Meditations of an Army Ranger: We should not look at death as a reward – But our thought of death should remind us of our lives.
“Only the dead have seen the end of war”
Attributed to both Plato and Santayana – made famous in Blackhawk Down.
The quote, a favorite among Soldiers and stoics alike, illustrates the hopelessness of the human condition in conflict. But to Warriors, many times, it also highlights the peace that death produces, bringing a romantic quality to a terrifying reality. The paradigm itself brings peace to those in violent professions, and even to those whose fear of death is greater than that of the average human. We proliferate this quote beyond war. We use the idea to ease the minds of the living as those we care about pass.
Death not only brings the end of war, it brings the end of pain, of suffering, of sorrow. It helps those that remain with the living deal with the pain of losing those we deem important. The idea that death brings goodness to those that have passed, that they are in a “better place”, helps us cope with loss and the reminder of our own mortality. To many, Warrior and civilian alike, death is a glorified means to an end; a penultimate prize awarded for a life led. Death ends the daily and trivial monotony of our lives, relinquishing us from the tedious tasks that create angst, anger, and general annoyance. For many, death is seen as a reward, the gift for living, to depart Earth for something greater, better, more… peaceful.
Death also brings the end of joy, the end of happiness, the end of love, the end of passion. Death brings the end of learning, evolving, excitement and anticipation. Death brings the end of personal connections not maintained by memories and it separates loved ones. It is this idea of death, that conjures the fear in our hearts, that brings our sadness and our sympathy. It is the thought of death as the destroyer of good things that makes us want to view the beautiful peace of death.
Discussing what happens to everything beyond our biological form after death is an exercise that creates hours of discussion, and very little agreement, except between the kindred souls that share a belief system. What can be discussed is what continues to happen on Earth, what we miss, and what others miss from us when we die.
We must remember that our mortality is not to be feared, nor heralded. Our mortality just is. Regardless of what happens to our souls, our spirits, our energies, our beings, our human forms cease to operate. It does not matter if we are in Heaven, Valhalla, Mt. Olympus, or any other parallel, celestial (or subterrestrial) space, we cease to exist as we know here on Earth, and that is the reality of life. We can do our best to extend our time, we can do our best to extend our memory, and we can do our best to extend our impact, but our truth is, our operating system is finite, even if other parts of us are not. This shouldn’t depress us. This isn’t a negative perspective. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Seeing death this way is neither pessimistic nor pragmatic, it can be a fuel to see our present optimistically and appreciate what we have in the here and now.
We live! A statement that everyone should yell from the top of their roofs the first thing upon awaking, for at any time, at any second, that fact may no longer be true. We live! And because we live, we feel joy, we experience happiness, we relish love, we devour passion. We live. Yes, this same fact ensures our exposure to pain, hurt, suffering and sorrow, but without these negative emotions, how would we truly know how to enjoy the positive ones. We live! So, we should live.
This doesn’t mean every day should be filled with rainbows and unicorns, but it should be appreciated. It doesn’t mean every day will hold those things we want, and all our wishes will come true, but we should strive to make it meaningful, either for ourselves or someone else. It doesn’t mean we won’t have days where we want our life, as we know it to end, either in circumstance, or in the endeavor of our biology, but we must fight on, knowing that the gains of death also come with a heavy price. One could list the loss, to others, to ourselves that death brings, but that has been written countless times, and frequently falls flat when faced with our mortality. It is far easier to remember that because we live, we must live.
We must be present, embracing the joys and enduring the hardships that this world brings – not for our spirituality, not for the consequences and outcomes, but for our peace of mind in the present. We must separate the individual moments and the emotions that accompany them, and see them for what they are, snapshots in time that comprise our timeline of experience. We cannot think of death as an escape but as truly an end – an end of our biology – an end to “life” as we know and understand it right now.
So for those experiencing the loss of a loved one, or even acquaintance; for those that are in such deep despair that the end of their own life seems a gift to others and themselves; for those that are about to face death head on and want to quell the fear in their hearts, do not see the death of tomorrow, but focus on the life of today – for we live – live well!
“Ce sunt eu, vei fi şi tu. Ce eşti tu, am fost şi eu.”
(What I am, you will be, too. What you are, I’ve been myself.)
Written on a skull in the cemetery of a Prodromos Monastery on Mt. Athos
Read more meditations by LTC (Ret) JC Glick and author, Dr. Alice Atalanta by buying the book on Paperback. You can purchase it here: ‘Meditations of an Army Ranger: A Warrior Philosophy for Everyone.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on July 10, 2019.