There is no life, without death
By Ip Anna Tin Wai
Life and death are generally thought to be polar opposites. In this article, however, the author puts the meaning of death into perspective. Contrary to common beliefs that death is the inevitable outcome of life – in many ways, death creates life.
“Death opens a door out of a little, dark room (that’s all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.”
- C.S. Lewis,
Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold
“Nah, I don’t really care for happiness”, I said. Shocked, my first-year roommate, with her eyes wide-open and brows knitted together, frantically asked, “What do you want in life, then?” Slightly perturbed, I rolled over to my left. Darkness didn’t consume the pale white wall lying right next to me. Instead, the wall appeared exceptionally luminous, as light permeated and diffused through the microscopic gaps in between the curtains. Staring at the walls was oddly calming. Slowly and firmly, I said, “Pain, because I know there is no life, without death.”
Science has always been my weakest link. I don’t like it, nor do I do well in it. My younger self, who had long been impatiently thirsting for answers to probing mysteries of life and death, was most dissatisfied with the dull and impersonal narrations science had to offer. As I grew older, however, I started noticing the inherent beauty of mother nature – perhaps, just perhaps, there is more to science than the dreary jargons I was unwillingly fed with. From as little as how plants grow, to as big as how the ecosystem works, mother nature, through her working, is gently whispering and imparting to us, ancient-old wisdom that would forever change our lives. At least, this was what happened to me.
When I was around ten years old, I was told the story of eagles, the symbol of fierceness in ornithology. My teacher then said, “listen and learn”. As you could imagine, my 10-year-old-self sulked when my teacher threw at me this rather tedious and unappetizing introduction. Hang in there, though, for you will, just like I did, be so engrossed in the story that you would be left in contemplation at the end.
Let the truth speak for itself. The Reptile Gardens, on its website, notes: as eagles celebrate their 40th birthday, they quietly fly to hills and mountains, to find themselves a spot for the next 150 days. No, it isn’t a mid-life crisis. The eagles have a far more important crisis at stake. A bird reaching its 40 years old mark, by any standard, is extraordinary. As the Reptile Gardens describes in great detail, the inconvenient truth, however, is that their old age is accompanied with inevitable flaws, an imminent threat to their survival. In the words of the Reptile Garden, middle-aged birds are forced to coexist with increasingly “bent beaks”, and growingly “long and flexible talons”. As the Reptile Gardens says, such deterioration in their features seriously compromises their ability to prey. As if the situation isn’t bad enough, their feathers, at this age, tend to have become, as the website describes, “old, aged and heavy, making it difficult to fly”. They will die, should the situation persist, as highlighted by the website.
In great determination then, eagles, during their retreat at their chosen spots, as vividly recalled by the Reptile Gardens, “knock their beaks against rocks until they are plucked out”, then “pluck their talons”, and as a final trial of their remaining dwindling faith, “pluck their feathers”. Imagine, having to single-handedly snap a usually inflexible nose bone of yours, then pull, not cut your hair until every piece of hair is completely detached from your scalp, and finally, peel your skin away from your blood and flesh… Ah, now you cringe and scream in fear.
This is far from a suicidal attempt by the eagles. In the exact opposite, they are scrambling, struggling, and fighting for life, through death. It is precisely through the death of their beaks, talons and feathers, that their bodies are severed, that a stream of healing may flow through, until each cell now may be rejuvenated and features rebuilt. A once-faltering eagle, now revived – with ever-more vitality to live, to thrive, to excel.
And why yes, they were broken, but now renewed. For there is no renewal, without death.
Now intensely satisfied with the happy ending Nature compassionately grants eagles, I, for the first time in hours, put down my pen, and look out the window, only to find a flock of eagles indifferently gliding high above the sky of Tsim Sha Tsui. I’d like to think that this is eagles echoing to my narration of their story and rejoicing in their renewed strength. In great comfort, I, while renewing myself with a sip of coffee, watch the birds flap their wings from one place to another, finally landing at the world-renowned St. Andrew’s Church. Oh, and they are smart. They brought me to the church, one that is positioned in between skyscrapers and fluorescent lights, making it the very embodiment of peace. Most of all, the symbol of power of life, through death.
