By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 5/25/2018
Posted: 9/1/2015
Topics/Keywords: #Metaphysics #Reincarnation Page Views: 2225
How an understanding of reincarnation can dispell fear of death.

One night a number of years ago, I was driving along a New Hampshire highway and found myself behind another vehicle. I was just beginning to pass it, when from my vantage point slightly to the other driver's left I saw—something—in the road ahead of him, dimly lit by his headlights. It was a pair of raccoons crossing the road from right to left. One was safe, almost all the way to the shelter of the forest on the left. But the other was confused by the headlights of the oncoming car. The driver swerved, but so did the trailing raccoon, who was struck by the driver's left front tire, and then his back tire, bouncing lifelessly into the air and dropping into the space between his car and mine.

I jammed on my brakes and swerved to miss the poor creature's body. But something unexpected happened. The lead raccoon, who was out of harm's way, turned around. I could see the creature hesitate. He was safe, but his mate was in danger. He must have known she was already dead, but in an incredibly human act of despair and desperation, he turned back to get her out of the way of the next oncoming car, mine. I couldn't dodge in time; I hit him, killing him as instantly as the car ahead of me had killed her.

There was no point in stopping. I could see by the glow of my taillights that both animals were dead, having died together during a routine foraging expedition in the New Hampshire night.

I had once been a passenger in a truck that struck and killed a dog. I cried the rest of the way home. But this was years later, and I no longer was slave to my childhood belief in a joyful heaven that somehow compels most Christians to wear black and cry at funerals. Now a reincarnationist, I felt I had been attracted to the situation, that the greater Universe brought together a pair of raccoons whose soul contracts were at an end, and a pair of drivers willing, on a soul-contract level, to assist, however unintentionally at the Earth-conscious level.

Thus, this time I didn't cry. I no longer perceived what had happened as a tragedy. In fact, I felt privileged to have been allowed to participate in such a sacred event, the passing of two creatures from the life to the afterlife. I have since come to understand that humans' fear of death is based on a series of lies.

Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that animals don't avoid death if they can. But we've been told, so often that people accept it as true without questioning it, that Man is the "only animal" that understands death, or least grasps the concept of his own mortality. This is based on the observation that animals don't bury their dead, build churches, or engage animal psychologists to help them deal with the resultant depression. But that observation, itself, is built on the assumption that such reactions are the only possible ones when one encounters proof of one's own mortality. And I don't believe this is so.

The raccoon that turned to aid his mate certainly understood the stakes. Animals, especially in the wild, understand death all too well. Every predator lives off death. And any potential prey is constantly threatened by it. While I'll grant, tentatively, the possibility that lower-level animals such as snakes and ants might be reacting out of pure instinct, at the same time I saw that raccoon make a fatal hesitation. Instincts don't hesitate. That requires an awareness of the complexities of a situation, and the desire to take the most beneficial action possible.

Thing is, the most beneficial action for the raccoon—within the human context of death-is-always-bad—would have been to keep going. He'd have been safe that way. Obviously, for him, trying to rescue his mate took precedence over his own safety. To me, that is convincing proof that raccoons understand the existence and significance of death as well as love—without, as a result, inventing burial, funeral homes, or archbishops. And, by extension, it seems very likely that other mammals at the same or higher level of intelligence as raccoons, understand it as well.

It's well-documented that chimps and gorillas in the wild mourn the death of mates as well as friends when other chimps or gorillas die. Yet they don't bury their dead, either, or try to convert other chimpanzee colonies to their style of mourning. So let's let go of this lie that only humans understand death, once and for all.

In fact, once we do, we can make a point that it is humans alone who misunderstand death.

In all mammals, various endocrine glands produce certain hormones when the animal experiences stress. While these hormones are not identical between species, they are analogous. Experiments have shown that any animal, in a laboratory, can be sufficiently mistreated over time so as to produce chronic stress. That is, the animal is made to live in constant fear of pain or mistreatment; and this fear causes a constant trickle of stress hormones to be generated.

The same thing happens to dogs with abusive owners.

Yet, even though animals in the wild are certainly aware that death occurs, and (as my experience with the raccoons demonstrated) know that death can strike a loved one or themselves at any time, they do not exhibit the levels of constant stress that humans do.

Humans have certainly developed unique perceptions of death, as well as reactions to it. Think of how much time our species spends contemplating it, or avoiding it, which is really the same thing. St. Peter, the Pearly Gates, the streets of gold; Lucifer, "Give Up All Hope Ye Who Enter Here," fire and brimstone—our culture has these elements so deeply engrained that, while few actually know what brimstone is, everyone knows they can find it in Hell.

