The most memorable assignment during my undergrad studies was for the English Literature course. It was a group task where we had to rewrite a Shakespeare play of our choice and then performed it in front of our lecturer and our classmates. Our group's version of The Merchant of Venice required Antonio (a part that I had to play) to perform a soliloquy. I wrote a sonnet for him - just for fun.
For Each Passing Season
Shall I compare life to changing seasons
And man to the plants that conquer the earth?
For each passing season there are reasons
And the reasons define mere mortals worth.
In summer time, the reasons are budding
In spring they blossom, in autumn they fall
Then cold winter leads to reasons fading
Bitter snow buries the reasons and all.
Mere mortal I am, and my winter is
Fast approaching and fast coming to end
My reasons and my seasons and my bliss
My joy and my pain and the whole life I spend.
Final farewell my fellow friends for now
I'll bow to my vow, if you would allow.
Here's a recording on SoundCloud
Antonio recited this in prison when he learned that he was unable to pay moneylender Shylock the amount he had borrowed on behalf of his friend Bassanio because his merchant's ship was lost at sea. Shylock demanded to be compensated with "a pound of flesh," or in other words, he wanted to physically hurt Antonio - perhaps to kill him. So the sonnet was some sort of a farewell message. The way I interpreted it, Antonio was quite ready to die for the sake of his friend. He saw his imminent death as a "season," - it was sad, even tragic, but it was also certain and inevitable. Through his soliloquy, Antonio expressed a sincere desire to "bow to his vow," - to answer the call to honour life's natural precepts in the most respectable manner.
Writing the script and performing with my group members were fun, enjoyable times. English Lit was without a doubt one of my favourite courses. But not long after, something shocking and devastating happened which changed the way I wanted to look back at this memory. Just a few months before our graduation, we received news that JC Ng, the beloved lecturer whom we did the Shakespeare assignment for, had perished in a plane crash. She was 33. From being a piece created playfully to remind myself of the good old days, Antonio's sonnet suddenly transformed into something that reminds me of her tragic end, of the fragility of life, and of how brief our candles are - as Shakespeare himself would put it.
Flip sides of the same coin
The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult was the first fiction I read this year. The story's main theme is death, though it also deals with questions about life and what-ifs, about love and forgiveness, and about human desires and the pursuit of dreams told through the subjects of Egyptology, quantum physics, multiverse, Irish superstitions, and the job of a death doula. It starts with the main character's brush with death when the plane she was on crashed unexpectedly.
A plane crash. Of all things.
Reading the book brings me back to my memory of the late Ms JC, to my Antonio's soliloquy, to my fear of flying, and also perhaps to my thoughts about death and dying which I've been entertaining since last year. I don't think I'm alone in this, though. I guess pandemic-ridden 2020 had forced a lot of people to think about life and death in ways they never did before.
One of the questions I find myself asking is this: Am I afraid to die? Dawn, the book's main character, said that fear of death is a common thing - indeed all fear is a fear of death. Fear of flying is definitely a fear of dying in a plane crash. Fear of snakes is a fear of being bitten to death. Fear of height is a fear of falling to death.
Maybe I do fear my own death - but I guess I fear experiencing the death of my loved ones even more. I guess I'm not alone in this. A lot of married couples I know seem to prefer dying before their spouses do - it's easier to be the one who leaves than to be the one being left behind. I found an echo of this in the book, when it mentions how "every story is a love story," i.e. "love of a person, a country, a way of life." Hence, "all tragedies are about losing what you love" (p. 67). Picoult also writes:
When you lose someone you love, there is a tear in the fabric of the universe. It's the scar you feel for, the flaw you can't stop seeing. It's the tender place that won't bear weight. It's a void.
Dawn, who worked as a death doula i.e. "a non-medical professional trained to care for a terminally ill person's physical, emotional, and spiritual needs during the death process" (Healthline, 2015) also pondered on the fact that humans seem to prefer avoiding the subject of death than discussing it - at least not until it's absolutely necessary. For example, someone who's dying of cancer and who's aware that she's nearing the end would be more prepared to discuss funeral arrangements, to sort out financial matters for those being left behind, to wonder about life in the afterlife, and so on. Notwithstanding the fact that death is inescapable, most people would avoid the subject for as long as they can. It's as if we can avoid death by refusing to talk about it. Dawn thought being surprised by death is ridiculous, as "it's not exactly a spoiler." To Dawn, "Life and death are flip sides of the same coin" (p. 97).