December 1941. It was Hong Kong’s Winter, of terror, and of bloodshed. Encapsulated by roars of the Japanese soldiers, blasts projected from bombs, and grief of the locals for the lives lost, St. Andrews Church was not immune to the atrocity – in the words of the Antiquities and Monuments Office, the church was, forcefully “converted into a Shino Shrine during the Japanese Occupation”. Yet, the symbolic red bricks of the landmark, in the midst of helplessness, afflictions and calamities, seemed to have stuck and stood closer with each other more than they ever did. In unison, the bricks sang a serene hymn to its passerby, and in solidarity, reached for their hands and wiped their tears – as if nothing else mattered. Peace, and hope – the Church sustained Hong Kong through its darkest hours.
As age creeped up on the building, red bricks aged, significance faded. Technology consumed the society, and the building no longer felt as inviting. Architects, back in 2016, must devise a “restoration plan”, as mentioned by the Antiquities and Monuments Office. How do they retain the very red essence, while elevating and modernizing the building – that was the question they must untangle. With hours of brain juice (and some fairy dust), they, as the Commissioner for Heritage’s Office mentioned, delicately removed the tired bricks from the building, resuscitated them, and using the very bricks, as the UNESCO award citation says, “restored the exterior brick facades”.
If you ask me, the new architecture is strikingly different from the old, but in so many ways, a splitting image resembling the old.
Church, now fused, does not only embody the past, but projects the present, and foretells the future - glittering, radiating and shining more than it ever did.
And this is a story of the death of the old, and the reimagination and reinvention of the new. This is the marrying of history and modernity. It is precisely through the death of the old structure, that the spirit of innovation is sparked, that room for change is made possible, that the new can make its way in. The once-irrelevant building, now revamped – with ever-more faith, hope, and love to build its legacy.
And why yes, they were demolished, and now reinvented. For there is no rewriting the future, without death.
Striving for every opportunity towards death (please, this is figurative). Isn’t this what we are doing precisely every day? We try and question – we live to learn, not to hold onto what we know, but to actively challenge our preconceived notions, or even well-established knowledge. We adventure – we go on roller coaster rides and travel to every corner of the world, just to scream our lungs out, to breath and to explore. We love – we enter, boldly into friendships and relationships presented to us, amid the heartbreaks we might have been through. We do all these, not in the spirit of living, but in the spirit of dying. We would rather put on a good fight, to challenge, to grow, and to mature. We die, to transition and move forward from our flaws, incompleteness and imperfections, to become a better version of ourselves.
How pathetic, stagnant and rigid our lives would be, if we only lived to live. The eagles would witness themselves wither, day by day – eventually die in desolation. The Church would see itself increasingly isolated and distanced from the society, losing its ability to effect change in lives – the worst thing that could happen to an evangelical institution. We would despise ourselves, for we, having lived for living, don’t even know what life is like.
Our life stories are our personal and unique experiences in living, through dying. For there is no rebirth, without death.
So believe Winston Churchill when he says, “if you’re going through hell, keep going”. Keep going.
Antiquities and Monuments Office (n.a.). Historic Building Appraisal, St. Andrew’s Church Compound. No. 138 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. Available at http://www.amo.gov.hk/form/brief_information_grade1.pdf. Accessed on 15 August, 2020.
Commissioner for Heritage’s Office (2014). Timeless archiCULTURE. UNESCO Asia- Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. 14 Award-Winning Projects of Hong Kong. Available at https://www.heritage.gov.hk/en/doc/whatsnew/1401011_development_booklet_karina_v11_p review.pdf. Accessed on 15 August, 2020.
Lewis, C.S., 1956. Till we have faces: a myth retold, London: G. Bles.
Reptile Gardens (2015). The Real “Story of an Eagle”. Available at https://www.reptilegardens.com/scales-and-tales/article/the-real-story-of-an-eagle. Accessed on 15 August, 2020.