In the Tarot deck, the Death card (trump no. 13) is perhaps the most notorious and misunderstood card next to trump 15, the Devil. Despite its grim imagery the Death card is generally read as a card implying deep change, to the point where what comes before is (or appears to be) destroyed. Generally what I tell people whose readings draw this card is that death itself is neither good nor bad, but rather just an unavoidable fact. I go on to say that it is our reaction to it which creates the major changes in life. It is a point of departure and a catalyst; it is our perception which turn it into tragedy.
An old friend of mine recently wrote an entry-a-day countdown to her birthday in her blog, with each entry revealing something about her past, particularly past birthdays, which her normally reserved personality would not allow her to write. One of those entries dealt with the day she learned of a mutual friend of ours' fatal heroin overdose.
Observing grief in others has always been a strange thing for me, particularly since tragedy has struck my life more than once. By the time he died I had already lost others, old and young alike, to a myriad of things: cancer, age, suicide, gang violence... I don't talk about it a lot because, in the end, these experiences made me quite a bit more emotionally distant from others. That distance also made sure that the aching, raw, hurt of what had passed was mine and mine alone to deal with. As a young man I was outwardly very inexpressive most of the time, so even if I had wanted to reach out for help, more often than not I hadn't forged the kinds of relationships around me which would have afforded that kind of support. When our friend died, make no mistake, a little part of me died too, but I don't think anyone knew that.
Megan was close to both this person who passed and the person who is still writing about him so many years later. For them his death was a life-changing experience, one which brought the content of every day into sharper focus than ever. I don't want to sound callous, but such was not the case for me, not because I didn't care about him, but because by then I was already a bit numbed by death. When he passed I saw the unfortunate end of another lost soul, which was the sort of kinship I felt for him. I had already looked around life and saw a bleak outlook for the futures of most of the people around me, and he was no different. I did nothing to help him because I myself was powerless, just like the rest of his friends, to avert his fate, whatever it would be. I assumed that most people took the same outlook on me.
It has been a quiet source of debate among those of us left behind as to whether the overdose was intentional or not. At the time Portland was famous for its smack being cheaper than weed, cheaper than beer, cheaper than cigarettes, and with that kind of glut comes severe control problems among the supply. A hit strong enough to kill can wind up in a batch that has otherwise been "stepped" or diluted into near disolution only to be cut back together with other chemicals to mimmick or extend the effects of the original high. To put it short, you literally never know what you're putting in your veins, and afterwards it's anyone's guess whether or not you did too much on purpose.
Charlie was not the only classmate I have lost. There was Josh, who only two years before had taken a gun to his own head not far from where I currently live, Caleb who hung himself due to girl drama, Kayla who died by combining her stupidity with that of her still living boyfriend, and Randy who "gave his life for his country" in Iraq. I have also lost family members to age, cancer and suicide. I have learned years later of old friends in California who died by violence. I have seen death out in the world and inside of my own head more times than I truly care to remember. I have even come very, very close to losing my own life numerous times, and I have born witness to the same in others. But now I understand that in this life part of my learning process has to be coming to terms with death, not simply as a motivator, but as an aspect of the entire human existence, fear, ignorance and all. This is easy to do if you've had less experience with it, and can sugar-coat one's few prior experiences in delicious layers of self-deception. It's a lot harder to was mystical about death once it has established itself in one's life as a permanent, undeniable force. Once you've looked into its eyes you realize there's no bullshit on earth that can comfort you at that moment.
The best way to describe my outlook anymore is that I view life, because of its linear nature, as a sort of race course which an individual travels completely alone, with no map or foreknowledge of the course's layout. Of course others can look in on this but nobody can see more than that person running the course. On this track you have the start line, which is a pretty obvious point and can be found via retrospect, and the finish line, which is an entirely undetermined distance away and may sneak up on you completely at random. But the road continues after the "finish" line. All we know is that those on this side aren't allowed to see what is beyond it. What we can observe is that nothing appears
to come back, but this may be a flaw of our exacting human perception. This same perception is just barely capable of peeking at what lies before the start line and after the finish, just enough to make us aware that the road keeps going in both directions, leading to the theory that the track may in fact be circular, perhaps self-enclosed or perhaps merging with other tracks beyond our sight. The only way to know is to be there, to experience it ourselves, but this runs entirely counter to the communal way in which we live our lives here on earth, where nothing is truly done individually. In my view that communal mentality is likely a set of spiritual "training wheels" to keep us upright until we are able to make that unseen journey on our own, however long it may be, wherever it may lead. And while very little truly concrete evidence exists to prove it, I have a strong personal suspicion that we do in fact come back around, but the unseen journey is so long and requires so much transformation that not only are we unrecognized by others, we are barely recognized by ourselves as products of our former selves.
In this sense the tragedy is not the death of a person itself, but rather how that person lived, as that is what those left behind are able to perceive and contemplate.
In many ways I have found the reincarnation beliefs of others to be almost incorrect, as if they've come to the "right" conclusion for the "wrong" reasons. It can be used as a way to belittle the idea of death, to take away some of that deep, frightening resonance we all feel when contemplating it. I have come to believe that fear is based only upon the idea that we may lose the sense of self we hold central to our living experiences, and in this way the feeling is nothing but a scaled up version of the same anxiety prepubescent children may feel about the impending changes to their body and the identity changes which come along with them. In a world where everything can be taken away, only our sense of self seems at all permanent; and when even that is called into question, it reveals just how vulnerable we really are. Yet one of the cardinal principles of martial arts is that by being aware of and gaining understanding of our own weaknesses, we become stronger and more able to deal with the outcome of those weaknesses. Adding to this the common religious notion that one can actually prepare, during life, for these eventual changes our (theoretically) immortal selves will go through. To cower in fear is the path of the victim, with perpetually closed eyes; to face these things head on with open eyes hints at madness. Any shaman will tell you that one must be a little mad to accept things one learns outside society's proscribed barriers, just as any linguist will tell you that if you have an idea you can't express adequately through language, but attempt to anyhow, you are at best going to confuse people and at worst appear insane. So if this all seems a little insane, maybe to you, dear reader, it is. Maybe it will continue to seem insane until one day, through contemplation or personal experience, you learn firsthand the same things I have. Then, as an old sensei of mine used to say, we'll have much to smile over.