountain and on the plains of Tanzania.
So, as I’m finding with most things in our life, it seems to be about balance, just as Nature finds balance. We should not bury our heads in the sand (after all, this could cause death) and deny death or our own mortality. Nor should we be obsessed with death and live in a constant state of fear. In fact, knowing that our time here is limited can spur us on to do the things we want to do, accomplish the things we want to accomplish, and love with a greater sense of urgency…until death do us part.
The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside us while we live.