Last year I was invited last minute to see a show at The Public Theater in New York with the funny, threatening and compelling title: "We're Gonna Die."
"Sounds like a blast," I told my friends.
Who knew that by the end of the 90 minute production I, and the rest of the audience, would join Young Jean Lee and her accompanying band Future Wife in a rousing a capela version of the title song:
"We're gonna die, we're gonna die someday; Then I'll be gone, and it will be OK."
It was a riveting experience. As we sung our mortality, growing louder and more convinced at each verse, we experienced an odd solidarity and liberation which transcended the "magic of the theatre." The catchy tune and its persuasive death knell has stayed with me over the last year offering an important spiritual message that continues to tug at me no matter how much I would like to swat it away.
I spoke to Young Jean Lee about the performance recently as We're Gonna Die is currently being restaged at Lincoln Center through Sept. 15. She told me that the entire show intentionally builds toward that moment of communal musical acknowledgement of our mortality:
"The point of the show is acceptance of the fact that we are all going to die and a celebration of our freedom from that anxiety."
The show was prompted by the artist's grief over her father's death which was made all the more difficult because of the bumbling of physicians and the extreme pain and fear her father experienced at the end. She was helped out of her depression by a surprising note from a friend who had just experience a series of catastrophes in her own life. The friend's words to Lee became another song in the play asking:
"Who do you think you are to be immune from tragedy? What makes you so special that you should be unscathed?"
It sounds harsh, but it made the artist confront some fundamental presumptions she had maintained about her own life -- namely that Young Jean Lee did consider herself special and unlike others who would face sickness and death. And once she had accepted her own humaness, it helped:
It is not possible to be totally free of the anxiety of death but one thing that helps is if you can accept that, when something bad happens to you like sickness, or aging or death, that it is happening just because that is what happens to people, it is just a part of being human.
In our culture there is a self-help mentality where if you become fit enough or psychologically healthy enough or rich enough, then somehow you will be able to escape the things that happen to all human beings and that is a damaging lie.
Ain't it the truth.
A recent trip to the doctor offered my own minor and comical reminder of my own fragility, mortality and unexceptional humanity. I damaged my knee and the question before the physician and patient was whether or not to have surgery. "If you were a younger man," the doctor explained, "this surgery wouldn't be a big deal, but BECAUSE YOU'RE AN OLDER MAN (caps mine)..." and after that I stopped listening.
It seemed like my life's trajectory crested in that one sentence and I came to the top, teetered there for a moment, and then like a lethal rollercoaster I started my descent towards the eventual faulty rail that will throw me off the ride.
Of course I realize that my age is not actually old (48) and what ails me is minor. But it still reminded me that the idea of me continually growing in perfection of body had just officially collapsed, and the only growth left to me was mind (unlikely) or spirit (I can still hope).
Placing death in front of us is an old trick. Christian monks greet each other with the reminder that they are dust all the time. And a Buddhist poet recently showed up at my friend's birthday party with a gift of a T-shirt with a message declaring: "This Body Will Be A Corpse." Happy birthday indeed!
But ultimately what Young Jean Lee is offering us is the message that many theologians, poets, philosophers and sages have offered forever, which is a reminder that death is actually a part of life, as much as we would like to shut it out. It is the one thing we share as humans, and with all life forms.
This is not comforting, or deep, but it is true, and it is universal. Whatever you believe happens after life, we are united in our collective forecast of death.
And perhaps, as Young Jean Lee has so strikingly proposed, it will be OK.
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