This week I was struck by how powerful of a tool death is in shaping our lives.
Last Monday night, I saw a friend of mine in the ICU, holding on to life via a breathing tube. He was in an induced coma but I was struck by how vital he still looked. He was breathing and I felt like at any moment, he might just wake up – as if from an ordinary sleep.
Less than 24 hours later, he had passed away.
Many friends were struck by the sadness and pain, but I found myself instead feeling numb – as if this was a surreal experience. My rational mind knew he was gone, but some part of me still felt as if he would be right back there with us after a few days.
Just a few days later, I attended his funeral in my hometown.
On the drive back from my hometown, I stared at the wide-open sky of clouds brilliantly arrayed across the horizon for hours.
I was asking and searching for some type of meaning from his death. What were we – the living – supposed to make of the tragic death of someone so young? How could we make peace with a world in which his death left behind such deep craters of sorrow – for his young daughter, family, and friends?
I first thought back to a line of wisdom that is common to multiple faiths from Judaism to Zen Buddhism – “This too is for the good.”
It’s a deep trust that life, the universe, God, whatever label you want to ascribe to the mystery of our lives – has a method and reasons that are beyond our understanding.
With that lens, I continued to think back on my friend’s life, asking and searching for what lesson I could learn from this. I ultimately believe that the different people in his life will each take a very personal lesson from his sudden passing.
For me, staring at the clouds in the hours of my drive home after the funeral, an answer finally came: “His life was his sadhana”.
I’m not sure why the word sadhana came to mind so strongly right then – it’s a Hindu phrase that I interpret to roughly mean to use each moment of one’s life to do good.
From all the jumble, chaos and heaviness of the burial and services that day, one thread cut through the noise and struck me to my core – my friend had dedicated his life to good.
Over the years before his passing, he had transformed the immense pain in his life into working for the good of others. He had devoted time helping the homeless of Fresno get off the streets and start rebuilding their lives. He had worked tirelessly at a school district to help children with severe behavioral issues to change their lives for the better.
He was a man of faith and dedicated to loving his daughter and partner. He had continued to write and record deeply inspiring, honest and profound hip-hop songs with the intention of being a better person.
His life was a type of alchemy – transforming pain into healing, first for himself and then for others. His daily life was a sadhana.
The death of a friend makes many pithy aphorisms suddenly have a ring of truth: life is short and you never know how much time you have. In the end, it’s the actions you take, the people whose lives you improve that truly matter. It’s the love you give and share that stays with others.
Seeing the gifts he gave to others is a powerful reminder that we – the living – owe it to our children, friends, and broader society to use our own lives as a process for doing good.
The funeral service ultimately concluded with a quote I had heard many times:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.John Donne
When a loved one’s death rings its final bell, the call is actually for you. It’s a call to wake up, to call yourself to attention and recommit to living a life of good for those around you.
It’s a reminder that life is much bigger than our individual selves, and in the end, it’s the impact you make in the lives of those around you that matters – from your own family to distant strangers struggling at the edges of society.
When you hear the bell toll, it is calling for you.