“We’re here,” Willie says, “then we’re not here. We’re somewhere else. Maybe. And it’s as natural as breathing. Why should we be scared?”“We’re here,” Willie says, “then we’re not here. We’re somewhere else. Maybe. And it’s as natural as breathing. Why should we be scared?” ― from The Hit (written by Peter Prince)
The film The Hit (1984) directed by Stephen Frears is a beautiful meditation on death. The central character Willie (played by Terrence Stamp), an old-time British gangster, rats out his entire crew and then runs away to Costa del Sol in Spain. After ten years of sun, relaxation, and quiet reading, Willie’s past catches up with him, and he’s kidnapped then handed over to a ruthless hitman. The entire ride north toward the French border, Willie appears presents himself as a living Buddha, laughing, and being generally acquiescent. Then the hitman Braddock (John Hurt) surprises him with the information that he will die not in Paris as was presumed but on the top of some random mountain in Spain. Willie goes from peaceful to nonplussed in a heartbeat. He has lost control over the final aspect of one’s life, death.
About midway through The Hit, the characters stop to relieve themselves on a hilltop surrounded by windmills. Frears very cleverly references Don Quixote as a soft suggestion we are in essence filled with dreams and confident we are mostly in control of our fate. Willie believes that by making peace with death (or even pretending to, we’re not sure), he can control the final days of his life. It’s this idea of control that actually undermines his attempt at buddha-nature because ironically Willie isn’t really letting go, he is merely making peace with a story that lives only in his own mind. In the end, Willie dies in trauma and loses all control at the very moment he so desperately wanted to retain it.
The older we get, the more death enters our perception. When we’re young death seems an eternity away, something abstract that happens to other people. As you approach middle age though, death becomes much more present. People very close to you have died, and people of importance to your own personal growth like artists, mentors, and pillars of the community die. Like Willie, we spend time preparing for the inevitable moment as if the act of preparation could somehow let us live a more fulfilling life now. It’s tough to let go of control in our lives and letting go is exactly what death insists upon. None of us know the moment we’ll die and that makes it challenging to prepare. The preparation really isn’t the trick though because no strategy will let us die the way we want, that is unless we take action to commit suicide and that doesn’t seem like a good option.
I think about death a fair amount. If you spend your days as I do reading philosophy and exploring the boundaries of creative expression, death is a very persistent theme. You can’t help but confront it. I think we are all afraid of dying in one way or another. Some of these fears are irrational, like my fear of being cornered by Indian cobra; and some are entirely rational like slipping on a wet surface and breaking your neck while alone. It seems like a healthy practice to me none-the-less to think about death from time to time and even perhaps imagine your own death. Tibetan Buddhists practice a meditation on dying so that they might live fuller lives because they have prepared for the inevitable. Of course, they also believe in reincarnation, so perhaps they are hedging their bets. For me, it’s a simple matter of confronting your fears head on, and our biggest fear is dying. I don’t think any amount of time will ever prepare you for death but at least contemplating it will release you from the everyday panic and suffering we encounter. We can also reflect on any traumatic experience that “we are still alive.” I often like to imagine absurd ways I might die like hitting my head and falling down the basement stairs, or tripping over one of my cats in the middle of the night and smacking my head. I try to look at it through the lens of slapstick comedy.
Absurdity can be a gateway to an artful life. Seeing our lives as comedy gives us the breathing space to allow for the inevitable uncertainties we all have to contend with. The most absurd and incomprehensible event is death. The mystery of death gives us reason to explore life. As the filmmaker Werner Herzog said;
“Sometimes, when you think something is understood, when you feel that the truth of an image has been grasped, the more unknown it becomes, no matter how close you get to it and how deep you explore. Truth can never be definitively captured or described, though the quest to find answers is what gives meaning to our existence.”*