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Lifting the curse

30/07/2013

Nobody will wish for immortality if the cost is death. But this is what Love is — DEATH. – Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi

Rationalism is the implacable sword and impervious shield that has girded my loins for life’s campaigns. With it I’ve banished the bogeyman from under my bed, defeated mighty term exams, confounded evil oppressors and really irritated all my friends. Not family, not the church, not the media, not even the schools – nothing could tear my rationalism from me.

But I knew from watching George Reeves on tellie that there are things that can defeat the powers of even the most invincible superhero. Girls for instance. Even avoiding girls with “LL” initials like Lana Lang, Lori Lemaris, Lois Lane or Leonore Lemmon didn’t help. The combination of my adolescent hormones and the interesting new bumps and curves of my female friends were kryptonite to my rationality. This was not a job for Superman.

But it isn’t only women who confound my rationalism. If you don’t believe in curses you’re in a particularly bad position to respond when you get cursed. You can kind of hint to your more superstitious friends that you’ve been having a lot of bad luck lately and hope they’ll do something about it. Or you can clumsily spill some of your blood and saliva into the bowl you’re using to mix papier-mache, just happen to use it to make an image that might look a bit like you, mutter something that may sort of describe the curse into it, accidentally bind it tightly with a clump of your own hair that by chance you just removed from a hairbrush and only burn it because you were bored and had nothing else to do in a bush clearing under a full moon at midnight. Nothing irrational about that, is there?

But what if you get a death curse? Mention it to your superstitious friends and all of a sudden they’ve got something urgent to attend to a long way away. And death curses are way beyond the ritualistic pay grade of agnostics who don’t really believe in sympathetic magic anyway.

I didn’t even know where the death curse that hit me at the end of 2002 came from. Was it the friend who had died on Christmas eve, demented and paranoid, blaming me for his ills despite all the time and effort I spent trying to make the last year of his life as comfortable and independent as possible? Was it a particularly vicious manifestation of my longstanding university curse (I had just commenced a masters degree in microbiology, law and moral philosophy)? Was it just bad luck and confirmation bias?

What I do know is that between Christmas eve 2002 and May 2004 I lost an unprecedented number of friends and family members, almost all with little or no warning. I had been visiting the home of my good friend and Wiradjuri elder, Ray Jackson, on a stinking hot January day of 2003 when the icy, skeletal fingers first clutched my heart. Things had been looking pretty good until then. As I installed and modified the software Ray would use to produce a new, upgraded version of the Indigenous Social Justice Association newsletter we discussed the outstanding success of my application to Charles Sturt University to commence a self-customised degree course and the surprising improvement in the health of my Cabrogal grandfather. That night I would be going to see ‘X‘ – one of my favourite bands – who were playing live in a pub a short distance from my home. I would spend the following day recovering in the relaxing company of my brother and his family at Coogee.

As I headed back to Redfern railway station the reflected heat from the tower blocks around me had turned the streets into a deserted oven, so I was very surprised to see a huge, black Ghost Moth sitting placidly on a sandstone fence in broad daylight, many miles from its usual habitat. Good thing Ray didn’t see it. Moths like that are considered a bad omen by many Aborigines, especially so far from their homes. Lucky I’m not superstitious, touch wood.

I had been home for less than an hour when I got the frantic phone call from my brother. I arrived at Randwick Children’s Hospital just in time to hear my beloved four year old nephew pronounced dead, though he was probably already dead when they pulled him from the swimming pool. That was the start. Barely a month later my grandfather was run down by a car and killed. Activist colleagues broke into the home of a close friend after he had stopped answering calls and emails for a week to find him putrefying across his computer keyboard. My father got back in touch after years of estrangement to tell me he had lung cancer. He lasted until November. Two aunts died of heart attacks within weeks of each other and an uncle finally succumbed to prostate cancer. A very charismatic and well known activist friend developed a vicious renal carcinoma that metastasised through him like wildfire and killed him within a few months. A friend I’d had since I was four years old was struck down by a much rarer and even more vicious cancer less than a year after his wife bore their third child. A recently released ex-prisoner I’d been working closely with hung himself. There were others not so close, but close enough to hurt.

I was wrecked. Almost paralysed with grief and depression I was unable to work or study and withdrew from university and nearly all of my activist work. I could barely leave my bedroom, much less take on any IT contracts. I stopped cooking, socialising or paying attention to my health. Many of my friends were unable to cope with the changes and abandoned me. Nearly all of the rest I pushed away.

Why did I push away my few surviving friends?

