Many years ago, while traveling towards a village whose name I can no longer remember, a young merchant found himself trapped in a sudden thunderstorm. As the tempest roared and howled and boomed around him, he saw the opening of a cave, just large enough for his horse to fit through. He dug his heels into his horse and galloped towards the entrance of the cavern. The rain poured down outside the cave, but the merchant and his horse were safe and, more importantly, dry. At least for the moment.
The storm continued to rage and showed no sign of ending before the day had first, and so the merchant decided that he would spend the night in the cave, and to that end, began to explore his cozy shelter. In the darkness, he stumbled and fell onto the ground. When he looked back, he saw a discarded skull, smooth and white, its flesh devoured by time.
He shrieked and scurried backwards, distancing himself from the remains. The skull stayed still. Realizing his over-reaction, the young merchant approached the skull and picked it up. He shuddered. “How awful… You poor fellow. What evil befell you? Were you, like me, trapped here by a storm? Did you meet your demise in exile, banished from your native land? Perhaps you were pursued by your fellow man, and came here to hide from them, and could not escape. Or did you fall ill, and expire here alone? How unfortunate that you passed away.”
The dark, empty sockets of the skull stared back at the young merchant, looking deeply inside of him. After a moment, he set it down carefully, facing the cave wall, and retreated to the opposite end of the cave to prepare for sleep.
As he slept, he dreamt. And as he dreamt, the skull appeared before him and spoke. “Do not presume, o mortal, to speak of things of which you know nothing. How do you know it’s bad to be dead? Not a word of truth about the afterlife has yet been spoken by mankind. There is no hell as you suppose, nor heaven that people talk about.
“These things you fear—disease, banishment, violence—none of them matter to the dead. All of the worries, all of the torments, all of the frivolities of life vanish once one dies. Look upon my bones, and tell me. Was I wealthy? Was I impoverished? Was I beautiful? Was I hideous? Was I loved or was I despised? Was I an emperor or was I a slave? No such distinctions matter after death. In death all of us are equal.
“You speak of death as a misfortune, but fortune has nothing to do with it. Death is fated to us all. Not even the happiest or the luckiest of men can avoid death, and if they did, they would surely be called unhappy and unlucky. Imagine a deathless existence. Your eyes clouded white from cataracts, your body weak and infirm, your loved ones absent, your life miserable without hope of escape.
“Death is the last and greatest gift given to mankind. When the pain grows too great, when life becomes unbearable, when we have accomplished all that we wished and we grow weary of the world, death awaits us to take us away from these torments and bothers. Death frees us. Death is not a disease, it is the end of diseases. Death is not a curse, it is the end of curses. Death is not a misfortune, it is the end of misfortunes. It is right to mourn the death of others as one would the banishment of a good friend, but one’s own death should never be the cause of fear or sadness.
“I lived a satisfying life. I played, I farmed, I loved, I laughed. I suffered, I fought, I bled, I cried. I lived a life that I enjoyed as best as I could, and I died without regrets. There is nothing more to do than that. Fear not death, o mortal. It will come to you, too, one day, whether you are ready for it or not. All that you can choose is whether to accept this fact or not.”
The young merchant awoke, his clothes moist with sweat. The skull was now nowhere to be found, but the storm had ceased and the sun had risen. He led his horse out of the cave and resumed his journey in peace, the skull’s words echoing in his mind.
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