The Enneagram of Death November 2012
(Review by Courtney Behm)
It will come as no surprise to students of the Enneagram that each type has its own, idiosyncratic way of dealing with grief, fear and dying. I’d go farther out on that limb and wager that I could probably make nine sets of assumptions that would come pretty close to the mark. But Elizabeth Wagele’s latest book, The Enneagram of Death, does much more than reinforce what we know—or think we know—about the variations in responses to this inevitable part of life. She lets people of each type tell their own stories, and in doing so, she opens up their world to us and creates a whole new conversation.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m one of the contributors to this book, and when Liz sent out her request for articles on how we deal with death, I assumed she was looking for anecdotes she would weave into her own narrative about the challenges each type faces at the end of life, or at the loss of someone close to them. I was surprised, then, when I received my reviewer’s copy to see that the book was, instead, a tapestry of stories — some humorous, some moving, some inspirational, some instructive – and that Liz had made each story more powerful by gracefully getting out of the way of her witnesses, shaping and guiding with brief introductions, witty drawings and closing comments, and then letting each story be our ticket of admission into their reality.
As a result, the impact of all these voices is far more than just a primer on type and death. It is a profound affirmation of our common humanity filtered through our different points of view. Each author has something to learn from the others, and as you read the stories, it becomes clear that death transcends type, and that our ability to meet it successfully requires us to abandon our habitual coping mechanisms and allow our essential selves to guide us along the path. Suffering comes to us most often when the grip on personality is so fixed and rigid that we cannot open our hands and let go.
However, letting go does not come naturally. Long before we have a personality, we are living organisms programmed by our DNA to survive. As a result, we can be fierce in our determination to set things up in favor of life, and to have life go according to our plan. This hunger for control echoes throughout the pages of this book, as people of all types struggle to keep themselves safe, to determine how the people around them will participate in their dying process, or to manage their exits as carefully as a writer plots a novel. The right to die with dignity, the right to die as we choose, can be part of this control process, but choosing to die, even after a long, painful illness, pushes us smack up against our will to live, and at the moment of decision, some people may be surprised to find the messy uncertainty of dying to be more precious and comforting than the well-thought-out exit strategy.
It is clear from the stories in The Enneagram of Death that we will all be changed by our approaching demise, or by experiencing the death of others, in ways we will sometimes find it difficult to anticipate. A Five, whose strength in times of sorrow is a natural detachment, finds the gift of vulnerability. A One consumed by worry loses his fear in the face of a terminal diagnosis. A Three prioritizes relationships and quality of life over success. A Two learns to receive as well as give. One by one, we all come to a place where we must face our grief and conquer our fear of loss in order to live a healthy life, regardless of how long or short that life may be, and when we do so, the rewards can be unimaginably rich.
In some ways, it’s the people left behind who struggle most with the dying process. Our loved ones suffered, perhaps, but are now beyond suffering. We might be prostrate with loss, but we are very much alive, and we must get up and go out and take care of business without them. Their absences are painful, shocking, disruptive, and require us to refashion our world in new and uncomfortable ways. This is particularly true when the loss occurs while we are young, and lack the maturity and the frame of reference to be philosophical. If we lose a parent or a sibling or a close friend in childhood, we may be well into our adulthood before we can unravel the tangles and the scars, and the impact can reverberate through generations before it is finally healed.
For good or ill, we will deal with grief, fear and dying as we are taught by our history and our experience, but we also have the option of learning new perspectives. To this end, I would like to call out Knute Fishers’s story of living through a full year as if it were his last. Some years ago, I had read Stephen Levine’s One Year to Live with the idea that this would be a good vehicle for me to put my spiritual life in order. But I put the book back on the shelf and got busy and that was the end of that. For Knute, the call was profound, personal and organic, rising out of something deep within him, and he created his own process from a conviction that he only had a short time left in which to experience life to the fullest. Looking through this prism, it became strikingly clear what was worth his full attention, and what he could clear away in order to bring forth the gold. This process gave him the courage to do and say what was most important.
Too many of us get taken over by the chatter and busyness of our daily schedules, and our to-do lists become what life is about; we forget to lift our eyes to the glimmering promise of beauty, love, compassion, gratitude and wisdom that can be found even in the darkest of times. When we live each day as if we were to die tomorrow, we develop an immediate appreciation of the gifts life brings us. Every moment, every breath, every interaction, every relationship, every misstep, every success has something to teach us about being a spirit in a body, living in a world that has a mind of its own, and supports us in making the most of the days we have left.
When the time comes for us to relinquish our hold on life, or to let a loved one pass away from us, we will all do what we can to make it through. Some will respond with gentleness and compassion. Others will be consumed by the dark sides of their personalities. The rest of us will probably ride the roller coaster from denial to anger to bargaining to bad behavior to sense of humor to equanimity and back again before we achieve peace and acceptance. But what The Enneagram of Death offers us is a window into the experiences of our fellow travelers, into their struggles and their victories, and an opportunity to take their learning and make it our own. Not only has Liz Wagele produced a vital addition to the Enneagram canon, she has also provided us with a powerful call to remain fully, victoriously engaged with both living and dying. For this reader, it doesn’t get better than that.
This first appeared in the Enneagram Monthly November 2012.