It used to be said that there are two topics to be avoided in conversation to avoid major conflict or discord: religion and politics. The advent of social media and the popularity of bold expressions of opinion has ensured that these two are now fair game for public discourse, albeit in the cocooned safety behind our screens at home, rather than around the dinner table with friends. Most people are up for talking about the hot topics of the day, and there’s little that’s out of bounds or that has the power to shock any more.
But Bowie’s now also put death on the table for discussion. Not in an abstract or merely spooky way (think: Jackson’s Thriller), but in a wholly personal way. In his imitable style and with unique fervour, Bowie has brought the weird, the spiritual and the poignant together in a gripping concoction that has captured a mourning audience. The man who fashioned various personas and merged musical influences, the man who captured the teenage angst of the 70s and 80s, promoting the collision of quirky and cool, was not invincible. Death comes to both the great and the small, the famous and the lesser known.
In keeping his cancer diagnosis out of the media and working secretly on his final album, a parting gift to fans, Bowie demonstrated strongly that he didn’t want pity. He didn’t need empathy. He cleverly avoided the media circus in his dying days – no mean feat for rock stars past or present – and chose to work at something he deemed important, revealing his final thoughts and ruminations through the medium he felt most familiar with: music and lyrics. And the message he’s left us with is not simply poignant; it’s a frightening and glaring reminder of our mortality, the brevity of life and the possibility of a future beyond our last breath.
This is why some have been known to say that terminal cancer is a gift. That sounds outrageous, and I’m not sure I could ever view it as such, having lost my dad to the cruelty of thyroid cancer. But it may be seen as such by some sufferers, precisely because they know that death is imminent. There’s time to think through everything and say everything that needs to be said, to compose goodbyes and fulfil any last minute wishes. Those who die in an unexpected instant don’t have that privilege.
Through Blackstar, Bowie’s managed to take a message to the masses that most preachers struggle to tackle: death is on its way and there’s an urgency to fulfil everything you’ve wanted or felt called to in life.
Sometimes I feel I have all the time in the world to write and do stuff. The end of my days seems so far off. But seeing Bowie in that Lazarus video, scribbling with all his might, jolted me into remembering that my time is limited and I should get going with the tasks of life assigned to me.
What are these tasks of life? They are the things you feel strongly compelled towards. They are the possibilities within your reach that you are nudged towards and that bring you, and hopefully others, meaning. In essence, they are your raison d’etre. And whether you’re a person of faith or not, there’s a strong pull towards living lives of purpose.
So today, let’s take a lesson from an unlikely source, an unique icon who engaged with questions of mortality, and aim to live intentionally. How to do that? Well, that’s a whole other article.