An Ending, A Beginning

An Ending, A Beginning


words by willow defebaugh

photograph by Jonathan Ochmann

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.

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“It is better to spend one day contemplating the birth and death of all things than a hundred years never contemplating beginnings and endings.”

Gautama Buddha

You are alive. If you were to place your palm over your chest at this moment, you would feel a heartbeat, life pulsing through your pulmonary artery. If you allowed it to linger, you would feel your lungs expand and contract, breath blooming through your being, the bereavement of its passing. What’s equally true is that, someday, you will not be alive. Someday, you will die.


If you find this fact disparaging, dear reader, you are not alone. Everything that is alive in this moment will someday cease to be. And while certain species blur the boundaries, death is what we all have in common. You are also not alone in the sense that humankind has been struggling to accept this fact, attempting to flee in the face of its own mortality, for quite some time. Many of us fill our days with distractions, small denials of the one thing we can never really outrun.


The thing is, whatever we run from, runs our lives. It is almost impossible not to see the connection here with the ecological breakdown. If we can’t accept our own mortality, how could we possibly accept that of the world? Our planet has been sending distress signals for decades now—from fires and floods to famine and fallen species—and we have done just about everything we can to drown them out. The more we try to escape suffering, the more we suffer.


In my journalism studies, I took a class about writing obituaries and wedding announcements. Out of everything I learned in that course, what stuck with me most was the instruction that as journalists, we should never disguise death with our language; we are always to write “died,” never “passed away.” My professor presented it as a kind of sacred duty, an oath to uphold. The media helps shape our culture, and as a culture, we should not shy away from death.


As much as we have tried to run from it, death seems to have finally caught up with us. There is no shortage of it in the press, thanks to our persisting pandemic. In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, hospice and palliative medicine physician Dr. BJ Miller explains how the coronavirus has transformed our understanding of death from being an abstract concept to a personal one. In his words, “Maybe this is what the pandemic holds for us: the understanding that living in the face of death can set off a cascade of realization and appreciation.”


If you were not expecting my first newsletter of the year to be about death after one so disparagingly defined by it—well, I wasn’t either. But the reality is, confronting death is not something we are leaving behind in 2020. Nor should it be. When we contemplate death, we open ourselves up to a secret shared by scholars, shamans, and sages throughout every age: death gives life meaning. When we understand how fragile and fleeting life is, we understand how precious and worth protecting it is. There is a reason near-death experiences are said to give a new lease on life; surely the same will be true for this collective experience we are all having.


You are alive. Someday, you will die. Of these two things I am certain. I am also certain that somewhere in between these two truths, if you allow yourself to, you will see unspeakable beauty and heartbreak. That you will lose people you love, and that you will find yourself on the other side. That you will see many sunsets, and that you will see the sun rise still. That you will endure many endings, and many more beginnings. That you already have, and will again.

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