Many Americans are currently mourning the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, a basketball legend and 18-time NBA all-star. He was 41-years-old and less than four years into his retirement.
At this point, we know that the commercial helicopter was flown by an expert pilot, someone with whom Bryant had flown numerous times before, and we also know that the conditions were good when the helicopter took off but quickly worsened as the fog rolled in. Visibility was severely impaired, and in all likelihood the lack of visibility was the main cause of the helicopter crashing into the Calabasas hills.
The right word to use here is shocked: people are shocked. One man wrote to me to say: “I’ve genuinely experienced a variety of stages of grieving, with sometimes uncontrollable overpowering emotions such as sadness. I have been moved to tears more frequently in the past few days than I can even remember.” This sentiment, well-expressed, is also widely shared.
Missing, however, in the online remembrances of Kobe are Aristotle’s words from The Poetics. When a highborn person falls, in this tragic drama the viewer feels compassion and fear, even terror. Why compassion or pity (pathos)? Because someone great, one who shined so brightly, is gone and, in this case, gone so quickly. After all, we know that Kobe went to a Catholic church on Sunday (presumably the one he frequents): the Catholic priest spoke with him, if only briefly–and then he was airborne.
But why fear? Because it becomes palpably clear to us that such too is our fate. Scared shitless might be a modern rendering of this feeling. It may cause us to shiver; may give us nightmares; may simply make us petrified of the unknown.
Honestly, words are trite, however true they may be: You and I are going to die. Life is short. Life is a stage we occupy but for an instant, we merely players. Yea, too, and ubi sunt? And, pray, note this well: if a hero like Bryant can, notwithstanding his power, wealth, and larger-than-life status, vanish in an instant, what does this say about us who are neither gods nor heroes nor villains?
If we are not afraid of our own death or of those we love, we had better go back to the mirror and take a closer, harder look at ourselves. This time let’s be honest. For now is precisely the time to contemplate our own deaths as well as the masks we wear to hide this fear from us.
For we won’t be helped by secularism. We secularists lack an openness to many metaphysical possibilities–that there may be a soul; that I may never have been born in the first place; that this is but one life among many; and so on. Consider these and others now yet not with dried-out reason but with the unified reasoning of the heart.
Then also we lack the rites and rituals surrounding death and dying. Because of this, people just seem to vanish while Total Work soldiers on. Hence, we write or read something on Twitter or Instagram in an attempt, not without sincerity, to throw dirt on the departed and to wail and moan. But they don’t signify, and we, in our loss, are left alone and unsatisfied.
We need to contemplate our own deaths, we cannot do with the sacred, and we need rites and rituals that can bear us up in liminal space. Period.