“Congratulations!” I said with my biggest smile to my Vietnamese neighbor standing right outside his house. For about three days I had noticed how my neighbors -a few houses down the street- were diligently decorating their house. There were chairs and tables -with their matching table cloths- chair bows, incense, the works! All sitting outside and ready to be arranged under the big white tents. Every so often you would see motorbikes (very few cars in Vietnam) delivering food, trays of fresh fruits, vegetables and meat making their way into the house. People coming in and out -all dressed in white- and then, a rare sight, a small flatbed truck delivering even more goodies. This went on for days as I would go by in my own motorbike on my way home. The whole mood was so festive and contagious that I decided to stop by and share the love.
But my congratulation was received with a frown, the guy looked puzzled and I dreaded another embarrassing cultural mishap. One of the girls sitting in the porch overheard me and quickly stepped outside, “Oh, she die, she very old”, she said. Crap! -I thought to myself- I had just committed another cultural boo-boo, so I quickly tried to fix it and said sorry changing my demeanor. The girl said, “No sorry, she have big family, we happy she live long.”
Finally the day came and people started arriving to visit the family. They all sat outside, eating, chatting and sharing -no music or alcohol though. People dressed in white and there was no crying or sad faces. By Western standards there was no way to know this was a funeral if it wasn’t because you could see the coffin laying open in the living room.
But if anything Asia taught me was to be more aware about how we handle stuff here in the West. Here, we are all about education, science, technology and research. We are pioneers. We build skyscrapers, control CO2 emissions, and put cameras on busy intersections so the city can mail you a
thank you for running the red light note ticket. We have evolved to the point that you can get a car loan over the phone, all you have to do is to give the bank some random numbers and voila, you’ve been approved! Impressive. We have gone to wars, come back, gone again, there isn’t anything we cannot handle. Or maybe there is? Oh yea, you know that scary stuff, yes, that, please let’s not talk about it. We may bring it upon us. Really.
That thing scares us, let’s ignore it. Death in the West is seen as something not too comfy to talk about and we like to be comfy so let’s avoid this whole thing. Of course, this let’s-ignore-it approach changes when we start decaying. Then we become desperate, afraid and terrified. We start reflecting and “looking back”. But there’s nothing morbid about talking or thinking about death when we’re alive. You can’t attract your own death, you’re already running towards it.
Now coming from Latin America -where death is even a bigger taboo- I must confess I had to fight some serious aversion. Back in Vietnam I met a Buddhist friend. She lent me The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying the title, scary and gloomy enough to match my going-through-divorce mood. So the book got dusty on my desk but after a few dirty looks I finally picked it up. The title of the first chapter, “In the Mirror of Death“, ugh, not so uplifting, I felt uneasy. There was a lot of death talk in this book. Everywhere I looked I read the “D” word.
But this book ended up being a jewel. It challenged my preconceived ideas, it messed up with my head -which is a good thing- and above all, it didn’t depress me. It didn’t make me want to die or not die, it was just information. In a healthy way it made me curious. Why? If you don’t know about something, wouldn’t you want to become familiar with it? Even more if you knew it was unavoidable? It’s ironic how, in the West, we emphasize education in every subject but not the one that can give life its true meaning. Living life without reflecting on our own death is like going to our dissertation defense without being properly prepared. I’ll be scared too.
Death is part of life. They’re both intertwined. One cannot happen without the other. Death is not the end, in fact, is the beginning of something, just as being born is the end of something -that something is for you to figure out.
Thinking about death has many benefits, one of them is the potential for bringing happiness into one’s life. No, I’m not crazy, depressed, suicidal or on drugs. The fact is when we put things in long term perspective, the day-to-day tiny little things that get on our nerves lose their force. They lose power over us, as a result, our horizons expand and we can let go.
I experienced this myself. Back in January I was at an auction, I had already eyed a VoIP equipment (telephones) that was sure to make me much needed money. Long story short, I lost the auction and with that I failed to make thousands of dollars. Apparently this outcome wasn’t bad enough for me because then I decided to agonize over this -for weeks. I couldn’t sleep at night. How did I not win this? I even came up with a plan, I’ll contact the winner and offer him thousands of dollars (that I didn’t have) so I could buy it all back. Of course, this was a horrible idea, even worse than losing the auction. I was so fixated on this I couldn’t see beyond my nose. Weeks went by and more useless agony. Then I remembered my ultra secret technique. I pictured myself on my death bed and imagined my son Isaac asking me if I had any last words I wanted to say. Of course I did, “my main regret is that I wish I could have won that lot of VoIP telephones that I lost at that auction.” Really? I burst out laughing and lightened up after that.
When things go wrong in life, death is there to help you put things in perspective. When I feel moody I ask myself, is this relevant enough that I’m going to end up thinking about it on my death bed? So far I haven’t answered yes. Thinking about death has the ability to not take yourself too seriously. This brings happiness. Try it.
Death: There’s nothing bad about it…except the thing that comes before it -the fear of it. ~ Seneca