“In encounters with others, asking the right question can sometimes bring you into the presence of someone new, and entirely unexpected.”
The above quote was shared two weeks ago by a Jungian psychoanalyst whom I follow, and it immediately reminded me of an instance that occurred while I was traveling in Cambodia.
I was on the idyllic island of Koh Rong off the western coast of Cambodia. It was nighttime, and a heavy fog of darkness hung over the island—the type of darkness I’m not used to in metropolitan Korea, the type of darkness in which I was able to plop down on my back and stare straight into the heart of that luminous ghost, Via Lactea, sprawled across the night’s canvas in inscrutable magnificence.
Seriously, though, those stars were a bloody feast for my eager pupils. I’m reminded now of a quote by Emerson:
“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”
At that point I’d been living for five months in Busan, Korea where, as in most cities, the light pollution renders invisible all but the most radiant far-off suns. Being somewhat of a tree-caressing nature-smoocher, it felt like Emerson’s “thousand years” had passed since I’d last beheld the nightly spectacle that so many of us take for commonplace.
For a while I laid in the coarse sand, gazing pensively at the oceanic sublime, and the sublime seemed to laugh and call out, “Of course you can’t understand all this! Your small mind pales! Just… let the awe wash over you.” This intimate experience was intermittently interrupted by a few passersby who almost stepped on me (“Is that a person?” “Yep, I’m just watching the stars…” “Oh, neat.” *hurry away giggling*). At least one person noted that the stars were, indeed, beautiful.
Later in the evening, the island was silent. Most people had retired, and the only sound was that of the ocean waves performing their ancient deed, pawing the shore in perfect rhythm. My friend and I had wandered into one of the last open bars, one in which a rough sign read, “IF YOU’RE STILL DRINKING, WE’RE STILL SERVING”. All but three bartenders and a handful of nocturnal patrons had left. The island’s power had been cut for the night (imagine: electricity, a precious commodity?!), so our unlikely collective huddled around a pair of dripping candles, sipping beer and whiskey, spit-balling haphazard conversation.
It was in this setting that a bestubbled Londoner in a red-checkered shirt decided to interrupt the likely trajectory of things. Forgive me as I paraphrase:
“I’m sick of answering the same questions,” he said. “Everywhere you go it’s ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Where have you been?’, ‘Where are you going?’. And it’s always the same. We’ve been here, we’ve been there. We know where we’ve all been. Let’s talk about something interesting.”
“Okay, what do you think happens when you die?”
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An almost instantaneous reply from one of the bartenders, another Englishman in a Hawaiian shirt. As he said this, it seemed that the atmosphere shifted. Some people grew solemn, some wriggled uncomfortably, some grinned as if to say, “Oh, here’s where it gets good.”
We went around the circle—seven of us, as I remember it—and gave our opinion on the matter. One man thought nothing happens—that’s it. A couple thought it wouldn’t be the end—they’d go somewhere or something—but they didn’t know much else. One believed in some sort of heaven as promised by his religion. I explained that the way I think of it might be most easily explained in terms of physics: the law of conservation of energy states that energy in an isolated system cannot be created or destroyed but can only change form. Thus I explained that I thought my “being” (mass-energy) would remain one with final reality, as it had always been. I said I didn’t know about ideas like that of a soul or some essence of personality that persists after death. Too speculative to say either way.
Each of us listened attentively and respectfully to the others’ views. No one bothered to challenge or belittle another’s perspective. It was mutually acknowledged that this topic was one of pure conjecture, an age-old mystery that every mature human who’s ever lived has considered and cannot answer. In those few minutes of conversation, we ceased to be strangers from distant sectors of the globe. It ceased to matter how little we knew of the details of each other’s lives and identities. For a short time, we were all recognizably the same thing—mortal, uncertain, doing our best to make sense of a quandary as tremendous and impenetrable as that brilliant galaxy I had stared at hours before.
Faces illuminated by the flickering candlelight, every man in that bar—for confronting and coping with such a colossal unknown— seemed to me a hero in his own right. To speak candidly and without sentimentality for a moment: we’re born unclothed into this incomprehensible existence; we find out that sooner or later we and everyone we know will undergo something called “death”, an event in which “you” as you understand yourself will seemingly stop existing forever; and we’re supposed to swallow that? That’s a bitter draft, lads. And yet, we persist. We construct lives on this precarious foundation. We love. We create. We share. We help one another, directly or indirectly, to find value on this diminutive rock, in this wondrous, peculiar behemoth of a star-peppered void.
If nothing else, that’s downright courageous. Call it evolutionary instinct, or reduce it in some other way if you like, but in my skull, every one of us is utterly brave to slide out of bed each morning and face the daily challenge to hold onto hope and meaning despite the inevitable demons that waylay us all.
We spend a great deal of our lives chattering about surface-level topics—weather forecasts, sports scores, fashion trends, gossip—and I don’t think that’s necessarily an awful thing. If every conversation on Earth were suddenly about what happens when we die, or the last thing that made us weep uncontrollably, or the deepest fears and dreams of our brittle hearts—things might get a bit weighty and depressing.
But while I can hardly recall a single specific conversation that I’ve had about the long, shitty winter or so-and-so’s heinous makeup faux pas, I will never forget that night in Cambodia when, for several fleeting minutes, the right question transformed seven improbable acquaintances into nothing more and nothing less than naked humans—comrades of an archaic quest for understanding, united by a shared reverence and bewilderment in the face of an unanswerable riddle that’s sewn into bones and winks in the night sky.
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