Jan/Feb 2004 Salon

Scared (In Memoriam: Bill Woodward)

by Paul Sampson

A bunch of us were sitting around talking, in the sense that we were exchanging messages in an online "café" patronized by people interested in writing. So one guy asks, "Anyway, what do you fear?"

This touched a nerve, apparently, because for the next couple of days other topics were largely ignored and the lid came off the various phobias of the patrons.

I didn't answer at the time, saying I wanted to give some thought first. Well, the thoughts have been scattered as usual, but I can't stall any longer. My answers—the things I fear—appear below. Some digressions first:

The other peoples' answers held no really startling surprises, except one woman who included "being a bad writer" on her list of dreads. Otherwise, the usual, with heavy emphasis on the death of loved ones. That was the most consistently named fear, far ahead of fear of one's own death.

There was also a long exchange on the theology of fear, between a couple of professed Buddhists and a Presbyterian minister. This was a sweetly civilized and learned exchange, very unlike the religious ranting that disfigures so much of our public discourse (see Tom Dooley's editorial elsewhere in this issue). This was especially good to see, given the fact that these two sects had plenty of ammunition if they chose to detonate it. Both the Presbyterians and the Buddhists have lurid hells and ingeniously cruel devils to torment the people who come up short in meeting the requirements of the Faith. To their credit, our discussants were happy to let the other side evade the flames.

As an aside, a lot of people seem to have the idea that Buddhism is some sort of otherworldly therapy movement. It ain't, except maybe in California. To begin with, reincarnation is no walk on the beach. Let's talk about the Myth of Sysiphus!

Remember him? He was the Greek mythic hero whose punishment (heroes are generally punished) was to roll a heavy rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down (over his battered self, of course) just as he nearly succeeded in pushing it over the crest. Says Homer in a famous line that is supposed to sound like the thing itself:


Autis epeite pedonde kulindeto laas anaides.

In my translation, Down the baleful boulder bounded to the bottom. That's not quite literal, but it's pretty accurate. If you want to try pronouncing the Greek, the line is in perfect dactylic hexameter, five dactyls plus a spondee. Pronounce all the vowels; "au" and "ei" are diphthongs. "Laas" has two syllables. See the things you learn just along the way? Stick around.

Anyway, Sysiphus had it easy. (Albert Camus even said, "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.") At least he was done with illusions, cured of his addiction to the poisoned drug of hope.

Not so we wanderers in the wicked world. Not in Buddhist tradition, anyway. We have to muscle that stone upslope not just in this life but in each of many more, until we achieve the Buddhist version of sainthood and arrive at Nirvana, the pure land beyond desire. This takes a lot of false starts, by all accounts, a doctrine bound to disappoint the Yuppies who sign up for weekend retreats, preferably in the vicinity of Santa Fe or the Monterey Peninsula, in which they are told to shed all attachment to earthly goods while adding a large sum to their credit card balance.

Not only does the process require many attempts, each a whole life long, but the incarnated intervals are interspersed with time-outs in Bardo, a sort of Purgatory in which we may prepare for the next try. This is where the devils get a shot at us; drawing on my own experience, I see them as the training cadre in Army Basic Training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. All the devils wear Sergeant's stripes. But each person's Hell is personalized, if I have read the doctrine right. Your mistakes may be reviewed by your high-school guidance counselor, for all I know.

As a bonus, I will insert a poem I wrote about this spiritual scheme some years ago. No extra charge:

A Middle Manager, Newly Dead, Learns That Tibetan Buddhism Is True

Bardo, they call this. Jail is more like it.
"Don't worry," they tell me. "You'll be out in no time."
No time! Little joke there, eternity humor.
Very funny. "No time." Cute. I get it.

So this is the deal: you keep doing it over,
no telling how often. "Get it right, get it perfect,
you can stop, no more troubles." It doesn't sound likely.

And doesn't seem fair. Each "Life," as they call it,
you start over, pig-ignorant, misleading road map,
expected to learn what you missed on the last trip,
in spite of distractions, incessant annoyance,
orders from everyone, dozens of voices,
all claiming authority, threatening punishments,
always enough to keep you off balance.

Then, on short notice, it's pack up, it's over.
The return trip is usually painful and scary,
and back in your cubicle at Bardo's Head Office,
your desk has been filling with karmic account books
that need straightening out. "So how was it? They ask you.
"I scarcely remember. Too short, that's for damn sure,"
and you get down to business, reporting to demons
(this much seems familiar) until the next journey.

The end of it all? The retirement program?
"Nirvana," they tell you. "No details to speak of.
"The End of Desire." It had better be worth it.

But all this is by way of preface to the answer I promised to the group that responded to the original question: "What do you fear?" I found myself dithering about my answer, because (as usual) I didn't have a simple answer. I wanted the question sharpened, for one thing. A better way to ask it would be in two parts: "What, besides death, do you fear?" And "What do you fear about death?" On the first question, a fair number of the people on the list voiced political fears. They are a generally (but not monolithically) liberal bunch, and several of them said specifically they are afraid of the current Administration and its apparent obsession with "security." I join them. I have already published my opinion that Attorney General Ashcroft is an honest-to-god fascist, and he scares the pants off me. So do the Department of Homeland Security and its dimwitted head, Tom Ridge.

