Cherry Blossoms and the Denial of Death

While Spring is officially on the calendar, it is still inching into southern New Hampshire, where I live.  Some daffodils are emerging, taking their time after a surprise snowstorm earlier this month.  This long wait for spring calls to mind my two-year sojourn in Japan fifty years ago, when the entire country followed the progression of blooming cherry blossoms from the southwest to the northeast.  Most newspapers provided a daily forecast outlining where the blossoms were peaking and when the full blooms were to appear next.  People needed this information so they could plan for Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties, which involved setting up platforms under the cherry trees, drinking sake, and spending the afternoon singing folk songs.  What captured the public’s attention is the extraordinary beauty of the blossoms, to be sure, but deeper than that was an appreciation that the blooms would soon die.  The whole celebration was framed around the awareness that the blossoms would fall; that the beauty would last but a few days, and that life, like cherry blossoms, will eventually come to an end.

The inevitability of death is baked into the Japanese culture.  Not so in the West.  To the contrary, denying death has, over the last century or so, has taken on many manifestations.  There is a growing industry that provides elixirs to make the body look younger, which are fairly benign attempts to push death further away.  But what is more troubling is what sociologists describe as the “pornography of death”, which depicts death in graphic horror on movie screens and video games; the subliminal purpose being that if someone else dies, we won’t have to.  And the more gruesome the depiction, the more distance we can put between death and ourselves, which is a tempting delusion.

What is even more troubling is that the denial of death has inexorably been moving from the screen to the world’s stage.  The explanation Vladimir Putin gives for invading Ukraine two years ago is the necessity to conquer a country and people who have strayed from Mother Russia; and to bring them back into the fold.  But beneath that explanation is a bizarre and false rationalization that by killing Ukrainians, Russians will live.  Similarly, as the world watches and worries whether or not the Israeli army will stage a ground offensive into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where an estimated one million Palestinian refugees are clustered. The argument that the Israeli government makes is that the assault is critical to destroying Hamas.   Again, I can’t help but think that an underlying intent is to avoid their own eventual death by destroying someone else’s life.

A new movie was released last week:  “Civil War”.  While I haven’t seen it, I understand the premise and have read some reviews.  Set in a dystopian American future, various secessionist movements seek to overthrow the government.  Chaos reigns, as most people don’t know who is on which side.  Inherent in the film – and in some pronouncements in today’s America by various public figures, is the idea that opponents need to be vanquished so their allies can live.  My fear is that the movie will only add to the growing polarization that is omnipresent these days, and contributes to the false narrative which states that by eliminating opposition life can be prolonged.

Two years ago, a friend and I backpacked across northern Scotland, in an annual event called the Great Outdoor Challenge.  About a third of the way across the two-hundred-mile trek we stopped at midday in a small hut for a break.  There were three other “challengers”  there when we arrived, all of whom were older than our seventy years.  After grumbling with each other about three straight days of rain, wet boots, sore shoulders and the prospect of climbing more Munros (3,000 foot mountains), someone asked, “why do we do this?”  The answer came quickly:  “to defy death.”

I knew that impulse.  I know that feeling.  But as I reflected on our conversation over tea and gorp, I realized that the reason I was taking on this onerous journey was not to defy death but to enjoy beauty, honor friendship and celebrate life.  I wasn’t sure how long the window would remain open for me to take on such arduous challenges.  I wanted to continue hiking for as long as my body allows.  Diminishment and death loom.  For all of us. 

There is a part in me, in all of us, that seeks to defy death.  To put off its inevitability, if not to deny that it is coming for me.  Embracing death, befriending death – which is quite different than wishing for it, is a healthy exercise.  It is paradoxically life-giving. It is hard work. Acknowledging our own mortality can serve as a corrective to the illusion that by short-cutting someone else’s life it advances our own. 


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