“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?”
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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About Jordan Bates
Jordan Bates is a Lover of God, healer, mentor of leaders, writer, and music maker. The best way to keep up with his work is to join nearly 7,000 people who read his Substack newsletter.
Sir, your writing is amazing. I hope to one day emulate your talent.
Much appreciated, amigo. Send me some of your writing sometime. Best to you.
Gracias, Venus. Stay planetary. 😉
I’ve been told more than once that death and aging confronts us when we start hearing more and more in our circle pass away. Until then we hardly think about it. Anyway, it’s always a pleasure reading your narratives on the road. I bet you’ve already experienced hearing a stranger’s life story (and not even knowing his or her name) while in a long bus or train trip–I know I did!
Louella, Yes, I think most people don’t think much about death until such tragedies strike. Personally I think being in touch with our temporality and the temporality of those around us compels us to live more deliberately, deeply, and sincerely, and also to begin coping with the inevitable passing of all things sooner rather than later. Glad you enjoy my stuff. I’ve heard quite a few strangers’ stories, but only a couple on buses and trains as I haven’t ridden too many of those. There will be plenty more travel stories when I’m done in Korea and am on the… Read more »
What a GREAT experience, I always think about how true it would be to have a conversation like that with “strangers”, without much unnecessary or superficial social tricks and everything, just like fellows sharing the same planet and the same human nature. and i’m just so glad i’ve found this blog…! thank you, sincerely.
It was truly a significant and memorable experience. I’m touched that you enjoyed reading it and appreciate the blog. Wouldn’t it be something if we could all approach one another from a place of mutual wonder and curiosity, holding in mind the utterly inexplicable nature of the other’s presence before us, and respect one another as equally mysterious beings? I’m not sure our psyches are up to the task, but sometimes, when we break through to such an awareness, the results are deeply transformative. You’re welcome. I hope to hear from you again.
“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. ”
thank you, francis. really, always.
It’s not the first article of yours I read, and I am thoroughly enjoying every one of them. I am amazed at how well you choose topics and words. Thanks for wonderful, inspiring reading! And this particular topic is very strong. This year I’ve been going through some kind of a ‘crisis’ trying to somehow become friends with the idea of possible future non-existence, and it’s not easy. But I just got a thought: Hey, in a way it’s a good and powerful thing that there is one big mystery in the universe that has been lying on the surface… Read more »
moved to hear that you’re so enjoying my stuff. it’s really appreciated. and yes, i think i’m in the process of making friends with the mystery. it isn’t just on the surface. everything we see or seem or think or dream or smell or hear or feel is, on some level, a mystery to us. that’s pretty astonishing. makes me feel like taking things a little more easily and chuckling more often.
If you have the right friends, you will have these deeper conversations every day. I have many wonderful friends who cannot talk about these things, but a few, like myself, prefer to talk about ideas rather than things or places. Seek those people! Make them part of your life, even if they live far away. I’m also professional writer. I find myself incapable of caring enough to write about anything that does not explore the hard questions. Death is just one of them.
sounds like we’re kindred beings, tojohndillonesq. grateful for your message and thanks for your sage words.
God! I loved your language in this article. I’ve subscribed to your NewsLetter bud didn’t receive any confirmation email (I checked my inbox and spam too).