Because by then I’d started believing I was cursed. Not at an intellectual level – the idea was plainly superstitious nonsense – but in my guts I knew it was true. I fled to Newcastle to get away from my friends and because I could no longer afford to live in Sydney. The curse followed, quietly at first.

In Newcastle I had stumbled across an old friend I hadn’t seen for decades, a famed Tongan woodcarver named Alekki. Although I tried to keep him at a distance he was having none of it and welcomed me into the local Tongan community as if I were a long lost brother. One friend from Sydney, Tony Haque, insisted on visiting me despite my efforts to keep him away. Another friend moved up to Newcastle as well to try to offer her support. I took on a pet rabbit when the person who owned it had to spend an extended period overseas and immediately bonded to her. That little bunny became the centre of my emotional life.

Then in 2008 the curse struck again.

Alekki came home one evening complaining to his daughter of severe stomach pains. He died on the operating table the next day. The friend who had followed me to Newcastle took seriously ill and spent the next three months in hospital hanging on by a thread. Fortunately she made a partial recovery and is still alive today. Tony had his first and final heart attack, aged 41. I learned from the parents of an old friend that she had died suddenly and unexpectedly in her home only a few kilometres from mine. I used to babysit her and she had been my sister’s best friend for most of her life. I’d heard she’d been having problems with heroin but resisted the impulse to get in touch to see if I could help, despite my own extensive experience with the drug. Because I was cursed. Her 15 month old daughter went into the care of her sister. A few days before 2009 began bunny had an anaphylactic reaction to veterinarian medicine and died in fits in my arms.

I should have killed myself of course. Long ago. But with the demise of my grandfather my bipolar grandmother went into a steep decline. Her children responded by getting her prescribed a pharmacopeia of poisons and pushing her out of the house my grandfather had built for them over 60 years earlier and into an old person’s home in a different state – far from friends and familiar places. Needless to say she got considerably worse. I just couldn’t bring myself to force my grandmother to spend the last brief period of her life contemplating the suicide of her first grandchild. But I wouldn’t wait long after she died. My surviving relatives could make it a double funeral.

But then, last October, something happened. I finally saw the curse for what it was. I stopped running from death, turned around and gave it a big hug. And broke the curse.

What had been the curse? Something I’d been denying since I was a teenager. My own fear of death.

Contemplating my own death had never worried me. How could it? I’d be dead and beyond worries. Besides, I was no middle class Westerner protected from death. I had seen my first dead body before I started school. Had seen a schoolmate’s head crushed under the wheel of a bus when I was eight. There had been many more bodies and several more close encounters with death, including one at 18 when I was trapped in a car wreck as the driver bled out all over me. How could I be scared of death?

But my fear found its way into my heart through the deaths of others, especially those who were close to me. I could stand the thought of dying, but couldn’t stand the thought I would be forgotten and no-one would care about me anymore.

My own narcissistic conceit. Got me again.

So when people I cared about died I couldn’t bear to let them go. What if I died and everyone did that to me? Every death just added to my grief. To recover from grief would have been to abandon the dead. To kill them in my heart – or so I thought.

Jeez, and I’d thought I understood anicca.

To break the curse I had to fully accept my own death and utter dissolution. You can’t be properly alive until you’ve embraced your death. Really you can only curse yourself, but it has to be done from somewhere outside you. When I had made my death fully a part of me it could no longer curse me. Sure, people I care about will still die and I will still grieve. Then recover. But I won’t be causing them to die. I never did. I was causing myself to die and projecting it onto the deaths of others.

I can’t begin to express what a relief it was to come to terms with my own mortality. Shame it took half a century.

By the way, my grandmother is still going strong. She has been withdrawn from the psychiatric medications that were messing her up and is now in better spirits than she has been since my grandfather died.

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14 Comments
  1. tyrion17voldemort permalink

    can you consider me as your friend or family please? i want to be dead so bad and i dont even fear it a bit but I think God fears me cause death wont come for me 😦

    Like

    • Fahaad, anyone as crazy as you is definitely family.
      Lunacy is thicker than blood.

      But if you want death a lot maybe you should think about whether you’re really unafraid of it.
      It will come.
      Patience.

      Like

      • tyrion17voldemort permalink

        I dont wanna think about it, I am bored from this place. no depression or sadist or suicidal thoughts thing, just plain bored.

        Like

        • All those fireworks going off in your head and you’re bored?

          Maybe you need to watch a complete test cricket match.

          Then you’ll know what ‘bored’ really means ;).

          Like

        • fahaadhumayun17 permalink

          haha i have seen cricket and all sports and all these fireworks are manually created :/ i think i have seen and experienced what world is about. another experience please

          Like

        • another experience please

          An hour in the mosh pit at a punk rock concert.
          Trying to bodysurf in a three metre swell.

