Buoyancy, A Curious Japanese Ritual, and Admitting Confusion

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Today I hurt.  In pursuit of my timid triathlon quest I lifted weights yesterday, so today it’s harder to lift anything else.  And once I finished the round of weights, I went down to the pool to swim laps for the first time in over a decade and made an awkward discovery.  Most people probably already know this but it turns out fat is really buoyant.  I mean really. There are about sixty pounds or so standing in between me and my old fighting weight and, gauging from the way my body responded to the water yesterday, I think most of it is in my butt.  I may as well have had a life-preserver strapped to it.  Or an inflatable boat.  No matter how deep I dove or how hard I kicked to stay down there, my rear-end inevitably led back up to the surface like a drowning person seeking air.  It was embarrassing.  The self-delusion I’ve clung to over the years took a critical (necessary?) hit and now I’m forced to admit there is nothing, nothing, sleek left about my body.

The poor dear.  I owe her big time.

And now on to what I really wanted to talk about in this post.  There was a powerful insight I had while watching the Japanese  film “Departures” a couple of weeks ago but the problem is, I’m still not exactly sure what it was.  (Actually, I feel kind of like a quote I found once in a whole oats forum: The answers we found only served to raise a whole new set of questions.  We’re as confused as ever, but we believe we’re now confused on a higher level and about more important things.) Please bear with me here while I struggle to explain this.  For starters, there are a few things I do know about the insight.  For instance, it was a big one.  It felt like it might explain a lot of what I’ve been trying to communicate about dying in this blog.  It’s also continued to eat at me because I suspect understanding this one insight could go a long way toward easing the excess terror a lot of people feel about dying these days.

But what is it exactly?  Well, to explain that I need to describe three of the scenes that triggered the insight.  But Spoiler Alert:  If you haven’t seen the movie yet, these scenes will give a major part of the plot away.

Ready to go ahead anyway?  Okay.  Here we go.

The first is a scene where the main character, Daigo (who’s taken employment as someone who reverently prepares the bodies of the dead for cremation) meets an old childhood friend on the street.  The friend has his family with him and Daigo stops to greet them.  But the friend gruffly sends his wife and child on up the street without introducing them, telling Daigo that he knows he’s working with the dead and therefore wants nothing to do with him.  He ends the encounter saying something like  “get yourself a decent job” before walking away.

The second scene involves the death of this old friend’s elderly mother.  Daigo is asked to perform the “encoffining” ceremony for her; an exquisite, formalized, Japanese ritual of bathing and dressing the deceased in front of the watching family.  By the time this scene arrives in the movie, we’ve already witnessed the profound and often healing influence this ceremony has on the families, so we’re expectant that something similar is about to happen to Daigo’s friend.

And we’re not disappointed.  True to form, as he watches Daigo not only restore the dignity to his mother’s body that death stripped from it, but also elevate it to an almost transcendent state of beauty, the friend’s perception of  Daigo’s work transforms.  We all watch as the childhood friend finally “gets it.”  He’s moved.  He weeps, and he thanks Daigo for the gift he’s given his whole family.

Then, in the third scene, Daigo visits the recently deceased body of the father who abandoned him in early childhood.  He stands in a strange room gazing down at a body he doesn’t recognize and with which, other than anger, he feels no emotional ties.  Suddenly, two men hurry into the room hauling a cheap coffin.  They set it down, seize the shoulders and feet of the body, and start to heave it into the box.

We’re all shocked.  This time there is no beautiful, reverent ceremony.   No respect for the family standing in observance.  No restoration of dignity to the body or anything else for that matter.  Quite the opposite.  The actions of the two men only deepen the natural horror that always goes with the violent severance of life.  They treat the body as a “thing.”  As so much trash or waste to be collected, dumped, and burned.  Far from providing healing, this callousness threatens to increase Daigo’s trauma.

Needless to say he’s outraged and this heat transforms his wound.  He stops the men mid-transfer, and drives them away.  Then he kneels down beside the body to perform the ceremony of encoffining, and in so doing finally finds the healing for himself that he’s provided for so many other families.

These scenes were aching, beautiful, and real for me.  I recognized the peculiar transformation of healing that can come through deep pain, because I often saw the same thing in my work with hospice.

And…suddenly…I’m realizing I’ve misunderstood what the source of that healing really is.  All this time, I’ve thought it was caused by the power of the dying process itself, but it’s not.  It’s more than that.

