“It always surprises me,” says Komla, “how surprising death is, when it’s the one thing that’s inevitable.” The Verifiers
The meaning of life is that it ends … Franz Kafka
Perhaps you are a Kardashian-like Prince Prospero partying like there is no tomorrow in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. Or maybe you’re a brooding Camus-like Antonius Bloch trying to delay the inevitable by challenging death to a game of chess in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. It’s possible you’re convinced like science writer Martin Gardener (Why I Am Not An Atheist) by the iconoclastic and scholarly Catholic priest Hans Kung (Eternal Life) or the morose philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (The Tragic Sense of Life) that there can be a reasonable and justifiable trust that death is not the ultimate end. Alternatively you may prefer the point of view expressed by the scientist Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan (The Varieties of Scientific Experiment) who “never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting.” Whatever your thoughts on death one must ultimately move on with life. As the poet Philip Larkin eloquently ends his beautiful poem Aubade:
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
Camus concludes his famous The Myth of Sisyphus:
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Move on? Be happy? That is the advice we get? Let us not fool ourselves. There is no magic bullet. Whatever our personal thoughts on death, we all die. We may have some limited control over how or when but that we will die is not in dispute. For most of us that’s an unpleasant thought. So, we move on, we get over it, we learn to be happy in spite of this “ugly truth.”
What happens when we die? It is a question that gnaws at us even as we choose, which we do most of the time, to ignore it. The best book on the subject is still, in our opinion, Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die. A review and list of illustrative quotes can be found on Patrick T. Reardon’s website.
Think in the Morning has discussed these issues in two previous blogs.
Is death the ultimate end?
The spiritual view is that man is divine in origin with an immortal soul. The materialist view is that man is an evanescent accident with no moral nature except that created in him by his experience and culture. [Behind The Locked Door]
While we may feel strongly one way or the other, we simply don’t know. Not for sure. Not beyond a reasonable doubt. There are many accounts of “near death experiences”—light at the end of a tunnel, the sense of rising above one’s body and watching others interact. Some see friends and family who have died, some have a feeling of peace and happiness. But, a near death experience is not death. You are still alive. The same old brain with its ability to see things that aren’t there, to make up stories, vulnerable to illusions of hope, that same old brain, it’s still there delighting in its ability to fool you into thinking that there is a you even though what you are is beyond your comprehension.
Epicurus says “Death is nothing to us. When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from the belief that in death, there is awareness.”
What is awareness? What is consciousness? What is The Meaning of It All? The famous physicist Richard Feynman concludes “we do not know.”
What, then, is the meaning of it all? What can we say today to dispel the mystery of existence? If we take everything into account, not only what the ancients knew, but also all those things that we have found out up to today that they didn’t know, then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know. But I think that in admitting this we have probably found the open channel.
Feynman, Richard P. The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist
I have had no near death experiences but I have had experience with death, my grandfather when I was a child, my father, sister and brother all in my early twenties, later my grandmother, then mother, mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law. Too many friends. Most recently and painfully, my oldest son.
I have not had any Hand In The Mirror encounters although I was close friends with Max Besler, the principal protagonist of the book. I haven’t seen any ghosts or spirits, haven’t had any contact with the dead through seance or mediums or other channels including patiently waiting in the dark.
Personally, I have come to conclude that death is the ultimate end. I try to keep an open mind but not so open that my brains fall out (paraphrasing Richard Feynman).
Author John Fowles describes “the open channel” in a letter to a young girl who asks him to explain the meaning of his novel The Magus.
Reality, human existence, is infinitely baffling. One gets one explanation – the Christian, the psychological, the scientific … but always it gets burnt off like summer mist and a new landscape-explanation appears. The one valid reality or principle for us lies in eleutheria – freedom. Accept that man has the possibility of a limited freedom, and if this is so, he must be responsible for his actions. To be free (which means rejecting all the gods and political creeds and the rest) leaves one no choice but to act according to reason: that is, humanely to all humans.
Humanely to other humans means to me not foisting my beliefs on others as long as they don’t foist theirs on me.
I think of one of my favorite writers, Jennifer Michael Hecht, who’s book A History Of Doubt is a classic. She said this in an interview quite some time ago.
