The black curtain – on death, fear and hope


At the age of seven, my nephew composed a 13-word rhyme as simple and powerful as anything I’ve ever heard:

Soon it comes to every person, see it happen in one black curtain.

Years later, I’m still mystified that a child could conjure such a cogent description of mortality. Perhaps that knowledge is programmed in each of us. Whether we think about it or not, death is ever-present and life is ever-shrinking. For some, death is an obsession, for others, barely an afterthought. To most who contemplate it, the concept of eternal non-existence, of a life book-ended by oblivion, is unfathomable and horrifying. We are programmed to “rage against the dying of the light.”

Death is life’s greatest motivator, for good and evil, fueling our futile quest to ‘matter’ – futile, because the people we seek to matter to are themselves reaching out to us to give them meaning. Picture two jumpers hurtling to earth, each reaching for the other, but neither with a foothold and both doomed to the same end. Some try to matter by helping others, some by hurting others, all with the desire to be remembered, to bridge an unbridgeable gap, to leave some kind of a mark, to prove that they existed.

Humans are impossibly lonely creatures, staring forlornly into time and space, without an anchor or a reference point, probing the depths of physics, philosophy, psychology, poetry, but forever bumping up against the unknowable.

My father, who I lost over a decade ago, adored Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat — this quatrain in particular:

And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to It for help–for it
Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.

Searching for the light behind the black curtain, we turn to religion, to faith, to drugs, to music, to love. We get a glimmer of hope with near-death and other paranormal experiences. We meditate and pray. We look to nature and art and beauty. We dream.

And sometimes we do get glimpses of the light behind the curtain. In the twilight before sleep (hypnagogic states); in moments of transcendence when our thinking brain is suspended; in vague remembrances of a home, a place of origin whose location is timeless and dimensionless; in the sudden opening — and closing — of a portal during moments of intense fear and love and pain and pleasure; in the stillness of night and nature; in strange confluences and coincidences; in the inexplicable faith that somehow, somewhere, there is an answer.

It’s amusing that science, in its quest to deconstruct and debunk, has reaffirmed the ephemerality of the physical world, painting a wonderful and mysterious picture of a universe that is merely thought and potential. Just imagine that when you look out across the horizon, everything in your sight is energy, nothing solid, and that it’s all a thought in your mind. And that you are a thought in someone else’s mind.

We see the black curtain looming and it gives us pause, as it should. Still, we have reason to believe that behind the curtain is something even more real, more awe-inspiring, more beautiful than the world we know.