This I Believe: Brian Cole (2008)

My wife, Malia, and I joined this congregation almost a year ago. It only took a couple weeks to realize that we had found our spiritual home and in the almost year since we have become official members, we have been moved, enlightened, and inspired in ways that I’m not sure we could fully capture in spoken language. We consider ourselves to be very fortunate to sit here on Sunday and listen to the words, and the music, and the silence, and to trust in the freedom offered by this place, with its inhabitants, to exist as is, not as should be.

In light of this, what I wish to share with you today is a belief that resonates more fully given this connection to this church. It is a belief that challenges us to our very core and forces us to accept and embrace the unknown. It is a belief that defines something I wish all human beings, especially in this country, would come to accept, not because of the inevitability that surrounds this belief, but because embracing the power of this belief, I am convinced, will lead one to a more fulfilled life. I wish to share with you today, that I believe in the positive power of death.

Eknath Easwaran was a philosopher, writer, teacher, and founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in Berkeley, CA. In his book, Dialogue with Death, he writes, “Death too is a process, continuing and ever present. As soon as we were born death was waiting for us in the delivery room, and throughout life he walks with us hand in hand.”

Taken out of context, this quote can present a somewhat fatalistic view of life. No sooner are you born, you start your journey towards death. However, I take great inspiration in Mr. Easwaran’s words. Through life experience and intellectual pursuit, I have come to see his words as a challenge to embrace death for what it is, not for what we fear it to be.

I was born into the Jewish faith, and though I grew up largely outside the religious traditions and practices of Judaism, I have a deep belief in God. My definition of God however, does not fall in line with a specific text, Talmudic or otherwise. I do not know what God is and I don’t pretend to. And for the purposes of my sharing with you today, it is not my desire to try to explain what God is, or how God should fit into one’s life. How could I? I’m now a Unitarian, for God’s sake! I will say simply, that, for me, God is a power much greater than we earthly human beings, and for whatever or whoever this is, I choose to call it God. As such, I don’t know what death is. By this I mean the great unknown of what awaits us after we die. I can speculate and form theories based on philosophy and the personal evidence collected by those that have navigated the pathway between life and death, those that have had near-death experiences. But I can’t be comfortable in declaring outright what death is or what happens to us after we leave this life. Again…Unitarian!

In much of the developed world, certainly in the United States, death is something to be feared and warded off at all cost. Though it is one of the very few sure things in life, many act as if it is something that can be conquered, or at the very least ignored. Much of what drives religious dogma is the intense fear of death or what may or may not be waiting for us after we die. Whatever death is, and whatever happens to us after we die, for me, is part of my definition of God.

We can personify the very ideals and values that move us to believe in God, and we can do so, if we choose, without the need for religious dogma. Now, I do not condemn religion. To the contrary, I think religion, when held in the warn embrace of an open mind and an open heart, is necessary. But finding God from within ourselves is more fundamental and healthy to our spiritual lives than blindly following what someone tells us we should believe. Again, and repeat after me…I’m a Unitarian. By coming to know God in this very personal way, it is my belief that we can then come to know death in a very personal way. We do not have to fear death, and when it is our time to die, and especially if we are fortunate enough to marshal our passing, we can better come to terms with our eventual death and leave this life as peacefully as is possible. Living our lives in fear of death means we are not fully living our lives. Eknath Easwaran says, “Rightly understood, the purpose of death is to teach us how to live – not marginally or in ‘quiet desperation,’ but to the fullest of our capacities.” A positive force indeed!

I work every day to live life because of life, not because of death, but I don’t always succeed. Like virtually every person on this planet, I have suffered loss in my life. Some of them have cut much deeper than others, but all of them have created a dichotomy of death – on the one hand, it is easy to fear something that causes so much pain, yet on the other hand, accepting death for what it is, for what it can symbolize, not for what we fear it to be, can bring about comfort and peace. I do not wish to imply that we should not grieve our losses. We must. We must grieve, and shed tears, and be angry, and question, and feel the deep pain of loss. But we also must, as a society, embrace the positive power of death. I want death to be a positive personal experience for the individual and their family. I want death, even a tragic and untimely death, to honor the completion of a cherished life. I want death to venerate a life well lived.

