In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, Death is a goth chick. She’s also the friendliest of a pantheon of anthropomorphic personifications called The Endless. And why wouldn’t Death be friendly? She’s got the worst customer service job in the universe, and anyone who’s ever done customer service can tell you that being friendly is the key to success. But Neil Gaiman’s Death is friendly because: a.) Death isn’t exactly what you’d expect, and b.) Death is someone you want to meet.
Our dojo recently experienced an unexpected death among our students. EB, a bright, attractive, energetic high school student was a casualty in a car accident. Her brother, who was driving, fell asleep at the wheel and ran off the road. According to reports, EB was wearing her seatbelt, and her brother was not under the influence of any drugs or alcohol. Except for – and “hindsight-is-20/20” here – the poor judgment of driving tired, no one did anything wrong. It’s fair to say most everyone drives tired once in awhile, and it literally could’ve happened to anyone.
There is a large population of teenagers in our school. More important to keep in mind, most of them started young and literally grew up together. EB had been with us since Second Grade. News of her death spread quickly, and young people don’t take news of this kind very well.
I remember the first few of more peers who died. Unnatural causes, of course. Accidents and suicide are the leading cause of death for people under 18. In these cases, they all did it to themselves – intentionally or unintentionally; suicides and overly risky behavior. Maybe that was easier for me to take because the circumstances were less random, but it didn’t make it easier to accept.
The “last” person to go in this phase of life was one of my closest friends. Craig popped pills and booze while partying – underage – at a dive more or less across the street from our old high school. He missed a turn on the road home, a route he’d traced probably every day of his life, and kept right on going through a heavy wooden fence.
I took a day off school to attend the funeral and returned to college to write an overdue paper on Aristotle’s philosophy of friendship. I poured my grief into that paper; I was crying as I wrote it.
It barely passed. The professor’s red inked note was, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Get over it.” Philosophers aren’t much for sympathy in cases like this. Not that the prof was completely lacking in compassion: she didn’t fail the paper.
You don’t write philosophy under the undue influence of emotion. And the prof was right: death isn’t that hard.
So when I found myself talking to a distraught young dojo-mate on Monday night, I had to remind myself what it was like, and that philosophy was not what he wanted to hear. So I nodded sagely and expressed my sincere sympathies as he rhetorically asked the existential questions about what the tragedy of young death really means.
Honestly, death isn’t hard. It’s a friendly goth chick who dusts you off, explains what happened, and escorts you on to the next big thing – whatever that is, and I don’t want to get into that right now. For the dead, death is easy.
Life. Now, life is friggin’ hard.
A few weeks further into the syllabus on Aristotle we were taught about virtue. To summarize: it’s the choice to do right instead of wrong. It’s moderation, not over indulgence. It is understanding our duties and meeting them. And it is a never ending struggle in these areas – until you die. You can never say, "I’m a good person," until you have the bookend pieces to examine the evidence. Because until Death says, “Hey, honey…” you can throw it all away in the next poor choice.
This is a sentiment almost every martial artist hears at some point in their career when they hear the quote: “The Way of the Samurai is found in death.” This can sound very morbid, or terrifying, or impossibly “hard man” the first time you hear it. It is a quote from the Hagakure, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, and it is probably one of the most misunderstood quotes in martial arts.
Often it is interpreted to mean that the martial artist should move through life constantly aware of danger around every corner, and prepared to meet it. Sometimes it is broadened to mean that we should order our lives in such a way that if death comes for us suddenly, we leave no regrets behind. That’s not too bad. But what does the author of the quote himself say?
“The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without achieving one’s aim is to die a dog’s death is the frivolous way sophisticates. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim.
“We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaining one’s aim is a dog’s death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.”
“Set your heart right.” I don’t think this is too different from Aristotle’s teaching that we need to choose virtue at every opportunity. That’s the point of life; and it isn’t always easy because it takes constant choices. “Be determined and advance.” Don’t dawdle on making a choice, be bold and attack life. “He gains freedom in the Way.” Hopefully, the more you order your life and make positive choices, the easier it is to keep making good choices and the fewer tough choices you have to make. And if you do so, when Death comes, your life will have meant something whether you lived 15 years, or 150 years. “We all want to live.” Attack life, choose virtue, and when the goth chick shows up, you’ll be saying, “Not yet, I’ve got too many projects going left unfinished…” Death can be someone you’re happy to meet because you have no regrets, and you’ve left the world better than you met it.
Sure, we’re all sad that EB is no longer with us to join the fun. To hear her close friends and family talk, she lead a virtuous life, and she will be missed. But this is the meaning of a death of one so young: We reflect on the good she did while she was with us. We appreciate the value of the lives around us. We are prodded to do more with the time we are given.