Our Entrances and Exits

I think about life and death fairly frequently.

My two young grandsons are bubbling over with the joy of living, and their energy is highly contagious. I feel blessed with each new day I’m given.

One of the most important and rewarding parts of my life is my work as a hospice volunteer, which has helped me arrive at a point of being totally at peace with death.

I’ve often wondered why it is that so many of us have difficulty dealing with death, when there never seems to be reluctance on anyone’s part to share stories (almost always joyous) about the circumstances around a new soul’s entry into the physical world and the beginning of its journey.

Last night, while I was watching coverage of Steve Jobs’ death, I found myself thinking about these lines from Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”

Kind of intriguing that he mentioned the exits before the entrances, isn’t it?

Those two lines always have struck me as an appropriate and concise metaphor for life’s journey, but I couldn’t remember any of the rest of the passage, so I looked it up and found myself taking issue with some of his descriptions of the stages of life, especially the last one.

“Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

“Mere oblivion.” Wow!

I wonder to what extent those two words have affected people’s feelings about death over the centuries.

During my nearly 20 years of involvement with hospice, I’ve seen lots of different reactions to the reality of death, and one thing I’ve always found fascinating is the consistently similar way in which folks react when they learn that I do hospice work.

I would guess that as many as 80% of them get a rather shocked or surprised expression on their faces and then say something to the effect that they never would be able to do something like that.

And when I tell them that spending time with people who have reached the end of their journeys usually is a joyous experience for me, the conversations tend to switch fairly quickly to another topic.

My daughter-in-law is a midwife, and she and I have talked from time to time about births and deaths we have witnessed, and there always is a recognition and acknowledgement of the similarity between the experiences.

Part of that, I believe, is the mystery about where – or what – we transition from at the beginning of life, and then back to again at the end. But there also is the awe and wonder of being able to witness the actual beginning or ending of someone else’s adventure.

We all are on life journeys that began in a specific place at a specific moment in time, but none of us knows where or when – or how – our own journey will end. Is it fear of that ultimate unknown – that “mere oblivion” – that makes us shy away from contemplating death or witnessing the final curtain of some else’s adventure?

I’ve arrived at a point in life where that uncertainty is almost energizing, and it offers regular motivation for trying to live as fully as I can in this moment – and in as many other moments as I might have left.

As part of the news coverage of Steve Jobs’ passing, they showed some clips from a commencement address he gave at Stanford University in 2005, and I believe his perspective on death can be helpful to all of us.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

Here’s to following our hearts when we make the big choices.

© Jack Armstrong 2011

4 Responses to “Our Entrances and Exits”

  1. Dallas Franklin says:

    I’ve always been curious as to why people get so squeamish when you speak about death or dying. I’ve always found the topic to be so interesting and curious. Then again, I don’t know how a surgeon cuts into a body without being squeamish. *grins* Good thing we all come in our own box eh! ;) Then we learn how to break out of it while on life’s journey. Here’s to Shakespeare and Jobs and all the other visionaries and outside of the box thinkers that have come, and are still coming. Love and blessings, Jack. Thanks for your thoughts!~~Dallas

  2. Simone says:

    “Death is a change agent for life”. So why not move forward? I am a very old soul and have seen many lives. It seemed only logical that I be born this one last time into a nearly impossible situation (the cruel joke of the elders), but I accepted the terms and I am here in this incarnation becausue I forced the issue. Born to a family of parents who expected no more children late in life, and of course they both soon made their transition. So fitting to put me in the path of death early in my life. This was followed by all other close family members pretty much dying off before I was 18 years old. I spent a great deal of time with the sick, dying, and dead in the first 20 years of life.
    It seemed like was the push to form the person I was to be. At this point, it no longer matters as I am pretty sure why I incarnated at this particular time and place, and what I am to do.
    I know that death is when we finally wake up. This human form is like a deep Antistatic or comatose sleep.

  3. Heather says:

    Jack, Thank you so much for this piece. I gave birth to my second daughter with a midwife, and it was indeed the most spiritual experience of my life. I have not been present with those close to death much, but I do seem to always be involved in helping those who remain and in creating memorial services. I also make it a point to attend memorial services. I know that there is something deeply important and powerful about each person’s life. I believe that life should be lived with ultimate purpose in mind (I am a fan of Frankl)–that love and service and being in the moment are key to the here and now–and that, above all, we are and will always be okay no matter what, as we are and always will be in the embrace of the divine.

  4. Howard Scheiner says:

    Absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing. I am a physician and have always been fascinated by life and death. I recently wrote a book on my spiritual take of our journey. Your post really touched me. Thanks!

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    About Jack Armstrong

    Welcome to my blog. I’m glad you’re here, and I’m excited about being able to visit with you in this way.

    The musings about life and spirituality that I’ll be sharing with you will be from the perspective of a 73-year-old guy who spent most of his life trying to figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up ― and finally got it.

    You can find out about my books, including Lessons from the Source, on the Store page here on this website, but this blog is a place for sharing thoughts and ideas.

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    Jack Armstrong

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