Fate, Fear, and the Lady Death

 

Fear is a terrible thing - or can be, once it loses its powers of discrimination and begins to suffocate us, instead of protect us. Fear, which in the right dose, can keep us from coming to harm, and thereby save us for living and life, can, once it loses perspective, achieve the very opposite effect: it can degrade the quality of our existence, like a terrible disease; lock us away from the joys of living that want to unfold from risk; steal us from life; kill us by turning life into a gray death of anxiety, dread, and hiding. As the saying goes: "A coward dies a thousand times, a brave man dies but once."

Of course, we live in a world filled with dangers. And it canít be denied: we could be bitten by an infected mosquito and contract the West Nile virus on any given summer night; our blind date could turn out to be a serial killer; we could be mugged on the way back from a movie or a play; our airplane could be hijacked and crashed into a building; we could be obliterated when we least expect it by a suicide bomber. And I am not being facetious, or attempting to make a comedy out of dark things. These things really could happen, and they are awful things. Here, in New York City, where I live now, I remember hearing of a student crushed by construction scaffolding that collapsed on top of him while he was on his way to school, while someone else was killed by an air conditioner which fell out of a skyscraper window. People have been pushed in front of trains, and, of course, there are the murders in the park. In other locations, a distant relative of mine, a mailman, was killed by a dog; while a little girl who I knew was run over, one beautiful and, until then, happy day, by a drunk driver, speeding by with his own wounded life.

From the unlikely and bizarre, to the remote yet entirely possible, we are, each day of our lives, faced with the specter of innumerable threats that could, if we became fixated on them, devitalize us and drain us completely of the energy of life, turning our existence into a living hell. This is especially so in these sadly changed and trying times we live in, now. And yet - is it prudent to try to crush the anxiety completely? To try to turn off the dark and fearful side of the imagination altogether? Canít the vices of paranoia and fear actually be life-saving, at times? No doubt. But even so, one must sooner or later come to the realization that no matter how much care we take to protect and prolong our lives, we surely WILL die one day. I can think of no greater tragedy, when that dark day finally comes, than to die having never lived. Than to die, without having ever dared, risked, opened up, or experienced, because fear held us back. Than to go to the place where candles are blown out, with a candle that was never lit.

I sometimes think, at the moment that one dies, that it is as the meeting of two armies from the days of old. The first army, Deathís, raises up a great and terrifying war cry, meant to break the human spirit, to say, "I have you in my power and you are nothing." It is then up to Lifeís army to stand up tall, and counter with a mighty cry of its own: "You do not have me, and never will, because I am greater than you. What I did, you cannot do, and you can never take away!" What a shame if, at that great redeeming moment, the voice of Lifeís army were to fail; if it were to lack an answer to Death, because it had never risen above Death.

I have heard some people, to overcome their fear of the unknown and unexpected, say, "God takes you when He wants you", and, "When itís your time, itís your time", implying that life and death are out of our hands.

As Omar Khayyam expressed the concept in his brilliant Rubaiyat:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

To some extent - "free will" and "human agency" aside - this is a very calming concept, because, by taking the full weight of self-preservation out of our hands, it places our future in Godís hands, or Fateís; it lessens the sometimes unbearable pressure we feel whenever we try to predict, guess, and prepare beyond our capabilities for doing so. No longer tormented by doubt (are we making the right choices, doing everything in our power to protect ourselves?) - no longer paralyzed by excessive fears that turn the world into a permanent disaster waiting to happen, a prison of anguish rather than an open road of opportunity and hope - we are able to satisfy ourselves with the basic rational precautions, and then to go forward living. We do not "flash our jewelry" or count our money on the subway platform at midnight - but we also do not stay locked all day and night in our apartment, hidden behind a heavy door with chains and deadbolts, never daring to go out.

Perhaps the most mesmerizing tale I have ever heard concerning Fate - the most helpful for liberating courage and freeing life from the fear of unforeseen disaster - is the one that follows. I am aware that it is just one variation of a universal story (I have also heard a nearly identical story set in old England.) This more exotic variation comes to me second-hand, third-hand, maybe even fourth-hand, so I am sure that the details are at least somewhat garbled by now. Certainly, the geography seems somewhat improbable, given real-life distances, the speed of horses, etc., and probably there are historical problems as well. But even so - I will leave the tale in the form that I originally heard it, flaws and all, for in this form, its essential effect is certainly preserved. As the story goes:

 

