⌆ Musing with Yiming: 002 — Death

What it teaches us

Dear friends,

I planned to write about something lighter. But sometimes an idea just pounds on your door till you let it in. So here we are.

My grandfather is dying: Pancreatic cancer, diagnosed last year, just went through chemotherapy. These days, he could only take in liquids. His four children, including a nurse and a doctor, still live close by. They take him on walks every morning. Although none of them is religious, they learned the most basic mantra chanting from a Buddhist friend and started eating vegetarian, believing doing so will make him feel better about the last days.

In many ways, my grandfather is getting the level of support most dying people don’t have today. But it doesn’t make the process easier. He cries often, filled with remorse for an unlived life and resentment against history. Many missed opportunities in life have knotted over his heart, netting a heavy load of regret, sadness, and agony. He doesn’t have enough time to untie his heart, he thinks, because of him dying.

We are all in the same process called dying, initiated since the moment we took our first breath. If lucky, we die on good terms: peaceful, insightful, forgiving, and content, ideally, surrounded by people we love. However, most of us, like my grandfather, don’t realize the dying process until the very last stage. By then, it feels too late to prepare a graceful meeting with death itself, also, too late for another song to dance with life.

In Chinese culture, there are rituals across seasons to connect with the dead. I remember a time when people still believed in ghosts, there was always a day in early autumn when they would burn paper ornaments for their ancestors at crossroads. I would walk home from school, encountering many circles of ash residue, reminding me that someone had lived, died, and being remembered.

I came to America nine years ago to study design, thus spent a lot of time in New York museums. The first time I visited the Met, I had a very visceral understanding of how the east and the west gesture towards living and death: when I walked into the gallery hall of Greek and Roman sculptures, I saw perfect prime bodies carved out of flawless marble: glowing, bold, juicy, and immortal; when I entered the gallery room of ancient Chinese paintings, I saw discolored scrolls displaying mountains and waters, occasionally spotting some dried-up old dudes standing in the corner of the painting, ready to fade out and ascend to the heaven. Ever since that moment, I started to think: should we blame the Romans for this maniac teenager lifestyle of today’s capitalistic society?

After school, I got into the tech industry: working with baby genius dropouts, dreaming of electric sheep, designing systems to capitalize on “user engagement”. Soon I found there is something wrong. I remember in 2017 I shared a uber to the airport with a perfect stranger and told him, “I think technology these days needs more spirituality.” That was the first time I felt I vocalized an inner truth I’ve been longing for. My stranger friend nodded. We both thought there was something there. But neither of us could tell what really is there.

Four years later, I think I know what is there: technology needs to respect death instead of rejecting it. All beings die. Bodies, businesses, relationships, even earth don’t last forever. If we only perceive time in a linear way, we’d miss out on beauty in the cycles of things. If we constantly live in the denial of death, we’d surely rebut the point of living.

Unfortunately, confronting death is an unpopular idea in today’s world, a world all about infinite growth. Our ambition is high: we’d create a brighter future, maybe in space, with UBI, endless entertainment, decentralized markets, extreme efficient AIs, a panacea for all diseases… Just watch this interview titled “Peter Thiel vs. William Hurlbut: Should Technology Treat Death as an Enemy?” from 2019, in which Thiel claims “…finding meaning in death doesn’t work anymore.”

Countless times in conversations with tech friends “stagnation” as a word comes up. Although we all live in this “Agile” environment where we run tight sprints and ship features every week. We’ve lost our feelings for tech. As kids grew up with the internet, tinkered around web pages as young teens, we didn’t sign up to manufacture products. The stagnation is so bad that even Peter Thiel is frustrated with it. Ironically, he doesn’t realize it’s capitalists like him, clinging to a dying system, refusing to see its ending, stopping things from transformation.

In Thoth tarot, “Death” is the 13th card, represented by Hebrew letter נ (nun), the Qabalistic path joining Tiphareth (Beauty) to Netzach (Victory). The letter means “Fish”, a living being known for its crazy breeding capability and rapid decay. It is a stinky card, yet it also quickly generates rising heat, which will be used in the following 14th card, “Art”, in which a cauldron is getting ready for creation.

Without the energy from Death, Art can’t work with mixing the polarities of yin and yang for boiling a balanced new soup of life. Remember The First Law of Thermodynamics? Energy cannot be created or destroyed - only transformed.

So really, we shall all adopt Heidegger’s view: “Being-toward-death”. First, we acknowledge our own dread of death, ponder upon how we wish to die, summon the courage to live an authentic life to honor the inevitable death. By doing so, we’d also gain the wisdom to apprehend time as a rhizome, in which death buds life. Hopefully, this practice will glorify all living things as precious gifts and honor all dying things as graceful existence.

Last but not least, here are some pretty things about death. In art, some painters would paint memento mori, which means “remember that you must die” in Latin. We see this in 17-18 century Vanitas paintings such as the following:

We also see it in modern art:

My favorite Frank Zappas album, made in his last years with cancer:

And this honest essay from art critic Peter Schjeldahl about “The Art of Dying”.

Till next time,