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, and it seems that if you have a doctrine, a version of rationalism or a version of atheism, that makes it so that you have to be worried about using the word mystery, you’ve got yourself too constraining a doctrine. And so, I think that that’s what’s been so wonderful about doubters throughout history. They haven’t been an all-out turf war against religion. They haven’t been afraid — you know, Epicurus says, ‘You know, it feels good to pray, you might as well.’ Now, that’s an amazing statement for someone who says that there’s no one listening. And the idea that we don’t have to be against religion or against the idea of mystery. How can you really be against the idea of mystery and have your eyes open at the same time? It doesn’t make sense to me.
But mystery, then, doesn’t mean I’ve got to fill in the blanks with, you know, ideas of my own imagination. Though, when people say that they’ve spent, you know, years in the desert and they’ve had certain experiences, I think that it’s perfectly reasonable to hold those experiences, those feelings. Or, you know, you don’t have to go off into the desert, just the feeling of faith. That’s an important thing. And I don’t think it needs to be dismissed in a kind of panic of, ‘We’ve got to control the other side.’ You know, if we sort of can respect these ideas and say, ‘Yeah, life is mysterious. It is very strange.’ Just the fact that, you know, we are these animals who have these kinds of thoughts, it’s all pretty wondrous. And doubters have celebrated it. And that’s the kind of doubt I want to bring into the conversation, because I think we’ve really backed ourselves into a couple of corners, and it’s time to get out.
Sherwin Nuland speaks of death like this: Death – the coming end – is what gives life its meaning. It is what makes every moment priceless. There’s no time to procrastinate. There’s no fountain of youth. This is it. Make the best of it.
Nelson, a character in my novel Behind the Locked Door, says this to the main character Eric: “Look at you, Jack. I thought you was an attorney, fixed up other people’s lives. Now you jumpin’ up and down and cryin’, “I gonna die! I gonna die!” For Chrissake, remember who you are, man. Don’t matter when you go, we all go sooner or later. What you needs is to make your life whole. If death take you, then you ready.”
Carl Sagan’s wife Ann Druyan says:
“When my husband [Carl Sagan] died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me-it still sometimes happens-and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful. . . . The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”
Let’s end with a beautiful song based on the famous Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, adapted from the translation by Edward Fitzgerald, set to music by Charles Tyler and sung by Judy Mayhan.
Dreaming – just as dawn lit up the sky – I heard a cry
“Wake up and fill the cup before the precious wine of life has all run dry
The bird of time has but a little way to fly
And see the bird is on the wing”
When I was young I studied with the wise men and the saints
But all I ever learned was that I come like water and like wind I go
Into this universe – why not knowing
And out of it – like wind across the wasteland blowing
Ah love, if you and I could understand this world entire
Would we not shatter it to bits and build it back much closer to our hearts desire?
What use is worrying how time slips beneath our feet?
Or what is past or what’s to come – if today is sweet!
The moving finger writes and having written it moves on
There’s nothing you can do to bring it back and all your tears can’t change a word
It’s no use crying to the sky under which we live and die
The sky rolls on – as impotent as you or I
Oh come with old Khayyam and leave the wise to talk
One thing is certain – a flower blooms and dies – the rest is lies
A loaf of bread beneath the trees, a flask of wine, a book of verse
And you beside me singing – and this wilderness is paradise enough
Some people talk about a paradise that’s still to come
I’ll choose today over the music of a distant drum!
And if the wine you drink, the lip you press, ends up as nothing
Then while you still live, drink! for once dead you never shall return
And when you pass among the guests star-scattered on the grass
And reach the spot where I made one – turn down an empty glass!
I have spent all my life since I turned 14 (now 69) writing poetry, and I was as surprised as could be the first time the word “death” appeared in one of my works shortly after I turned twenty. I’ve used it now in more than half my work. It’s an argument you/I cannot win, but we can decide how we will meet death when it comes. I am thinking of the great Rilke poem, A Man Watching, where Jacob wrestles the angel, knowing he will not win, but he can choose to lose decisively to a greater being, and that is an acceptable outcome. I think of that a lot, more so these last several years. Just don’t want to die in a car crash. Rather have a tree fall on me.
To the Parcae by Rilke
A single summer grant me, great powers, and
a single autumn for fully ripened song
that, sated with the sweetness of my
playing, my heart may more willingly die.
The soul that, living, did not attain its divine
right cannot repose in the nether world.
But once what I am bent on, what is
holy, my poetry, is accomplished:
Be welcome then, stillness of the shadows’ world!
I shall be satisfied though my lyre will not
accompany me down there. Once I
lived like the gods, and more is not needed.
All excellent David. Thanks.