There once lived a most effective and cherished Vizier, who for many years had ably advised the Sultan of a great Central Asian kingdom, whose palace was in the city of Bokhara. One day, as this Vizier was traveling through the great marketplace of his city, admiring the richness of the objects on display, he spied a woman, dressed in black, her face veiled, approaching him. She was slender, graceful and mysterious, hard to take oneís eyes off of, though no part of her could be seen, but her eyes and hands. Yet there was also something frightening about her, a terrible power that could not quite be contained by the quiet way she walked; and suddenly he knew that it was no mortal woman who was coming towards him, but the dreaded Lady Death, who comes at the hour of the empty clock, when the sands of a manís life have run out. Frightened - nearly paralyzed with terror, for he had not expected to die on this sunny day, while he was still useful and full of the love of life - the Vizier stood to the side, hoping not to be noticed, hoping that she had come for someone else and would pass him by like the shadow from a cloud that comes and goes, bringing darkness only for a moment. But alas, his deepest fears seemed to be borne out. The lady, walking with the reluctance of a heart not unmoved by tragedy, yet driven past the sorrow she must cause others by unswerving loyalty to a secret purpose which she must fulfill, came to within but a few feet of the much-loved Vizier, whereupon their eyes met, and she raised her right hand up into the air - to strike him down?! "Donít touch me!" cried the Vizier, suddenly finding the will to leap away from her. Lunging into the startled crowd, he fled, again crying out, "Donít touch me! Itís not my time! Not yet! Let me be!" And desperately, he fled all the way back to the great Sultanís palace, throwing himself down at the feet of his long-time benefactor, and begging him for his help. "O great Sultan," he wept, "the Lady Death has come for me, right here, in the very center of your city, I saw her in the marketplace, where she raised her hand to strike me down! She cannot be far away! If I have ever served you, if ever my advice and my labors have provided you with benefit, please aid me now in my moment of greatest need, please help me to escape from the shadow of the Lady Death!"

Astonished and moved by his loyal Vizierís story, the Sultan at once ordered his fastest horse readied, and had a letter immediately prepared with his seal upon it, giving the Vizier the right to commandeer any horse he chose from his kingdom, from any citizen or guardpost, so that he should be able to continue his headlong flight from the Lady Death all day and all night, long after the Sultanís brilliant horse was spent. "Flee, noble Vizier, flee great friend, flee from this unjust persecution, flee from this unfair effort to cut a great life short. With this letter, you shall find sanctuary in the city of Samarkhand! My prayers are with you, may they be the only thing able to keep up with your horses!" And after he had seen his good friend off, the outraged Sultan, courage springing from his indignation, sent for his guards, and commanded that they go at once to search the marketplace, and bring back the Lady Death, to make her stand before him: this audacious specter who dared to come to steal away a good man, right from the very heart of his city.

Perhaps an hour later, the Lady appeared before the Sultanís throne, surrounded by guards, to whom she revealed neither the fear of an ordinary woman, nor the power of the dreaded being she was. She came like a mystery, silent, her eyes quiet, perhaps curious.

When he saw her, the Sultan cried out: "O dark Lady of Death, do you not know me? I am a God-fearing man, righteous, who says his prayers, who follows the commands of the All-Powerful. I am a Sultan, mighty enough to leave the world in ruins, yet no one is more generous or compassionate than I, nor more loved by his people. Anything I want, I have but to ask for, and yet before I ask for anything, I ask God if it is right for me to ask for it. And I say to you, I tell you this not for the sake of my vanity, but that you may know who I am, and ask if I deserve to have the ones I love torn from me before their time? Tell me, Dark Lady - what have I done to deserve this? How could you be so bold, so disrespectful of all that I am and all that I have done, as to come here, into the very heart of my city, for the purpose of striking down my strong right hand, the noble Vizier, and leaving me with but one arm to rule my kingdom?"

Lady Death, regarding him, assured him: "Most honored Sultan, friend of God, life on the earth is short. All expire, both the great and the small. Every man who was ever born, must also die. The when, the where, and the why of his going is not for you to decide, or know. Do you think I could act without Godís will?" she chided him, before adding: "You are well-loved by God, noble Sultan, and he would not have me take away your loyal Vizier right here, in the middle of your city, for he would not humiliate you in that way, nor turn the very center of your city into a place of mourning for you. No, dear Sultan, I did not come this morning to take your Vizier from you, from the center of your marketplace, I swear, I came on other business."

But the Sultan, still skeptical, and still hurt, demanded: "If what you say is true, Dark Mistress of Death, then tell me: why, when you saw him in the market, did you raise up your hand as though to strike him down, as though to poison him with your touch, and pull him away from my kingdom into yours?"

"To strike him down?" protested the Lady. "Dear Sultan, you are wrong! I did not raise up my hand to take him away with me, I raised up my hand in surprise - you could even say astonishment!"

"Surprise!? Astonishment?!" the Sultan exclaimed, incredulous. "Surprised at what?!"

Whereupon her reply: "Why, surprised to see him here this morning, in Bokhara, when tonight I have an appointment with him, so far away, in Samarkhand!"

 

Yes, what more needs to be said? Make plans, be prudent, defend yourself! But then, release the fear, that you may live! For while death is inevitable, life is not: it is life which we must struggle to live, far more than death which we must struggle to avoid!

 

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