Before becoming a death doula, Dawn was a Yale PhD student researching The Book of Two Ways, the ancient Egyptians 4000-year-old road map to the underworld. She had to give up her research (as well as her dream, her future career, and the man she loved) when her mother passed away. Dawn had to leave Egypt and everything that had meant so much to her so she could care for her only teenage brother, Kieran. She eventually settled in Boston, got married, and lived a seemingly happy life as a wife, a mother and yes, a death doula.
I imagine how much I can learn about life if I were to spend most of my time being close to people whose lives are about to end. It was a dying client's final wish that had prompted Dawn to revisit her past, to rediscover her unresolved history, and to find the answers to all the what-if questions that had been haunting her. What if she finished her research? What if she didn't get married? I also believe that it was the certainty of death that had made Dawn question the uncertainty of life. The inevitability of death and the brevity of life sent her on a quest to discover what it means to truly love, what can be construed as a betrayal, and how "living morally" should look like. Just like Dawn, I guess seeing death in the eye makes me think about what it means to be selfless, to admit my human failings, and to truly forgive. I imagine myself standing at life's precipice awaiting the imminent fall to the afterlife. The book also touches on the theory of multiverse in quantum physics, and it leads me to wonder if there's a better or worse version of myself out there in a universe other than this one - if that universe exists. It makes me think more deeply about the possibilities of turning back time, of giving myself a second chance regardless of whether I deserve it or not.
I'm fond of Dawn in the same way that I dislike her. She had been altruistic and selfless in many ways, but she had also made some selfish choices that hurt people who love her the most. Sometimes I think she's a hypocrite, but at times I admire her raw honesty. I'm in awe of Dawn's intellect and her capacity to love, but most of all I love her because in spite of all her gifts and talents, she's a hopelessly flawed and imperfect human being. The main reason I hate her is because we have a lot more in common than what I'm willing to admit.
I love her and I hate her at the same time because in her, I see myself.
"Now I can die!"
I have a friend who has a habit of exclaiming "Okay, now I can die!" every time he manages to accomplish something that brings him immense satisfaction. It can be as mundane as finishing a bowl of noodles he's been craving for, or as extreme as bungee jumping or swimming with the dolphins.
In many instances, my friend might exaggerate his preparedness to die. But I often wonder about the possibility of having a personal encounter so profound, so satisfying that life doesn't seem to matter any more. In the Bible, someone named Simeon had demonstrated precisely this kind of deep, immense satisfaction. According to the Gospel of Luke, the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that "he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord" (Luke 2: 26). Simeon was in the temple when Joseph and Mary brought baby Jesus to be presented to the Lord in accordance with the Law of Moses. Upon seeing Jesus, Simeon took him in his arms and said:
Lord, now let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled; my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people; a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.
(Luke 2: 29-32)
Simeon's verses in the Gospel of Luke have come to be known as Nunc Dimittis - which is Latin for "Now you dismiss." They're the opening words of the passage from the Vulgate translation:
Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.
English translation (Vulgate):
Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace; Because my eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples: A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
I think of Nunc Dimittis as Simeon's version of "Now I can die!" after being granted the lifelong desire of his heart, - that is to see the Messiah with his own eyes, to be assured of the promise of salvation for the Gentiles and glory for Israel. It was an immense, inexpressible satisfaction. Simeon was finally ready to "be dismissed," to "go in peace." I also learned recently that Catholic priests have a custom of praying the Nunc Dimittis every evening, as they get ready to rest and retire. By praying the Nunc Dimittis, one is expressing to the Lord the readiness to be dismissed in peace after a whole day of satisfying labour. A perfect way to end the day.
The point of life
There's a part in the novel where Dawn had a conversation about the point of life with Wyatt, her Egyptologist lover. Wyatt questioned: "What's the point of life, if not to accumulate knowledge?" - and in response, Dawn said: "That's absolutely not the point of life. It's who your existence snags on. Who changes, because they knew you" (p. 233). Dawn also said that what we know isn't as important as who we know, i.e. who will miss us, and who we will miss.
In addition to pondering on the answer to the question: Am I afraid to die? I've also been asking myself whether I should be afraid to die. Simeon who sang the Nunc Dimittis as he cradled the long-awaited infant Messiah in his arms, as well as the Catholic priests whom I imagine kneeling beside their beds in the evening, reciting Simeon's canticle as they prepare for the day's closing don't reflect this fear of death to me. Like my interpretation of Shakespeare's Antonio, Nunc Dimittis represents death as what it actually is: imminent, inescapable, honourable. But more than that, it conveys the message that death should be seen as a beginning rather than an end. Death is resting in peace. Death is like returning home after long years of being abroad. Death is being released from the chains of life. Death isn't an unwelcome surprise, it is an anticipated certainty. More importantly, death isn't forever. It's merely a door, or a passage if you will - that one has to pass through en route to eternal life.
