Death as the Ultimate Climax of Life

One of the best lessons I’ve learnt from one of the professors here in NUS is about the Chinese view on death.

In Chinese culture, there are two words used to describe death: (1) 死 (si) which simply means termination of life; and (2) 終 (zhong) consummation/finale. Of course, zhong also holds the same meaning as si, which is why it is taboo in Chinese culture to give someone a clock as a gift (to give a clock is to 送鐘 songzhong which sounds exactly like 送終 songzhong, which means to send someone off to the grave).

But what’s so unique about the word 終 zhong is the emphasis on death as the consummation, the very climax of life; it is where you wrap up your story with the most awesome ending possible.

Interestingly, I found the perfect illustration of this idea from a movie, entitled “It’s a Great Great World (大世界 Dashijie).” It’s a Singapore production, with several short stories about life in Singapore during the 1940s, revolving around an amusement park known as the Great World. The last story was the most touching and emotionally powerful story I’ve ever come across. It’s beautiful.

The story goes like this: There was a wedding banquet in a Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately, that night, the Japanese were invading Singapore. Their planes were dropping bombs all over the island. The wedding guests weren’t aware of it and they thought that it was merely fireworks outside (it was an amusement park after all). The chef and his assistants decided that most of them would probably not live to see another day, or if they did, life as they knew it wouldn’t be the same forever. So, that night, they decided to cook all the food in the kitchen and give them the best wedding dinner ever. What was beautiful was how the chef and his assistants poured out their entire heart and soul in preparing every good meal to ensure that everyone had the best time ever. The acting was beautiful as it looked as if they were performing their last dance.

The father of the bride was the one who was going to pay for the bill. He was quite upset when he saw all the expensive dishes being served. He stormed into the kitchen wanting to complain, but learnt about the Japanese invasion from the chef. Immediately, as a good father, he went out and made sure everyone dined happily and had the best night of their lives so that they would remember that night.

This is by far, the most beautiful illustration of wrapping up one’s life. It climaxes in the biggest, boldest, and most courageous effort to showcase the best that one could do even in the face of death – to die with dignity, to spread happiness to others, and to give all that one could ever give in one’s final moments. Everything that one has experienced in one’s life leads up to that one final moment – death.

It is like the final dance in a performance (or an action movie). Everything right from the beginning leads up to that final moment where it climaxes with the greatest showcase the dancers could perform before the curtains come to a close.

Admittedly, it is difficult since many of us do dread the thought of death. Perhaps we dread it because we think of death merely as the termination of life. But I think when we begin to see death as the ultimate climax, the ultimate wrapping up of one’s life, where the multitude of one’s personal experiences lead up to that one final performance, I think the idea of death becomes very ennobling and empowering.

I really like how the Chinese (especially Confucian thought) emphasises the importance of dying with dignity. Every one and every thing dies. But as humans, we have the option of choosing to die with the greatest dignity as a human being.

I remember watching “Confucius: The Movie” and the one scene that really struck me was this: One of Confucius’ disciples was in a state invaded by a foreign state. Unfortunately, he was fatally wounded by arrows.

In that situation, the best way for him to wrap up his life was to ensure that he passed on orderly and not in a chaotic manner. All the lessons and values in life that he learnt and experienced led up to that one moment. It would have been a shame to cast away all those years simply because of pain. And so, he made it a point to endure the pain and conducted himself in the greatest possible performance that would consummate all that he learnt in life: he picked up his hat, slowly put it back onto his head, adjusted it so that it was in proper order; he re-adjusted his clothes and his belt to ensure that they were tidy, and slowly yet reverently fell to his knees, closed his eyes with gratitude for all that he has experienced and learnt in life. And there he passed on.

In that short yet simple final performance of his life, he showed great mastery over himself and that he was not a slave to his passions. He showed that as a human person, there are things more important than pain and death, and that it is possible to continue being civil and human despite feeling great pain.

That is what death should be about – dying properly, honourably, and as a consummation of all of the lessons, values, and experiences in life in that final performance of life.

These deaths are beautiful because they show us the beauty and strength of humanity, which we don’t see too often these days. It happens here and there – most of them quietly without much publicity. But I think, whenever we encounter such beautiful deaths, we gain the inspiration not just to live, but to live well, so that we too may go just as beautifully.

