Gallery 201, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
People walk past this case, slowing and glancing inside as they go. They skim the info cards and laugh at what they see: "A cricket cage! They kept crickets as pets or something? How odd." And then their pace resumes its original speed and carries them away down the hall toward more Asian art or back the other way where the Native American wing sits.
During that hour (give or take) that I sat next to the display writing my rough draft of this blog post, I never saw anyone stop long enough to read the daunting pair of info cards that were almost too lengthy even for my fickle attention. But read them, I did.
Had I not, my books and I would have sauntered down the hallway seeking out the next piece of inspiration. But toward the end of the museum's underappreciated placards detailing the history of the works in the case, we learn that the Chinese viewed crickets as a steadfast and reliable reminder of the impermanence of the seasons. What may appear to a stray passerby as some quirky pet fetish was really a profound expression of the cultural understanding of and reverence toward the cycles of nature. Worshipping, in some sense, the idea that life is born, matures, dies, is reborn, a cycle that touches everyone and everything.
It's clear from how intricate and meticulously crafted these objects are that this was a fervently important part of Chinese culture. These aren't slipshod, hasty creations; the detail is painstaking. It seems in some cases as if the items are detailed to within a literal inch of the creators' lives. The passion is so palpable it pushes through the display case's glass and hits you in the face.
Seeing the love the craftsmen had for this symbol of life's impermanence made me feel as if I've missed something that could have given me a much richer understanding of the gift we've been given. I can only imagine how it would be to have been raised with a complete understanding of and independent respect for the brevity of life, to be taught to relish it rather than fear it.
What I mean by that is that I was raised in a Southern Baptist home. Though we certainly heard clergy and teachers wax poetic about the importance of the present, they never taught this value for its own sake. Every lesson was presented within the framework of things that made it more or less likely to be within God's favor. Every choice we made was less about living in the moment and loving it for the finite point that it was and more about ensuring we secured our place in Heaven in the afterlife.
We were taught to live life with our eyes on after life. I know that the afterlife brings comfort to so many, but it never did for me. My questions about that posthumous existence floated to pastors and deacons who regarded me with incredulity and frustration. And their desultory responses were...unsatisfying.
Growing up, I don't think I considered death much at all. Because I believed in an afterlife, I had no significant care or concern about how we travel there from the physical plane. Of course with age things like heart attacks, cancer, suicide, car accidents all rip more and more people from our widening-but-narrowing pool of friends and acquaintances. Death becomes an acquaintance in its own right, and you're forced to examine and re-examine and re-examine yet again your beliefs on the Cloaked Figure and what comes after.
As happens to many of use, age has also made me realize the critical logical flaws in many (most? all?) religious dogma. I occasionally trip on my own thoughts and fall into what I call "existential thought spirals" where my finite, mortal brain tries to conceive of NOTHING and NONEXISTENCE and INFINITY. I've learned how to control those moments and breathe through them. Thought Stopping is a blessing.
I've termed this psychological tug-o-war Post Religion Stress Disorder, or PRSD. That I've repurposed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is intentional; I view my religious upbringing as a sot of chronic trauma. So much of my anxieties, depression, and one-time psychosis (literally) is directly and explicably tied to the force-fed dogma that ruled my youth.
My Southern Baptist theology beat into my head that a NOTHINGNESS post-life is not only impossible but a cataclysmically defeatist idea. But imagining a world where dozens of billions of people are living in a space roughly the size of 60% of the United States' land area and where we do nothing but sing praise songs ad infinitum is almost just as maddening.
The end makes little to no sense to me, but I've recently started to accept that perhaps it's more reasonable to suspect that our posthumous existence will be...nonexistence. And it's in that moment when my heart breaks. But I grieve more about the lost time over the last 3 1/2 decades. How much better off would I have been if I'd been conditioned to embrace life's ephemeral nature for its own sake. To live and love and fight for now, not an afterlife that, even if it does exist, is after life.