As I was reading up on this topic, I came across a story about how jazz legend John Coltrane, after a deeply satisfying live performance of his magnum opus A Love Supreme, left the stage saying the very phrase "Nunc Dimittis." This is recounted in the book The Call by Os Guinness. I haven't read the book yet (but it's definitely next in my reading list), it was brought to my knowledge by Caroline Cross' beautiful article on the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics. Cross writes:
Right there in the heat of the stage lights, John Coltrane connected with the experience of a Jewish man thousands of years ago in the Jerusalem temple courtyard. Both men, worlds and ages apart, felt a calling fulfilled.
Simeon's calling was to see salvation with his own eyes before he died. What is Coltrane's calling? I don't know much about jazz - I was introduced to Coltrane through a wonderful art by Gavin Aung Than on Zen Pencils. I stumbled on this inspiring comic while I was halfway through Picoult's Book of Two Ways, and right before I learned about Nunc Dimittis. Co-incidence? I guess not.
A life worth dying
The Book of Two Ways told us how crucial knowledge is for the ancient Egyptians, particularly in assisting the deceased to survive the Netherworld on the way to attain eternal life. The Book isn't actually a real book - it basically refers to texts and drawings on the inner sides of the coffin, a guide to reach the afterlife. "They're spells the deceased has to have in order to pass all the obstacles en route to the shrine of Osiris" (Dawn, The Book of Two Ways, p. 27). The goal of every soul is to unite with Osiris. Osiris, the Lord of the Underworld, will unite himself with Re, the God of the Sun who is also the Creator God. This is what eternal life means for the ancient Egyptians - to be resurrected with Re through the reunion with Osiris every single morning as the sun rises.
In his letter to the early Christians at Philippi, St Paul wrote that for him "to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians 1: 21). For St Paul, to live means to go on doing "fruitful labour" for the glory of Christ (v. 22), while to die means to "be with Christ, which is better by far" (v. 23). He mentioned how he was "torn between the two" (ibid.). Clearly, just like Simeon before him, St Paul wasn't afraid to die - instead he was prepared to die and saw death as being the better one out of the two. I believe the reason for this was because he understood what life and death mean. He knew his calling, the point of his life (and death), his true purpose. "Whether by life or by death," St Paul had only one goal: for Christ to be exalted (v. 20).
Philippians 1: 20-21 is the foundation for Christian Hedonism which John Piper, the founder of desiringgod.org, describes as: "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him." Piper writes: "I am confident that Christ will be magnified in my dying, and the basis of that expectation that Christ will be shown to be magnificent in my dying is that I am going to experience my dying as gain; namely, as Christ being more satisfying to me than everything that life has to offer" (What is Christian Hedonism? on Desiring God).
I guess whatever our faiths or religious beliefs are, or whether or not we believe in God, what Dawn said about the point of life should make sense. The point of life is who my existence snags on, and who changes because of me. The point of life is also to do fruitful labour that will exalt not what matters to me, but who. In all these, knowledge is key. The ancient Egyptians valued the knowledge that helped them survive the journey to the afterlife. John Coltrane achieved his "Nunc Dimittis moment" because his knowledge taught him how to exalt God and to heal people through his music. Simeon had lived a life worth dying because he had looked at the Knowledge to eternal life in the eyes, and held Him in his arms - assured of the salvation of all mankind.
So as a response to the question: Should I be afraid to die?, I guess all evidence point to the negative. If I have the knowledge that leads to my calling; if I can use the knowledge God gives me to learn how to labour fruitfully; if I can strive to live in a way that gives me immense satisfaction as I fulfil my true purpose; if I can embrace my salvation and cradle Him in my arms; - then my death would certainly be a gain.
And I should have nothing to be afraid of.
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil - and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
(Hebrew 2: 14-18)
ccj, Duvanson, 3.22p.m.
Aung Than, G. (2019). John Coltrane The Power of Music. From Instagram @zenpencils. Link
Cross, C. (April 28, 2015). Coltrane and Calling: A Faith and Work Message for Jazz Appreciation Month. Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics. Link
Healthline Editorial Team (July 15, 2018). How 'Death Doulas' Can Help People at the End of Their Life. Healthline.Link
Hill, J (2018). Book of the Two Ways. Ancient Egypt Online. Link
Lee, K.W. & Jozef Colpaert (2014). In memoriam Jaclyn Ng Shi Ing. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 27:6, 481-482. Link
Picoult, J (2020). The Book of Two Ways. Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton. Link
Piper, J (August 1, 2015). What is Christian Hedonism? Desiring God. Link
Wikipedia. Nunc dimittis. (Retrieved on February 2, 2021). Link