In Memoriam

A few days ago, a friend of mine passed away.

I think more often than not, we commemorate the passing of great people so much that we forget to commemorate the passing of ordinary people. In the eyes of a few, an ordinary person is looked upon as someone far greater and far dearer than a personality, like Steve Jobs. It is truly a pity that we do not reflect upon the extraordinary lives with which these ordinary people had lived, and learn from those little marvels that tend to escape our attention.

For some strange reason, we seem to believe that the true mark of greatness involves the accomplishment of many great things. But the mark of greatness can be seen nonetheless in the accomplishment of not so great things. It’s so ordinary that it escapes our attention. And yet, it’s only when people, who have been near and dear to us, are gone, that we begin to look back and recognise that greatness in these people, only to sigh with regret that it’s only too late to appreciate the wonders that they have done.

One thing that I’d like to just focus on, as a tribute to my friend, Sally, is the profound influence that she has had on me, though I do not know her very well, nor for a very long time.

It recently occurred to me that our judgements about humanity in general is greatly shaped by the experiences we’ve had of people in our lives. People who declare, often with bitterness, like Thomas Hobbes, that “human nature is evil,” have more often than not, experienced so many hurts and disappointments in one life time that it’s hard for us to believe that good people do exist. If we were to come across someone who seems selfless, we can’t help but feel extreme skepticism about the person’s intentions. How can such a person ever be so good? What does he/she want out of me? Surely there’s an ulterior motive!

While it takes many horrible people in our younger days to give us a bad taste of humanity, it only takes at least one extraordinary individual to give us the hope and belief in the goodness of humanity, to be able to declare, as Mencius did that, “human nature is good!” It just takes one human person to do it – to show us the potentiality that is present in each and every individual to rise out of our wounded human condition to be so awesome and inspiring. When we have experienced the virtue of a person, when we have seen for ourselves just how possible it is for a person to be so loving, so compassionate, so forgiving – we know that it is possible for each and everyone of us, no matter how horrible we may be, to have the capacity to do just that. All we need is just one chance encounter with such an individual to change our lives forever. For once we have met such a person, we not only believe that it’s possible – we too are inspired to want to be like that person! No matter how many disappointments and hurts we have experienced, we will never lose our positive outlook of humanity.

I must say that I have been most fortunate to have had the encounter of a handful of inspiring and awesome individuals who have proved to me, in so many ways, the various aspects of human excellence. And among these handful of people, Sally was one of them.

As I have said earlier, I do not know her very well, nor have I known her for very long. But the short moments that I knew her was already quite an inspiration to me. My encounter with Sally made one very lasting impression that has influenced me greatly.

The first lasting mark Sally gave to me was that she was so closed to her daughter, that the two of them looked as though they were best friends rather than mother and daughter. This isn’t very common in Asian cultures. While it’s not impossible to treat one’s parents the same way one would treat a friend, it just doesn’t cross the mind of many that one could do that. Somehow, our culture has made us feel very awkward just thinking about that possibility. We may be close to our parents, but we will never be as close as to treat them the same way we would treat our friends. But that encounter was indeed an eye opener. And it has made me want to be as close to my parents in the same way Sally and her daughter were.

It’s really amazing what both mother and daughter did together. Like friends going for an overseas holiday, or participating in an activity, I’ve seen both Sally and her daughter do so many great and wonderful things together. So many great memories, so many awesome opportunities for laughter and for a chance to bond. I’m sure there are also bitter moments, when they have argued, but they were always able to patch up and resume doing so many things together.

More often than not, when our parents are old or have passed away, we begin to lament their loss, and wished that we could have done more for them, or spent more time with them. But it’s usually the case that we’re either too busy with our work, or too busy with our own friends that we neglect the very people under our roof. So near yet so far, as they say.

No, I do not want to be one of those people who will later say, “Gee… I wished I had spent more time with my parents/children.” I really want to be like Sally and her daughter, who have found the healthy balance of being with both family and friends, loving all, and neglecting none. I am sure Sally and her daughter, with all that time spent together, do not have that as a regret. If anything, Sally has left her daughter a treasure of beautiful memories of warmth and laughter.

Yeah… I think that’s the best thing one could ever leave behind – beautiful memories.

