By Loi Eberle, MA, CPC & CPFC [Certified POP Family Coach]
We might try to minimize the enormity of the concept of the Circle of Life, relegating it to cartoon status as in the Disney movie where it appears as a song. Yet as is often the case, art is a reflection of life. By nature of being alive, being on the circle is our condition. In the Eastern traditions it is referred to as the wheel of birth, life, and its passage, also known as death…
The Franklin Institute [Resources for Science Learning website, www.fi.edu/learn], says of the Circle of Life: “All life begins. Living things all have a moment at which they become “alive.” That beginning of life marks the first point on the circle of life. Each family of living things has its own life cycle. Some organisms, like some fast plants, are born, mature, and die rapidly. Other organisms, like bristlecone pine trees, have life cycles lasting for thousands of years.”
Yes, the Circle of Life is a wonderful, amazing experience, yet its culmination is a state and a place shrouded in mystery and speculation. We hear various accounts of what happens after aging and death, and yet no one has yet shown us that the process can be avoided. So what’s the silver lining in this picture? Some see the circle as a progression towards Heaven, others see its destination as a path towards hell. Some claim we can create Heaven or Hell here and now, based on our actions. Some poets, artists and musicians ecstatically describe in their words, paintings and music the beauty and amazement of our lives, and suggest that beauty and ecstasy will be present in another form when our bodies are gone.
The circle of life is present in the cycles of life, death and regeneration seen in nature. Just as the seed becomes the tree that eventually becomes the dead rotting log that then nurtures the soil to sprout new seeds, all the cycles of life suggest that the Creative Force shares continuity throughout all of its phases.
Physicist, Albert Einstein, wrote: “A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” [http://www.investigatinghealthyminds.org, website of Center for Investigating Healthy Minds]
Author Hermann Hesse wrote: “The call of death is a call of love. Death can be sweet if we answer it in the affirmative, if we accept it as one of the great eternal forms of life and transformation.”
Many religions and scriptures speak of death as a joyful passage if accompanied by specific criteria. There are many accounts of dreams, visions and stories associated with ‘passing over.’ Others insist that we are left with no solid answers; at most, we are left to honor the great unknown. Scientist Matthieu Ricard states in his book The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet, “There is a wonderful summation by Thusn: “Made of stardust, we share the same cosmic history as the lions on the savannas and the lavenders in the fields. We are all connected through time and space, and thus interdependent.”
Regardless of what occurs as we transition out of our physical bodies, here we are now, among the living. That is indeed a reason for celebration, perhaps a party! Although, when the party is over, we are reminded that each day some people have transitioned out of their human bodies. Others are suffering, slowly aging and diminishing. In a culture that is visually oriented and worshipful of the vitality of youth, it’s not a pretty picture, unless we can take action to modify that process, or at least alter our opinion about what is beautiful, and do what we can to create moments of heartfelt connection and beauty.
How can we transform our ideas about the passage out of our physical body to include love and celebration, rather than grief and depression? Or can we? Perhaps we may find that there will still be grief and depression, even when we find the love, joy, and laughter.
American Trappist monk and writer, Thomas Merton wrote: “Paradoxically, I have found peace because I have always been dissatisfied. My moments of depression and despair turn out to be renewals, new beginnings. If I were once to settle down and be satisfied with the surface of life, with its divisions and its clichés, it would be time to call in the undertaker… So, then, this dissatisfaction which sometimes used to worry me and has certainly, I know, been what worried others, has helped me in fact to move freely and even gaily with the stream of life.”
Unfortunately, some are not navigating the stream of life with similar gaiety. According to national reports, “the frail elderly,” those over 85, comprise our fastest growing demographic. At least one in four American families is living in crisis today, thrust into a role reversal. The older generation is either willingly, or being forced by circumstances, to begin to cede decision-making and control to the younger generation. These “adult children,” simultaneously find themselves taking on more and more responsibility for many aspects of their aging parents’ and/or other beloved relatives’ lives. It has been reported that caregivers are at an even higher risk than others for psychological and physical illness, due to the close shared relationship, emotions, experiences, and memories between the caregiver and care recipient.
Jane Wolf Waterman, M.S.W., J.D., has named this role reversal “the 21st century developmental stage of life” in her book entitled Oh My God, We’re Parenting Our Parents! How to Transform this Remarkable Challenge into A Journey of Love [www.ParentingOurParents.org]. She describes this developmental phase of life as the POPcycletm, explaining that this 21st century developmental stage is different from past generations because of the additional stressors now present when combining one’s livelihood with the familial responsibilities of modern life. Her goal is to help POParents travel their POP journey with more “competency and meaning, maybe even more fun and healing.” Describing how creating alternative thought paradigms has been shown to transform the lives of caregiver families, she provides new language that enables people to think differently, uplifting their point of view and inspiring a new way to experience events.
Many are on this journey. Jane has helped me with mine and has accurately described how re-framing one’s thinking can make a large difference. Jane has described how the statement “Getting the chance to really ‘meet’ my Parents all over again as I POParent them and so do my kids…” carries a very different feeling, tone and life experience than reporting being “Sandwiched between caregiving my parents and kids.” Altering the way we conceptualize our experiences can help us be more effective if we find ourselves in this new role. Honoring the choices, responsibilities and sacrifices involved at this stage of parenting can change everyone’s experience, including those being parented.
Poet Donna Markova writes:
I will not live an unlived life:
I will not live in fear of falling
or catching fire
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
to loosen my heart until it becomes
a wing, or a torch, a promise
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which come to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.
You might ask if re-thinking a challenging situation in order to find meaning and purpose, thus altering one’s experience, is really possible. Or, is it just psycho-babble being used to mask a difficult situation? Most recognize the power in language, from the first insult still remembered, to the warm fuzzy feeling from glowing praise. In the experience of some people, re-framing our situation with our thoughts and words is a way for adult children to work through familial conflict and past resentments so they can get in touch with a heart connection. This can help improve communication, generate forgiveness, compassion and self-care, helping all in the family to begin to turn their burdensome experience into a journey of love.
It can also be a way to support each other to re-frame the aging process. Artist Robert Genn in his news letter [firstname.lastname@example.org] quotes Oscar Wilde: “The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything.” In coping with aging, artists do well to think about Oscar’s idea. When growing old, we need to know that we still know everything. We need to rekindle our suspicions of the shibboleths we have glossed over and taken for granted. And we need to stop believing in all forms of nonsense, particularly the idea that we are “losing it.” Aging is an adventure that requires the application of new and previously untested skills. “Come grow old with me,” said William Wordsworth. “The best is yet to be.”
In terms of art imitating life, Lieutenant Tasha Yar from “Star Trek: the Next Generation,” states: “Death is that state in which one exists only in the memory of others. Which is why it is not an end. No goodbyes. Just good memories.” When moving from the fantasy world of Star Trek to our shared reality, Tasha Yar’s statement is an explanation of the reason for viewing the process of helping loved ones as a ‘journey of love,’ rather than as a burdensome responsibility. When viewing it as a journey of love, we are creating loving memories of the bittersweet times we shared with our loved ones. This generates the good feelings of having done everything possible to create happy memories, alleviating the guilt and regret that can occur when issues have been neglected and left unresolved.
Does the circle of life contain a silver lining, some consolation for the fact that none of us will get out alive? Perhaps the fact that we get the opportunity to perceive and experience the circle of life at all, is much more than a silver lining; it is a reminder of how profound a gift it is to be given a place anywhere on the circle.