Perhaps the most ancient and powerful of metaphors about life is birth.
Birth is not a specialty of mine; I am male. But it remains to me, and most men I am sure, the most powerful of life experiences and a perfect metaphor for life.
We all know that the precursors to birth are both physical and emotional: physically with the sex act and ideally with love. To generalize, the entire birth sequence starts with a flush of feelings of attraction, followed by, perhaps, some awkwardness or slight physical pain trumped by a form of wild joy, which then develops, without our conscious involvement, into a fertilized egg. From there the woman suffers various pains and accommodations to the growing fetus. The pain just before birth becomes more frequent and intense. She wants it to stop, but it won’t as long as the fetus is in the birth canal. Then, after all that indescribable effort, anticipation and pain, she sees the child, flushes with joy on seeing this hidden life now before her. Her attendees announce the joy and everyone around offers their support.
Notice the sequence: love/attraction between two people -> sex -> slow development of the new life in the woman with pain and accommodations-> mother’s pain build-up (labor) -> extreme pain in the birth canal -> shared joy with the mother at seeing this child for the first time.
At the end of a life, people will get philosophical and might compare their lives to a sequence like birth. They see their later years on earth as getting ready to be reborn into “the next life.” We don’t really have any evidence for a next life beyond this physical one. We have to take that on faith. But what we do have evidence for is the next life that occurs in the lives of the survivors.
Let me explain: survivors are reborn in a process similar to what gave them life.
I didn’t realize this in my first five decades of life. The deaths I was exposed to were mostly that of acquaintances, distant relatives and strangers. Every time, death was unsettling. But my status as survivor did not move me to a new place until I lost my father. (My mother is still living. I have no idea how I will be reborn if she dies.)
My wife has recently gone through the death of both parents. She is a different person now, she tells me. The death of a parent is no small incident. In the midst of this labor-like crisis, we must pass through the narrow “birth and death” canal. We struggle, feel hurt, get pulled into an unknown future by unknown forces and into a way of being that feels foreign, hostile and limited.
Yes, death is like birth. It brings us to a time for rebirth even though we don’t feel ready for it. (I doubt a fetus feels ready to be birthed.) And again, like birth, the sequence started earlier with a relationship. It brought us some forewarnings of awkwardness and pain. We accommodated and hoped for the best. Then the pain developed into an intensity we felt we could not bear. (The pain may have been induced by watching a loved one die or happened sometime after they died… or both.) The pain would not go away when we asked it to. We felt pulled into a way of existence we did not know.
We survivors were being reborn. Now our life is totally new. The attendees are not announcing our rebirth but the passing of the loved one into a better place. Where is the spreading of joy that a life has survived into rebirth?
There are no announcements that a survivor has been reborn because we don’t have a cultural understanding that death brings new life to each survivor. We are usually stuck in forms of grief like denial, anger, loneliness or sorrow of being without the other. This time, the announcement that someone has been reborn is the responsibility of each survivor. And no survivor will announce it until he or she realizes that they are fully alive.
Did you survive? Have you realized your rebirth or are you still in the birth/death canal?
I implore this culture to recognize this new life like a mother seeing her child for the first time. Celebrate and announce it. This man, this writer, has been reborn.
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