"'I didn't know anything about being a wizard or about my parents or Voldemort --"
Ron gasped. "You said You-Know-Who's name!" he said, sounding both shocked and impressed.
"I'm not trying to be brave or anything, saying the name," said Harry. "I just never knew you shouldn't."
-- from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, by J.K. Rowling
When was the last time "death" came up in a conversation you were having? Yes, after violent humans or nature strike in a big way there is usually a "national conversation" about the tragedy of death. But do you ever talk to people about the inevitability of death, about your own or your loved one's eventual death? Is it something you consider taboo? Do you think simply talking about death makes you morbid, or worse, curses you to somehow experience it when you otherwise wouldn't?
In our consumptive culture it is no surprise that we have become obsessed with beauty and youth and all things physically comforting, and its also no surprise that death hasn't just been pushed to the bottom of our life list but has pretty much been erased from it. Even in the medical culture, where matters of "life and death" regularly arise, the "death" part tends to be shunned, as doctors would prefer to perform possible heroic measures to extend the life of their patients.
This leads to a troubling situation when the inevitable does arise. As Joan Halifax relates in the second chapter of her audio book "Being with Dying":
"The environment around death is often toxic, due to the strong emotional currents at play. The patient has fear of pain, and fear of the unknown and frustration at life interrupted, a future cut short. And the medical staff feel guilt, shame, or unease with what is deemed a 'failure.'"
We have tried so hard to anesthetize ourselves from the perceived horror of death that most of us have cut ourselves off from knowing how to deal with this profound and inevitable aspect to life. But the more we pretend it doesn't exist, the more it looms, darkening the horizon, growing in the power of its fear, just as Voldemort did for the wizards and muggles of the J.K Rowling-penned universe. Of course "Voldemort" itself literally translates as "flee death" in French.
"To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to the common one; let us deprive death of its STRANGENESS, let us frequent it and get used to it. to practice death is to practice freedom; a man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave." --Montaigne
Maybe we can take some inspiration from the Harry Potter story arc. After all, he is the boy who merely knows, lives with, and faces the obvious, and thus becomes the one who ultimately conquers the great villain Voldemort. Perhaps together we can all find the courage to look death in the eye, to begin to sensitize ourselves to it, and understand the potential of that experience. All the better to do it when now, before the enormity of our fear is unleashed at the time of our own diagnosis, or that of a loved one.
So please, write in here and tell us about the last time that "death" came up in a conversation for you, or if it never really has. Let's start there, and then see if this collective journey of discovery can take us to a land of happy endings, just like in that amazingly-popular series of books.
For more by Doug Binzak, click here.
For more on death and dying, click here.