Fare Well Now For ‘The Farewell’ Later

If an elderly relative is, according to medical professionals, technically dying, already in his or her last stages of life, but not yet sickly enough to be bedridden, should he or she be informed of this ‘bad news’ or not? Legal issues aside, which depends on the local law, ‘The Farewell’ (别告诉她) explores the tensions of this dilemma, on the ethics of breaking the death sentence, versus withholding its ‘pronouncement’. The film offers some nuanced musings, on cultural versus personal clashes of views, on the right(s and wrongs) to know oneself (or even someone else) is dying.

What if the news shared depresses with fear and such, and even hastens death? But what if the patient becomes angry with eventual knowledge, when it might be too late then, to fulfil that yet to be fulfilled? If there is ever a more timely time to break the news, when is it, when it is neither too early nor too late? Is pretending that ‘all is well’ not exactly that which is not well? Why not break the news as swiftly yet gently as possible? After all, time is of the essence… of life and death, living and dying.

May all be brave to face dying and death — on both sides, as patients and survivors. If all are courageous enough, there would be no dilemma, with all sharing the ‘burden’ to kindly and wisely prepare for passing, openly and equanimously, with no particular attachment (to the worldly life expiring), or aversion (to the phase of death that will come to pass). Thus can there be proper spiritual practice done in time, for facilitating the best rebirth possible — in Pure Land.

For lifelong Buddhists, with the Buddha’s frequent speak of impermanence, there should already be lifelong acceptance with adequate preparation for personal departure. The truth is, the day we are born, the rest of this life, even in the midst of growing up before growing old, we were already advancing towards death. Living now is itself dying now, with the latter literally being a lifelong process. For those not brave enough to face death yet, may this be often reflected upon.

Every farewell might be the final farewell. As Marcus Aurelius learnt through Epictetus, ‘As you kiss your son good night, says Epictetus, whisper to yourself, “He may be dead in the morning.” Don’t tempt fate, you say. By talking about a natural event? Is fate tempted when we speak of grain being reaped?‘ This is a Memento Mori (or ‘mindfulness of death’) teaching from Stoicism, not different in spirit to the Buddhist practice of having recollection on death.

It is not morbid or inauspicious to reflect as above. It is a daily (or nightly) reflection on the reality of impermanence. Practising thus will only condition us to treasure those we are with, while not clinging with attachment. Is this not the Middle Path when it comes to relationships? As Stonepeace put it, ‘From moment to moment, treasure everything. From moment to moment, do not be attached to anything.‘ (时时刻刻,珍惜一切。时时刻刻,不执一物。) This is not a contradicting paradox at all, but a necessary balancing act. Peace is in the centre, the eye of the ‘storm’.

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