My friend Steve of 21soul and I have both experienced recent bereavements, though in very different ways (a close family member in his case, a beloved family pet in mine.) Both deaths involved the culmination of a long period of illness and decline. The heaviness of the sickroom so gradually accumulates that one doesn’t realise its weight upon daily life, until that weight has suddenly lifted.
When I attended Steve’s Soulmakers Gathering in Trefin, back in autumn 2014, those of us assembled set ourselves the puzzle of what we meant by ‘soulmaking’ and indeed, by extension, what on earth we meant by ‘soul.’ I recall Curtis Mayfield being invoked – but is it any surprise really that we didn’t manage to reach a conclusion?
Plaything of philosophers it may be, but when we lose someone we love, that death serves us the bittersweet mystery of the ultimate existential question: what are we? What is this impulse of personal awareness that moves us through time and space? What is it that disappears from the room when our breathing finally ceases?
In her exquisite book Belonging, Toko-Pa Turner proposes that
Soul is not a thing, but a perspective. It’s the slow courtship of an event that turns it into a meaningful experience. It’s the practice of trusting that if we sit silently and long enough with the absence of magic, the miraculous will reveal itself. Nothing is sacred until we make it so with the eloquence of our attention, the poetry of our patience, the parenting warmth of our hospitality.
The experiences we co-create with a loved one, the time and space shared, this is soul. When we reach out to one another, whether we are sharing a caress in real time or sharing a memory in hindsight, this is soulmaking.
I used to become very anxious when I considered the vast multitudes that have perished over the millennia, the anonymity of all those individual beings:
all those people, all those lives: where are they now?
with their loves and hates and passions just like mine
they were born and then they lived and then they died
(the Smiths, Cemetery Gates)
Will I really disappear into that throng? A thousand years from now, even a hundred, will there be any trace left of me? In the grip of that long lens, what really matters? Turner continues:
Let’s consider the word ‘matter,’ which comes from the Latin root mater meaning ‘origin, source, mother.’ In pre-Socratic times, mater was used to describe the underlying nature of the visible world. We still use it in that sense when we say, “This is what matters most.” Though we may not be able to articulate why, we use it in this way when we’re near the essence of a thing.
Of course, our culture also uses ‘matter’ as a noun to describe the fundamental substance of reality. Yet what is matter? Quantum physics and indigenous cultures across the globe understand energy – movement – to be integral to all forms of matter (organic or not.) Or as Bill Hicks put it, “all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration… we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves.”
Language reveals our mindset, giving us both nouns and verbs: things and movement. What if this division is artificial, merely a way of navigating the world? Imagine if you can that nouns and verbs are actually the same, that to be a thing is to do thingness: a person is to person; a soul is to soul. Out of curiosity, is there any language which does not distinguish between nouns and verbs? Google tells me that there may be:
[David Gil] argues that there is no distinction between nouns and verbs in Riau Indonesian. This paper examines a series of grammatical environments, which in many other languages provide diagnostics for a noun/verb distinction, and shows, based on naturalistic data, that none of these distinguish between nouns and verbs in Riau Indonesian. (Oxford Scholarship)
I’m digressing into linguistics, but what else is there? Consciousness expresses itself through language – whether the familiar complexity of human language, or the differently complex communication styles of the myriad other entities with whom we share existence. When Hamlet muses “To be, or not to be, that is the question” he captures our dilemma in a single sleight of hand: the question (thing) is to be or not to be (doing thingness.) We live and breathe the unknowing uncertainty of a question without an answer.
I reign myself back in, from the ponderings of deep speculation to the tangible truth of a personal loss. Somebody who shared their alive-time with me and was cared for and loved, is now missing and missed. And with the absence of this very particular magic, this individual’s particular being-ness, the miraculous does indeed reveal itself: soulmaking matters.