Dying generates an enormous, surging wave of energy that sweeps through the lives of everyone involved.  It’s like a tsunami of upheaval, destruction, and change; physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially.  The sheer magnitude of the energy involved inevitably wrenches and devastates to some degree, even with a relatively benign death.  The natural, physical violence involved as a body dies dictates that.  Dying as an energy is a lot like nuclear power or the roiling energy of the sun.  It’s an elemental force of nature.

I’ve mistakenly assumed that the positive transformations portrayed in the movie, the kind I often saw in my hospice work, were built into the dying process itself.  But now I’m thinking not so much.  The energy of dying is neutral.  It doesn’t care how we feel about it.  It doesn’t care whether it traumatizes us or not.  It doesn’t care if we face it with courage and respect, or run away from it horrified and screaming.  Healing us is not its job, anymore than it’s the sun’s job to make sure our houses are warm.  The power dying generates has the potential to heal, of course, but it probably won’t unless we learn how to harness  and direct it.

In Departures, Daigo shows us one way to harness it; with respect, willingness, humility, compassion, and tremendous courage.

The movie puts a concrete face on the beauty, dignity, grace, and healing that can accompany dying and death, something that I’ve been trying to describe in this blog for a while.  (With questionable success.)   And the movie does so without romanticizing or hiding the gruesome, gritty realities that are also involved.  There are a couple of graphic scenes (skillfully deployed with humor) which add something critically important.  The truth is that dying and death are primarily energies of destruction.  Yes, they’re still crucial to the world if there’s going to be enough room and resources left for all the new life yet to come, but that fact doesn’t tend to make the graphic nature of it all easier.  It’s important to learn the tools we can use to manage the graphic elements involved, things like humor, reverence, and building a bigger context.

There’s a deep paradox embedded in our nation’s perspective about dying.  On the one hand, our national eyes look at it through a scientific medical paradigm through which we’ve increasingly grown to see dying as a failure and a waste.  Now, I don’t in any way mean to dismiss the profound gifts that medical advances have brought to our lives or suggest that we should ever return to a world without them.  However, it’s important to understand that the lens of technology we’ve adopted has created a growing distortion in our expectations about death.  In attempting to reduce it from a universal force of nature to the level of a technological glitch, we’ve objectified dying in much the same way that the two men in the third scene objectified the body of Daigo’s father.  These days, in both medical research and public awareness, we increasingly see death as a mess and a waste, and we tend to treat it with a corresponding aggressiveness, disrespect, and callousness as we attempt to conquer and eliminate it.

But something else entirely is taking place on the individual level.  While our societal consciousness reels in a kind of perpetual horror of dying, I’ve met so many individuals whose lives have been touched in a beautiful, dignified way by the death of someone they loved, usually because of the help and guidance they received from a hospice or other agency that (in direct opposition to the scientific medical view) perceived dying as an incredibly valuable time of life.  These people I met had been through hell, no question.  But they’d also learned how to see what was happening through eyes of respect.  During their difficult journeys they were allowed and encouraged to unleash the fullest extent of their love, even in the face of unalterable and permanent separation.  To varying degrees, they had each tasted what it was like to rage, to long, to grieve, to laugh, to tremble, to hope, to ache, to collapse, and then to survive and come through a deep, irreparable loss within a circle of respect and safety, holding the hands of others who didn’t minimize, dismiss, or pull back from their experience.

This paradox between a technological perspective and a reverent one is, on a deep level, tearing us apart.  Our scientific determination to conquer death is engaged in a ferocious battle with our deep human desire to die a peaceful one and, even though we know deep down that we can’t have both, we still throw all our considerable resources at the first goal, and then bitterly fight over what policies to set that can guarantee the second.

It’s made us a little schizophrenic.

I don’t pretend to know what the solution to the conflict will be.  That’s something that only time, growth, and group wisdom can reveal.

But I do know what’s helping me climb out of the clash.  In a lot of ways I felt like my job with hospice was similar to Daigo’s, only I did mine with the living.  I bathed and dressed and prepared them, too, with as much reverence and respect as I could muster, and I did my best, minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day, to restore the people who were dying and the people who loved them to a sense of their own dignity, courage, and strength.   I know it was something I never would have learned how to do without the help of my mentors…the experienced hospice staff who taught me…and I also know that I really want to figure out some way to pass their gift to me downstream.

Which is why I recommend this movie so highly.  Because I think it can help.  If you ever get a chance, give it a look.  Departures.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

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