REFLECTIONS (rev. 2/24/12)
"For all that has been -- thanks! To all that shall be -- yes!" (Dag Hammarskjold).
First I want to talk about death and then about aging.
I believe we are part of nature, and that whatever happens after death will be natural. Maybe it will be like a leaf becoming compost, or a wave after hitting the shore, or a candle being extinguished. I believe that nature is largely benign. If it seems "red in tooth and claw" that is because survival requires us to have an innate tendency to pay attention to threats. Nevertheless we children of Nature can and should judge our Parent as flawed.
I donít believe in heaven or karma. I believe that chance plays a significant role in the universe. I do not believe in a continued individual existence.
Despite chaos and entropy we have the capacity to produce noble deeds, just as water can crystallize into beautiful snowflakes or clouds can produce rainbows. Clouds should not be blamed if they fail to produce rainbows, although the thoughts and feelings that constitute blame are natural and have a degree of usefulness.
I believe that in responding to the sufferings of animals we probably have a valid intuition regarding what quality of life is preferable to death. In tragic circumstances we have the right to choose death over a life with little quality.
I agree with those who assert that thinking about death can enhance the quality of life, making its colors glow against a dark velvet background. Of course, this enhancement requires the ability to put thoughts of death aside. But I donít see that as especially difficult.
Death gives shape to life, like the hole does to the doughnut. Death is not an evil, although untimely death is. (Analogously, pain that warns one to protect a wound is not evil, although chronic pain is.)
I like this poem from Dorothy Soelle, The Mystery of Death:
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the gleam of diamonds in the snow,
I am the sunlight on ripe grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush,
I am the gently rising rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the gentle stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there; I did not die.
Of course the poem does not mean that you shouldn't be sad. Rather, it speaks of an admixture of something beyond sadness.
I do not believe that an intense or intractable fear of death is basic to human
psychology. I think Viktor Frankl's observation in Man's Search for
Meaning is plausible:
"Even the gas chambers lost their horrors for [the prisoner of Auschwitz] after the first few days--after all, they spared him the act of committing suicide."
David Burns, a renowned cognitive therapist, has an optimistic chapter on "Dealing with the Fear of Death" in his The Feeling Good Handbook. He writes: "One patient was terrified by the thought: "After I die there will be nothingness. I couldn't stand that!" After he wrote it down on his Daily Mood Log, he was able to substitute this Rational Response: "Then there will be 'nothing' to be upset about!" This helped him feel better, because he'd never really tried to think about it logically before." Despite its appearance of superficiality, I believe this sort of exercise actually works for me and for most people, although not "perfectly" and not immediately.
My experience as a teacher leading discussions of death supports my belief that fears in this area are not essentially different from other fears.
Living life is in a way like reading a great Russian novel -- say, Anna Karenina. But it's sort of like a cloud-novel -- in the sense that you can't just pick it up and see how many pages you've got left. When you're 70 you know you're getting close to the end, but you don't know how close. It may stop streaming suddenly, or there may be clear messages that the story will soon end, or ambiguous hints. And in its concluding chapters the author may get tired, and the story, rather than tying all its threads together and building to an exciting climax may wander in tedious digressions. (I'm thinking of spending mornings in doctors' waiting rooms and afternoons on the phone to the insurance company.)
Aging is an adversity, but I don't see it as essentially different from other adversities. Life has all sorts of challenges but it has many opportunities for confronting them nobly or effectively. Age can make life shorter, more uncertain, more painful, less productive, but compared to being in the Warsaw Ghetto it's generally a piece of cake. I'd say the most inspiring book I've ever read is Josephy Rudavsky, To Live with Hope, To Die with Dignity: Spiritual Resistance in the Ghettos and Camps. The victims have given us a wonderful legacy of human dignity and life-affirmation. How can we apply it to aging?
A basic element of spiritual resistance is to refuse to be silent, to record one's affliction. Lillian Rubin, in 60 on Up, does a great job here. Her book is weak on suggestions for action but that does not detract from its challenge. The author is a renowned sociologist and psychotherapist who (the dust jacket tells us) recently sold her first painting at the age of eighty-two. She begins, "Old age sucks! It always has, it always will." There is a lot of that in the book, but there is also much thoughtfully organized detail from her life and her interviews. I ask: how might a Gandhi, a Rosa Parks, a Martin Luther King, a Maggie Kuhn respond to the story she tells?
Gandhi wrote: I do not want to be reborn. But if I have to be reborn, I should be born an untouchable, so that I may share their sorrows, sufferings, and affronts levelled at them, in order that I may endeavour to free myself and them from that miserable condition." The aged are not exactly like the Hindu untouchable caste, but there is something to the analogy.