          You might get your wish and end up dead, but you won’t be bored.

          Like

        • tyrion17voldemort permalink

          sound boring :/

          Like

  2. Great post, from the bit about “rationalism” (which I fully identify with, though I hadn’t summed it up in one word before), to the mysterious chain of deaths all about you, to your confrontation with death. This brings up issues of the limits of human understanding (we accept every other creature has an incomplete ability to asses the universe, and an incomplete or incorrectly-tweaked biology to do so, but somehow think grasping reality is within our reach), and also the nature of death, and death of the ego (I hear it’s possible). Personally, I don’t think I fear ceasing to exist, as who I think I am (Eastern philosophy posits awareness never ceases), as much as I really don’t look forward to the probably pain and suffering of the process. When it comes to the dissolution of this particular ego, there’s not need to fear. There are many, many more very similar to me, and billions who are basically the same under the hood.

    Like

    • Yep, you seem to have seen through my cynicism to the spiritual being underneath.
      Clearly I’m going to have to buff up my blackness a bit.

      As I mention in the post, I went through most of my life thinking I’d conquered my fear of death as a teenager when really I’d just swept it under the carpet. The growing lump in the middle of the room was my inability to cope with grief (which happens to be a feature common among us bipolar folk, or so I’m told).

      That life has included a fair bit of study and practice of Therevada as well as study of Advaita and Taoism, so I also had a heavy intellectual stake in believing I had come to terms with my own annihilation.

      Something really odd happened last October that has changed my perspective on a heck of a lot, not just about physical death or death of the ego, but considering how well I’ve been fooling myself in the past I’m reluctant to say I’ve finally banished my demons.

      One thing bipolar teaches you is to constantly question your own perspective. Just one of it’s many gifts.

      Funny that the Sangha won’t allow the mentally ill to join. I just can’t imagine how sane folk can ever find enlightenment. You’d have to be an utter loon to starve yourself, sit for days under a Bodhi tree and imagine you’d won a tussle with a demon of temptation.

      Like

      • I deal with these same sorts of issues and philosophies. We’ll have to hash it out later if we get the chance. some .Interesting to know you’ve gone in for some Advaita. I’m a big fan of Nisagadatta Maharaj, which you might already know from JSB.

        I look forward to more discussion about death and the ego and attachment and all that. If you have a chance take a look at my art piece about “Death, Dissolution, and the Void”. http://erickuns.com/Individual%20Pieces%20Pages/Death,%20Dissolution,%20and%20the%20Void.html

        Like

        • Oh man.

          Both my flatmate and I were moved and impressed by “Death, Dissolution, and the Void” though we each read it in quite different ways.

          Unfortunately I inherited nothing of my mother’s graphic art talent and I envy you your ability to share the images in your mind. My only communication abilities are linguistic and they are so frustratingly inadequate so much of the time.

          Thank’s so much for putting that out there.

          Like

  3. I’m a big fan of Nisagadatta Maharaj,

    Our paths cross yet again.

    My main gripe with A Course in Miracles isn’t that it’s a spin off from MKULTRA but that it tells its adherents that it teaches non-dualism when it does no such thing.

    I’ve been trying to get my uncle to read “I am That” for years, but no luck. I think at some level he realises how fragile ACIM ‘philosophy’ is and he’s determine to avoid contact with anything that might crack it. I’m sure he has valid personal reasons for that, but in my arrogance I often manage to convince myself that he’s crippling his own spirituality with that book and I can’t resist trying to ‘open his mind’ (i.e. to my own perspectives, that must be oh-so-much-more valid and enlightened than his, right?).

    I’m trying to load “Death, Dissolution, and the Void” via my crap dial-up connection but with only limited success so far. I’ve got to run just now, but I’ll keep hitting ‘refresh’ when I get back home this evening and will eventually be able to have a proper look.

    Like

  4. Rex permalink

    This tallies with my experience that fear brings what you fear.

    I absolutely did not like this sentence in the post “I should have killed myself of course. Long ago.”

    Like

    • I absolutely did not like this sentence in the post “I should have killed myself of course. Long ago.”

      It was a reflection of my state of mind every day for almost ten years, not how I feel now.
      It was also to emphasise the fact I was only hanging on by focusing on my loyalty to my grandmother – I found nothing in myself worth hanging on for and everything worth annihilating.

      Since last October I haven’t had a single suicidal or even depressed thought (at least none I’m aware of) and it seems to me that every moment since then has been worth everything I went through in the decade before. But I couldn’t see even a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel until suddenly I was free.

      Like

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