And we are so terrified of death that, while we joke about it ("Einstein, Picasso, and George W. Bush showed up at the Pearly Gates…"), we no longer allow people to die at home (we send them to retirement communities or hospice) and we have the meat for our dinners killed so far from us that when we get it, it's wrapped in plastic and refrigerated, looking less like a dead animal and more like the mass-produced product it's become.

It wasn't always this way. In the distant past, the evidence is that death wasn't so feared. Men engaged in battle for the sport of it. The risk of death simply represented the high stakes of the game. Think I'm mistaken? As recently as the last century, a few humans persisted in this attitude, based on their participation in such games as Russian Roulette. Read the writings of Julius Caesar to gain an understanding of the game of war. In Caesar's day, the generals fought alongside their men, so Caesar's talk of bravery isn't like the prattling of our own president or vice president, who send men to their deaths without ever personally having seen a battle.

And I know from my own studies of Florida's extinct Timucuan Indians, that at least some Native Americans, before the European conquest, felt the same way. Men and, occasionally, women, participated in inter-tribal warfare the way we now play football or rugby.

Important note: These battles of old did not involve innocent bystanders, other than it sometimes being a way to obtain brides or slaves in some cultures. Reporters were present at the Battle of Gettysburg; locals took their families to the site so they could picnic while watching the war!

But over the last few centuries, our leaders—the kings, the popes, even celebrities—have perverted the rules of the game to include the deaths of non-participants, and the drafting of unwilling or non-understanding participants. They've also effectively raised the stakes by influencing our culture to believe that there is just one life per person (in spite of actual evidence to the contrary). And they've created a mythic "afterlife" with a "heaven and hell", designed in such a way that most people aren't really certain they will make it into heaven. (This is done by creating a "moral code" no one can follow.) End result: An artificially-induced fear of death, which makes the rest of the Earthly experience stressful and basically no fun.

But it's all a lie.

Atheists often describe an almost religious experience, in which they have a flash of understanding that there is no God, Heaven, or Hell. The reason this brings them such relief is because it frees them of a good portion of the burden of this lie. Like the other animals in the forest, they acknowledge death but it no longer seems to be an enemy that must be defeated.

But there's another lie: That the choice is between belief in the stock God, and atheism.

The next flash of insight, at least for some of us, is that you don't need to have an authoritarian God or a carrot-and-stick afterlife, in order to nevertheless be, essentially, an eternal spirit in a Universe full of other eternal spirits.

Personally, I do believe in a God; but I believe that God is, simply, the underlying reality out of which the Universe, including ourselves, arises. Such a God is not a parent; doesn't issue commandments; doesn't punish (or reward). Instead, each of us is free to do all that to ourselves…or not.

The test of this came when my mother died last year. I didn't see it as a tragedy. I neither cried nor suppressed tears. I was able to rejoice in my mother's life, and to perceive her spirit and memory in all the places she visited and loved. Like an animal, I am aware of death but no longer chronically stressed by it. (Even if I am fooling myself, my health can't help but be improved by this belief! —Certainly, the quality of my life is.)

What's more, my perception of spirits around me—very real to me, since I don't make the effort to ignore and deny the perceptions, as most people seem to—allows me access to the part of my mother that I loved in life, as well as the spirits of my grandparents, my father, my baby sister, and the others whom I once loved in the flesh and continue to love in their essence. I could define this essence in many ways—as my memories of them, or the ways in which they changed the world by being in it, or even the recognition of that certain feeling that allowed me to recognize them and to still sense their presence on occasion. But however you define it, it's undeniable existence shouts that we are all more than our bodies, and therefore outlive them. And this is not a faith born of terror, an attempt to deny the unbearable. It's an awareness that is, I believe, a side-effect of acknowledging death as an aspect of Earthly life as ubiquitous as but no less tolerable than rainy weather, static electrical shocks, or reality TV shows.

It's a fact of physics that when any two entities come into contact, both are changed by the experience. My participation in the death of that raccoon all those years ago, is an example. Obviously, I (or the car under my control) was the instrument of his death, one he chose by returning to the side of his partner when she died. In return, he gifted me with an understanding that, far from my being superior to the members of the animal world, I had much to learn from them.

And thus, whenever I ponder issues of life and death, and the spirits that permeate both, I am reminded of that raccoon's spirit, which continues to guide me with a gentle humor and a love and self-sacrifice that would be the envy of any human, chronically-stressed, saint.