An Encounter with Death

Death provokes you, even – especially – when you are not prepared for it. And we are never prepared for death. Two strange occurrences provoked me this evening on my traditional walk home from the cafe. First, I talked with a man who was sitting on a ledge about to plummet to his death. While other onlookers attempted to persuade the man by shouting cliches at him: “it’s not worth it!” and so on, I attempted to get him to put his story into words for me. I asked him what was wrong. He told me that he lost his two children. He looked at me in the eyes and I felt them pierce my soul. I asked him what happened to his children and another gentleman shouted out something and interrupted me. The police eventually showed up and, it seemed to me – but I might be wrong – hit him with a taser gun. He fell to the ground off of the ledge. They handcuffed him. And took him away to the hospital. They did not continue their conversation with him. They smiled at each other while the troubled man sat with handcuffs in isolation.

It seems to me that the moment when this man was prepared to risk it all, to abandon everything earthly that he possessed, including his body, at precisely that moment we should have encouraged him to talk. I believe that the dark night of the soul is a stage, it is a time, and a crucial time, for the change of one’s being. This was a moment when he could have finally changed himself , a moment for self-improvement – and it was taken for granted. When we are in the unfortunate situation of being in the presence of a person undergoing a trauma, we need to encourage that person to invent words for their suffering. No doubt, the story that they tell about their suffering might not be anything new – but it is only within the speech of the person suffering that any intervention can be made. Instead of shouting cliches and banalities at the man – which do nothing for him – we should have responded to his desire to express himself. We should have allowed him to attempt to have us recognize his pain and suffering.

I was so very troubled by this incident that it provoked in me a sudden lesson: to understand death philosophical or intellectually is not the same as understanding it at the level of the act or the instant. When a person is within a crowd of other people who are each independently attempting to help or intervene into the actions of a person undergoing trauma then the patience that is so crucial to the analytical situation is of no use. One can not wait to intervene, one must act. And that is all that he can do is act. Moreover, the person who intervenes must be sure to also intervene into the cliches of the crowd – he must subvert them. I wish I was more proactive and less reflective.

As I walked off of the bridge I overheard a different man singing a song about death. I noted that this man was not on the bridge and could not have known what was happening (nobody on the bridge seemed to know what was happening, so how could he?). This was a separate incident which had value for me only because it came after the lesson I learned on the bridge. He sang softly, and then his voice became louder and louder. As he sang the lyrics made more and more of an impact on me – why was this man singing wildly about death? It did not seem to be a joke because he kept at it, even while others disappeared. To me he resembled Zarathustra: he was shouting at us, like a prophet, to recognize that death will come whether we like it or not. He began screaming the lyrics, his voice cracked several times. I learned that the song he was singing was called O Fortuna.


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