We’re in the midst of a pandemic. I’m 76 years old. So I’ll share with you some thoughts on a topic I know you’re all dying to read about: death.
The famous French essayist, Montaigne, in one of his essays entitled, That to study philosophy is to learn to die, argued that the key to understanding life is to accept death.
The best introduction to philosophy I’ve ever read, The Questions of Life – an invitation to philosophy, by the Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater, has as the title of its first chapter, Let us begin with death. Savater argues that it’s death that not only makes us want to philosophise — i.e. ask what the meaning of life is — but also what makes us human.
Death has always fascinated me, probably because my father’s death by drowning when I was three was bewildering. They never found his body. There was not the closure that a funeral followed by interment brings.
My mother’s death, which occurred when I was in my late twenties, while saddening, was not traumatic. One of my brothers, Hal, died in 1984 of a heart attack at the relatively young age of 43. I was, at the time, 40. I became instantly aware of the fragility of life.
I had more time to reflect on death when my oldest brother and surrogate father, Keith, died in 2014 several weeks after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I spent lots of time with him as he lay in bed during his illness. The day he died I was with him alone in the morning while his wife Marina was on some errands. For a long time that morning, he seemed agitated and restless, tossing and turning in the bed, constantly adjusting the pillows under his head. I kept asking him if there was anything he wanted or anything I could do for him. He shook his head. Then he settled down peacefully. When Marina returned, I got up to leave. For the first time that morning, he spoke. As I was leaving he called me back, shook my hand and said, ‘goodbye’. He died about two hours later.
Death has always fascinated us. We fear it; we love it; we run from it; we run to it. We hope to conquer it or at least put it off to way in the distant future. We invest it with elaborate rituals. The enduring signs of all cultures and civilisations are their sacrificial sites, tombs and memorials to the dead. Witness the pyramids. Our myths and sacred texts are obsessed with death. Our literature and art can find no more intriguing subject.
Death is the greatest enigma of all. The enigma stems from death’s paradoxical denial and affirmation of life. Death, as the end of life, is always sad, and often tragic. It’s sad for those who lose a loved one. It’s tragic if the dead person is young or the manner of death is horrific. Even when death is timely, catching us in old age, we tend to resist it. It’s the extinction of our self, to which we’ve become understandably attached.
Yet death also affirms life. It’s the certain knowledge of our mortality that makes life so precious. We treasure every moment because it’s fleeting. Death not only lends life an edge but also complements it, giving it a sense of closure it would otherwise lack.
Moreover, ageing is nature’s way of reconciling us to death. The gradual loss of our physical and mental powers, the growing infirmities and aches, all lead us gently to let go of life. But sometimes, not so gently, as in the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas’ poem on death: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Let’s face it: without death, life is meaningless. Oh sure, we would like to live forever knowing we could die at any moment; but if we knew we had to live forever with no possibility of death, we would never get out of bed because there would always be a tomorrow in which we could do what we wanted. Life would not only be boring; it would be so terrifying, we’d desperately crave the release of death. So, looked at logically, we ought not to fear death, but welcome it as a friend, whatever we believe.
If we don’t believe there’s any transcendent purpose to life – it’s all random meaningless chance — and see death as the final extinction of our consciousness, we may find comfort, as the Stoics did, in the knowledge that before we were born we were without consciousness, a fact which does not terrify us. If, on the other hand, we believe, as I do, that life—the cosmos—has a purpose towards which it’s evolving and we have a role in it, and that beyond/within it all is a loving intelligence, we must also accept that decay is an intrinsic feature of this creation, and that, for whatever reason, death is the ordained end of this natural life. So why worry? Trust the Creator.
That’s all very well and good from a philosophical point of view, but instincts honed by millennia of evolution urge us to cling to life. It is, after all, a supremely precious gift; so valuable, that even in circumstances as degrading and horrifying as a Nazi concentration camp or the prisons of the world’s sadistic torturers, or in the brutal enslavement of Africans in the Americas, humans have shown a fierce will to survive.
Does knowledge of death destroy happiness? Or is death, paradoxically, the one thing that makes happiness possible? But then, what is happiness?
