Life is a death trap or is it not?
by Benedikt Schreyer
In the TV series “Band of Brothers” revolving around the soldiers from the 101st American Airborne Division during World War II, the legendary Lieutenant Ronald Speirs gives a frightened soldier, Albert Blithe, a lecture on the matter of death:
“We’re all scared. You hid in that ditch because you think there’s still hope. But Blithe, the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. And the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function…”
What can we learn from this? How many of us live in hope, waiting for something to change? We may not be in a war zone, but most of us are hiding in a ditch just like Private Blithe – with an overabundance of hope that one day things are going to be different. The line that struck me most was:
“Accept the fact that you’re already dead.”
Honestly and truly. We are born with the intention to one day die. So we are in fact already dead. But because we are so afraid of what will be when we are dead, we decide to reject this unknown matter. The oldest fear and reason for panic in human beings seems to be the unknown.
So instead we believe in something else, maybe eternal youth, invincibility or even impossibility. And we want to believe it because it feels so cosy in that little bubble.
We constantly trick ourselves in respect to that fact and spend a lot of energy on building resistance against the inevitability of death. We cling to our lives like a limpet, not realising that we are already dangling from the gallows of our own illusionary concepts.
But at some point we realise that we’re not invincible and that we have lived in that illusion for a long time because it gave us a good feeling. We also experienced the downside of invincibility, the fact that we didn’t quite challenge ourselves or our ideas. Because, well, we were invincible and we wanted to keep it that way. After all, Gods don’t work.
But suddenly our bodies begin to ache a little, we spot a grey hair and end up buying wrinkle cream. We look back at our lives and realise we’re mortal just like everybody else.
Horay, you’re mortal!
This is the best thing that can happen to you. You’ve finally understood the key ingredient to a happy life. You’ve accepted the inevitable and now your mind is free to focus on the possible. The german poet Hilde Domin wrote:
“Dem Toten ist Ganzheit erlaubt.
Beeil dich ein Toter zu sein,
wird das Versprechen gehalten.”
“The dead are allowed entireness.
Hurry up to be dead,
the dead will be granted the promise.”
from: Hinuebergehen. Das Wunder des Spaetwerks
In ancient fairytales we can also find this wisdom that to “die” is the right way. Like in this russian story:
At a banquet, the czar finds that his three sons haven’t proven their true virtue yet. So they ask for his blessing and each one takes a horse from the stalls. All three come to a directory at a crossroads which says: “Who goes right, will have plenty to eat, but his horse will starve; who goes left, will have enough for his horse, but will starve himself; and he who goes straight, will die.
So the first son chooses to go right and finds a snake on a mountain. After his return his father becomes irate and says, he brought home something dangerous and demonic and throws him in prison. Metaphorically, the prison stands for a rigid life without the spirit of rejuvenation.
The second son chooses to go left and meets a whore who invites him to her mechanical bed. After having jumped out she pushes a button, the bed turns around and he falls into a cellar where a couple of other men are already trapped. So the option to go left is also a failure.
Now Big Iwan, the russian hero, comes along. After having seen the directory he starts to cry and says that a poor guy going to die will neither find honour nor glory… but, still he rides on. His horse dies and rises from the dead. He himself conquers the witch. Then he finds the princess, returns home and becomes czar.
translated from Marie-Louise Franz “Puer aeternus”
This is an average fairytale career: The hero decides to accept the inevitable and stays inside the conflict of life – though it seems like death to his ego, because it always wants to know what is lying ahead. But the miracle lies in the foray into the unknown. Life wants us to go the middle road and bear the tension between the two poles of life. So the ultimate goal in life is not your profession, your partner or your kids. It’s your death. Go through it whilst you’re alive.
Dying is going through the needle’s eye
In coaching, I learned the expression “to go through the needle’s eye”. It means facing your deepest fears and overcoming them. There will be setbacks, there will be defeat, but you know you want to get to the other side and try and try again. You confide in your intention to evolve. And then, you let go and you suddenly feel you have achieved something. Life has got a new quality, more that of an adventure than the hide-and-seek game you used to play before.
My own personal experience
On one of the last legs of my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain in 2008, I didn’t feel too well. I had eaten some hot peppers for dinner the day before which haunted my stomach the morning after. My pace slowed down and I started thinking about death. And suddenly I envisioned my own funeral. I saw my future family, friends and brothers, – aged. I mourned deeply over my own death. It was real to me. My mind imagined my physical death whilst I stood watching at the sidelines. And at the same time I was alive – walking on. And on. And on. And then I understood that my life will continue after death and that the game wouldn’t be over once I played through level earth. There would be a new game, a new cycle of life. And death is just a stop-over.