Friday, May 17, 2024

Conquering Death

"Only birth," writes the eminent mythologist Joseph Campbell, "can conquer death -- the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new."

Occasionally, some credentialed person or another will predict that in the future, perhaps the near future, science will have conquered death, at least insofar as old age and disease are concerned. I imagine we'll still be susceptible to falling off cliffs and whatnot, but we are already seeing how modern medicine can keep our old bodies running for years, if not decades, beyond their "natural" expiration date. Of course, any of us who have sat at the bedside of a loved one kept alive by these "artificial" means knows that this this really isn't life as we know it. Part of the tragedy of this sort of end to life, for me at least, is the raw reality of these frail and failing humans' last stand. Not today, they seem to say, not today, until the day arrives. 

Poets and philosophers have often noted that it's impossible to distinguish between pity and love. Modern science has not conquered death, but in this increasingly common process of life ending in bed, attached to machines and full of medications, has given us these dwindling moments of pity-love, waiting, waiting, not today, not today. 

Frankly, I'd rather just be eaten by a bear. 

"Did you hear that Teacher Tom died?"

"Oh no! What happened?"

"He was eaten by a bear."

It would be painful and horrifying as it happened, of course, but the part of me that lives on -- which is to say the stories people tell about me when I'm gone -- will have me going out with a bang, not a whimper.

I've been watching a pair of small birds -- I think they're Western Bluebirds (Sialia Mexicana) -- shuttling insects to their recently hatched babies. Every morning for the past couple weeks, I've sat with my morning coffee in the same place at the same time, watching them come and go with what looks like crickets in their beaks, ducking into a cavity in a tree trunk for a few minutes, then darting back out with their beaks empty. For the last few days, I've been able to hear their babies chirping from within, which tells me they are getting close to fledging: their second birth.

We tend to misunderstand the so-called lesser animals as being fortunate in that they don't have minds that allow them to think about things like death. We imagine they live in the moment, following ancient instincts, always doing the right thing because it's the only thing they can do. But every day, sometimes several times day, I see my bluebirds chasing potential predators away --  much larger ravens and crows for the most part. Death is never far away and like us, these birds are also trying to conquer death, but in their case it's not their own lives they defend, but rather those of their offspring, whose survival is paramount. That, ultimately, is how death is conquered, not by keeping the old bodies alive as long as we can, but through the constant, courageous defense of birth.

Surveys consistently find that those of us who work with young children report the most satisfaction with their lives, right alongside those in the medical profession. That makes sense because, like my bluebirds, we have given our lives to conquering death, not for ourselves, but for others. We are the midwives of that "something new." Psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik points out that caring for children is the principle project of every civilization that has ever existed. 

If I do meet my end in the jaws of a bear, I hope it will happen as I'm defending something newer than me. Likewise, I will know that if a bear does do me in, it will probably be a mama bear who perceives me as a threat to her cubs.

That is the real cycle of life and death, the story in which we are the heroes.


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast here or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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