If, for example, I gaze at the distant sea, feel the cool breeze on my face, am I happy? Well, I’m content. But happy? Some feel that being in touch with nature, like a sea bath, or hiking, or gardening, makes us happy.
Eating, drinking, and sex are pleasurable. But is pleasure happiness? To love and be loved: is that happiness? Is wealth happiness? Rich people often seem too stressed out to be happy. But let’s not romanticise poverty. It sucks. So some level of material well-being seems necessary.
People who climb mountains or run marathons, or give birth or do other personally dangerous or harrowing things, are they happy when they’re doing them? Or only in retrospect? Am I happy when I’m writing? Or only after having written?
The American Declaration of Independence speaks of the inalienable rights of “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Maybe happiness is a goal we can only pursue but never attain? Is it the journey that makes us happy while the arrival disappoints?
Okay, I won’t leave you unhappy, so let me take a stab at defining happiness.
We’re happy when we experience the fulfilment of using our gifts. Since we’re social creatures as well as part of the natural order, the exercise of our gifts necessarily brings us into a relationship with others, our environment, and with the transcendent/God.
Everyone has gifts: both talent and vocation; both graceful ease and hard exertion; both blessing and curse. In the superb sports film, Chariots of Fire, the Scottish Christian missionary runner, Eric Liddell, who was the fastest man on the planet in the 1920s, tells his sister, who is urging him to give up running for missionary work, “I believe God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast, and I feel his pleasure when I run.”
We’re lucky. Happiness happens to us twice: when we use our gifts and when we recall their use. The pursuit of happiness is a lifelong quest to discover and use our gifts. Discovering them can be difficult. Sometimes those whom we love and respect lead us away from them because they think them unworthy of us, or we unworthy of them. But it’s also why we treasure forever the memory of a parent or that one teacher, friend, or mentor who helped us unlock the mystery within and put us on the hard path to happiness.
Talking of happiness and death, I recently re-read Love in the Time of Cholera by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A superbly crafted masterpiece. It’s a romance. The story of the lower-class illegitimate boy, Florentino Ariza, and his love for the beautiful Fermina Daza. It follows the classic formula: boy meets girl, they fall in love, complications ensue, but love triumphs in the end. Jane Austen? Well, not quite.
The complication is Fermina’s marriage of 51 years, nine months and 4 days to someone else: the upper-class doctor, Juvenal Urbino, with whose death the novel begins. Florentino faithfully waits. Kind of. While he refuses to marry, he has sexual encounters with 622 women. Okay, so he’s free with his phallus, but he keeps his soul pure for Fermina. In fact, when he and Fermina finally have sex, he is 78, and she is 74. “Her shoulders were wrinkled, her breasts sagged, her ribs were covered by a flabby skin as pale and cold as a frog’s”. She tenderly gives him enemas and brushes his false teeth.
If this sounds like an outrageous satire, it isn’t. It’s a romance, but one rooted in a magical sordid reality. The novel, set in a fictional Caribbean city of Colombia at the turn of the 20th Century against the backdrop of continual outbreaks of cholera, is one of the most profound meditations in literature on love, ageing and death.
In the symbolic finale, they set off to cruise up-river in one of the river boats of the company that Florentino now owns. For the first time in his life Florentino casts off his sombre black garb and appears transfigured in a white suit. They journey through a landscape stripped of all vegetation and animal life. Cholera corpses bob in the current. Amidst this utter desolation, the river becomes the mythical Styx leading them into the realm of death. Florentino instructs the captain to hoist the yellow flag of cholera to avoid taking on any passengers and so he and Fermina can be alone. “They made the tranquil wholesome love of experienced grandparents,” and came to realise “that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.”
“And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and going?” shouts the frustrated captain. The novel ends with Florentino’s response: “Forever.”
So, to all my ageing friends, take one day at a time and enjoy what it has to offer. Or if I may paraphrase, without heretical intent, a famous aphorism, ‘sufficient unto the day is the happiness thereof’.
(Dr. Peter Laurie is a retired permanent secretary and head of the Foreign Service who once served as Barbados’ Ambassador to the United States)
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