I believe in the positive power of death. I work every day to embrace this belief. It is a belief that lives comfortably within my mind. However, it is a belief that has yet to find a permanent place inside my heart. I believe in the positive power of death, however, personal experience has not only challenged this belief, but has kept me trapped inside a bubble of pain. Pain for a life lost too soon. Pain for the lingering regrets of a son’s ignorance and inaction. Pain that, 13 years later, still shakes me to my core.

On March 10, 1995, my mother died. She was 48 years old. My world was shaken in an incalculable way. My mother suffered from severe depression and at the time of her death was being treated for bi-polar disorder. She also suffered from a lower back ailment which required two major back surgeries, the second to fix the mistakes made during the first. The doctors gave her at best a 60% chance of returning to normal physical functioning. She was stuck in a medical catch-22; her mental illness prevented her from focusing on her physical rehabilitation and her physical inability prevented her from focusing on her mental rehabilitation. Thirteen years later I am still not over her death.

In looking back at my childhood, and on through to today, the elongated period of my mother’s illness held myself and my father and my brother, captive to an insidious and unforgiving disease. Barbaric strokes of black and white brutalized a family that, despite the pain and anguish, dwelled inside the beauty of gray. Ours was a family that shared a deep, deep love for one another.

My mother and I were eerily alike. I say eerily not because it was frightening, but uncanny. I like to say that we shared separate pieces of a soul. Because of this alikeness, we also shared much consternation with each other. Same side of the magnet theory. Our senses of humor were the same, but so too were our aggravations. Unconsciously, we knew how to agitate each other, how to push just the right buttons in just the right way. At least so it seemed. I am coming to the realization that maybe it was the anguish she felt at having herself slowly erased, and my inability to do anything about it, that caused the often coarse, yet sometimes brutally painful interactions. We were both mired in our lack of communication skills. I have gone on to overcome most of my inadequacies in this area, something my mother never achieved. I did this by learning from her mistakes, which has imbued in me a great sense of guilt and points to an area of my life in which I still feel trapped.

I feel trapped because I am intensely angry that my mother died. She was torn from my world and everywhere I walk I feel like the void that was left is just a few footsteps away. I am angry that she suffered so much in her too short life and never reached the potential she was capable of. She was an immensely intelligent woman and had a heart of gold, but her disease robbed her of the ability to take advantage of her talents. I am angry at the senselessness of her disease and sudden death and even in my belief, I question a God who is capable of such an unthinkable act. And I am angry with myself, because I live every day wishing I had done more to help her, done more to understand what she was going through, to learn more about the unforgiving, destructive, and insidious force that is mental illness. The cliche holds true that hindsight is 20/20. However, this does not erase the arguments, the intense frustration and anger at her “in-action,” the nights out with friends instead of home with her, the vacant look in her eyes because of the medication, the fear of wondering if she was ever going to recover, at least a little bit, the guilt of not doing enough to honor her memory, to let others know that, despite her mental illness, despite this beast that robbed her of her, she was a person of depth, and integrity, and humor, and beauty, and compassion, who carried an unyielding and unconditional love for her family.

There is a line in a Counting Crows song, “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” that goes, “…the price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings.” I have good memories of my mother. I have good memories of wonderful family times together. Sadly, they are overshadowed by the memories of a life interrupted. Memories of a young man learning to put his feet out into the world without a mother. A mother who he could not help enough in life. A mother who, to this day, standing before you at this very moment, he cannot honor enough in death.

So, I believe in the positive power of death. And I accept my mother’s death. However, I yearn for the day when I can truly be at peace with it; when I can let it into my heart. I yearn for the day when my intellectual understanding of death will take my heart into its hands and tell me that everything will be all right. That my mother’s life was not an incomplete.

Though her disease was unyielding, she did fight valiantly. She never lost her sense of humor and she never ceased to tell us that she loved us. She left much too soon. She was not able to marshal her own passing. She left a family with more questions than answers. Yet, despite all this…despite all this…she left this world leaving behind enough strength and wisdom and humor and love that, while not a complete life by societies cruel definition, my father and brother and I are more complete because of her. I want death, even a tragic and untimely death, to honor the completion of a cherished life.

I believe in the positive power of death. I believe in this power that is far greater than I am able to define. I believe in the positive power of death for my mother. For her, and what she has given to me. For her, and who I am because of her. For her…I believe, I believe, I believe.

Thank you.