Regrets are the worst thing one could ever hold. It’s very painful especially when the person passes away, since there’s no more opportunity to do what you wanted to do with him/her or promised him/her. I know personally how regret feels because I had such an experience. I once visited this person who was terminally ill and promised to bring something for him. But then my school work got the best of me, and eventually I started procrastinating. Soon after, I got word that he had passed away. And then, the opportunity to fulfill that promise just disappeared into thin air. My heart was heavy for months. Not fulfilling one’s promise is bad enough. Not fulfilling one’s promise and to say goodbye to someone who was going to pass on – that’s worst! I still regret that mistake, though thankfully, the weight of the regret doesn’t feel so great now that so many years has passed.

Tomorrow, tomorrow! We can always do it tomorrow! Sure, we can do work tomorrow. Even if you are gone tomorrow, the work will continue since someone else will take your place. But when it comes to people, tomorrow is only probable. And unfortunately, people can’t stand in for you or for that other person. If we procrastinate our decision to spend the time with that person, one fine day he/she will just go, and we’ll hold that painful regret for a long time. Or we might be the one on the brink of death, only to regret not doing the important things with the people who are important to us.

The point is that regrets are just bad. It’s not worth having any – if possible. If anything, the advice to live with no regrets is probably the best advice on how one should live one’s life.

The best gift one could ever give to others would be the gift of beautiful memories. And who better to receive such a gift than the members of our family – parents, siblings, and children.

Thank you Sally for being awesome, and for being a beautiful example to me.

May you rest in peace.

In Memoriam – Josephine Teo (RIP)

Of the many Catholics that I know, only a handful of people have lived such inspirational lives – so inspirational – that they have made a huge impact on me.

One such person is Josephine Teo.

I first got to know her about ten years ago through the Legion of Mary. What struck me about her was her devotion to the Legion.

Legion was not just any ministry that you would join and leave after some time: it was not some group where you would come in as and when you would. No, for her, Legion was her life.

Among all the Legionaries that I’ve known in my entire life, she was one of the few who knew the handbook – it’s rules, principles, and spirituality – almost inside out. And she lived them. She lived it so devotedly that her life was almost inseparable from it.

Even as a mother, and a full-time nurse, she had been so dedicated to the works of the Legion, going overseas to carry out missionary works, and works that I would term, “diplomatic relations”, with the Legionaries around the region. The amount of time and effort that she gave to the Legion was so much, one would have thought that she was single and/or working part-time. I was very surprised when I found out much much later that she had a daughter (maybe more? Am not sure) and was working as a nurse.

Truly, she gave her all.

What also impressed me is that she was a great planner and leader. She handled large-scale events so well: in leading, planning, and executing. So professionally was it done, it just leaves me with awe and respect. She did all that despite work and family commitments.

Amazing.

More amazing would be that despite her battle with cancer, she still continued to be very active in her services in the Legion, doing everything well, as always, and making sure that everything was going smoothly.

I suppose this was her remarkable sign of holiness. People mistake holiness to mean doing holy things (and being very dull and boring). Rather, holiness is in being disciplined and regular, especially in doing the small things. Indeed, she took up many big projects. But those big projects would not have been a success had she not, in the first place, been successful in keeping faithful to doing the small little tasks well. In fact, for her to be able to copy with family, work, and her duties in the Legion is indeed a sign of the effects of supernatural graces at work. Did she possess a great love for God? Presumably so (I can’t say definitely since I don’t know her that well) from all that commitment and dedication made towards serving the Church through the Legion.

If there’s one thing the Church needs most, it’s people like Josephine, to constantly inspire others with her love, faithfulness, dedication, and holiness. To be like Our Blessed Mother, in saying, “Let it be done according to Thy word”, with such great faith and love, that enables the Holy Spirit to work with and through her in all that she does.

The usual mantra of today is that we have no time to do great things for God. And yet Josephine has shown in her entire lifetime, that despite family and work commitments, she was able to do so much for the salvation of souls.

We need more people like her to give testimony by the example of their lives. To show to other Catholics that such dedication is possible. That agreeing to co-operate with God’s Divine Will, allows Him to perform the supernatural through ordinary natural hands. We need more people like her to inspire more people to live good Catholic lives.

She had indeed been a source of great inspiration for me. And I pray that many more will come to be a source of inspiration to others.

Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master!
(Matthew 25:21)

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine.
Et lux perpetua luceat ei.
Requiescat in pace. Amen.