More generally, I am afraid of the Bush Administration's policies, which are quite nakedly imperialistic—and in a new and really perverted way. Classic empires impoverish their outlying vassal states to enrich the mother country. Our empire is busily impoverishing the workers of the mother country by distributing our sole source of wealth—our jobs—to the colonies. The only beneficiaries are the patrons of the Administration, the new class of supranational corporations, who (unless we are extremely lucky) will soon rule us in law as well as fact. These entities clearly mean to supplant nations. Corporations do not live by Constitutions that convey and guarantee rights. Nations do, and for all its faults and dangers, nationalism still has some use.

Thomas Jefferson, no coward, confessed one fear: "I tremble for my Nation when I reflect that God is just." I choose to take God's justice to mean, in our time, that our labor ought to buy us equity in the wealth we create just as surely as furnishing capital does. Fat chance of this if the current ruling class gets its way. Yes, they scare me.

In fact, they terrify me sometimes, because they have a poisonous ideology, an absolute belief in their own entitlement to power, and the real power to carry out their will. Their power is not absolute—yet. And I maintain the hope that our political institutions are robust enough to spit them out. But if these people don't scare you, then you scare me. Wake up.

Another fear my friends reported was common enough: disability. We all realize that long life has its price, which is a long and infirm old age. I share that one, too, though I hope that our rulers don't strip us of access to medical care in my own old age. If we defeat their plan to sink Social Security and Medicare, then I guess I'll manage old age about as well as others do. That's good enough.

Which brings us to the Big Boogyman: Death. What do I fear about it?

My perspective here is skewed a little. I have had cancer twice in four years, and as I write I have an appointment with a doctor who wants to discuss an "anomaly" on my recent CT scan. I think of it this way: I have been found guilty of cancer, and now we enter the punishment phase of the trial. I hope for a suspended sentence.

Besides the online literary forum I mentioned, I belong to another email discussion group. This one is populated by people who have undergone surgery for throat cancer. All of us have had laryngectomies, an operation that leaves you with a permanent hole in your throat about as big around as a finger. We breathe through this hole. We talk funny. Some of us hold little buzzers under our chins to make an artificial voice. Some have a little valve inside that allows us to speak almost "normally," though "almost" can be a matter of opinion. We all have maintenance problems, and we all have a... what shall I call it? An altered life expectancy.

The members of this group often address fears, and some of them slice pretty close to the bone. Here is a message posted last year by one of the members:

The word is in. My cancer is back and it has spread into the lymphatic system. There is very little to be done except go home and make the best of things. It is unknown where the cancer will show up next so they can't tell me how long I have or what I will face.

I don't know if I should be sending this message to the list, but so many people have been so supportive, I thought they deserved to know.

You can imagine how I feel ?? shock, disappointment, fear, relief, anger, sadness, guilt. My wife and I feel in shock but agree that getting home ASAP is the goal and that we will make the best of what remains.

I want to thank you all for your support and caring over the past 1 1/2 years that I have been fighting this battle. I have seen many messages on this board about people who have gone before me. I wish I could have been part of the group of people who have gotten through this and provide so much support for each other. You have meant a lot to me.

Bill Woodward

A few months later Bill was dead.

Now, to get back to where I started, examining my own fears of and about death. Here is a little quiz: In Bill Woodward's letter, what surprised you? Read it again and see if the same word strikes you that made me catch my breath in a gasp of recognition. You can imagine how I feel ?? shock, disappointment, fear, relief, anger, sadness, guilt. Which word doesn't fit?

That's right, relief. And yet it was and is the one word in this little letter that astonished me with its absolute truth. All his other reactions to impending death are sad but unsurprising. But relief... Oh, Bill, yes. That too.

All animals seem to "fear" death, at least in the sense of having a healthy regard for self-preservation. This is not to say that they live in dread of dying, but they certainly try to avoid it. There seem to be exceptions, though. Some creatures really do seem capable of altruistic sacrifice to preserve the life of their young. Certainly humans can, and some do die this way. Did they fear death? I have no doubt they did, but the fear was not their master. I hope it will never be mine.

I have written very bravely elsewhere about the fear of death. Here is a little of it:

The bear we're hunting is already within reach. He is waiting, neither fleeing nor hiding. We will find him when we are ready. First, we have to look in all the wrong places. If we learn to look attentively, we will learn, finally, to look inside.

And there's the bear, where he was all along. He was the shape at the edge of our dreams, the one we could feel at our back as we ran without gaining ground. He's our fear, the whiff of our death.

He's always been there, and he'll be there forever. We can't make him be gone or make him a pet. But we can make a life that includes him, respects him, accepts him. And such a life includes, respects, embraces genuine risks.*

So, do I fear death? Sure, in the animal sense; we all do, and our bodies will hang onto our souls literally to the last gasp. But will I go to any length to hang onto life? No. Will I prolong my days by living "prudently?" Dear gods, I hope not.

I have consciously lived a life that made a point of embracing certain risks. I don't think I did so to dare death but to grasp the beauty that those risks enabled. The sins I will regret on my deathbed are all sins of omission.

And if the Buddhists turn out to be right, and I must do it all over, then I hope to omit fewer sins the next time the karmic wheel brings me here again.


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