It is my long-term practice to have two or three books related to old age going at once along with stacks of printouts of related materials.
For the past few months, I've let that go in favor of other, lighter kinds of reading and during my two-week hiatus from this blog, I read almost nothing beyond the daily headlines.
The basic requirements for productive thought are quiet and solitude. I gave myself a lot of that during the past two weeks and once I got over feeling antsy without a book in my hand, old topics I've neglected began bubbling up. Today's post deals with one of them.
”How can we know how to live if we don't understand death?”
Confucius said that. Knowledge of our own demise is the central predicament of humankind and there are not many of us who do not fear it. So much so that we spend a great amount of time distracting ourselves from this ultimate reality of life.
What can it mean to no longer be? I have no idea. Two common facile answers involve, depending on one's beliefs, a great reward in heaven or as some would have it, returning to what it was like before we were born. Mark Twain had something to say about that second answer:
”I do not fear death,” he wrote. “I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
It's fun to read that but not really much help.
One of the problems of western culture is that although it is changing to a small degree in recent years, discussion of dying is not encouraged and certainly not acceptable in polite company.
Imagine saying over coffee with group of friends after dinner, “I was thinking about dying today...” I promise you the word “morbid” will be mentioned, no one will look you in the eye and one of the party will suddenly find tomorrow's weather fascinating.
Ageism has a lot to do with the taboo against talking about death and old people are not too much less likely than the young to spend a lot of money on trying shave a few years off their their act age. Many of the young won't hire people with gray hair no matter how qualified they are but a lot of healthy elders are equally reprehensible by being careful not to associate with less healthy people of their generation.
We try to appear younger than we are because we don't want to face the fact that we will die and we are conditioned from childhood to look for every possible way out.
We believe that if we eat enough kale, do enough pushups, buy enough Botox injections and face lifts, we will fool the grim reaper into believing he made a mistake when he comes by and sees how young we look but he can't be fooled that easily. (Have you read Appointment in Samarra lately?)
Death – of plants, animals and humankind – is nature's way of clearing out the old to make room for the new. It is foolish to fight it. Confucius reminds us of that as does, similarly, St. Augustine:
”It is only in the face of death that man's self is born.”
From at least the dawn of language, philosophers have been telling us how to live with this fearful certainty – most frequently as Augustine and Confucius advise – but I think we can each come to our own understanding.
To live well within whatever restrictions old age saddles us with comes to mind. To luxuriate in the private rituals and small pleasures of our individual lives helps.
To do good things for others. Not great things; few of us are favored with the power to change the world in big ways. But we can improve other people's lives in small and unexpected ways.
What all the philosophers tell us about facing death is to live meaningfully and that, perhaps, is another way to meet the despair of our impending demise and overcome it.
The Death Deal by Ron Padgett which you will find at The Writers Almanac.
Ever since that moment
when it first occurred
to me that I would die
(like everyone on earth!)
I struggled against
this eventuality, but
never thought of
how I'd die, exactly,
until around thirty
I made a mental list:
hit by car, shot
in head by random ricochet,
crushed beneath boulder,
victim of gas explosion,
head banged hard
in fall from ladder,
vaporized in plane crash,
dwindling away with cancer,
and so on. I tried to think
of which I'd take
if given the choice,
and came up time
and again with He died
in his sleep.
Now that I'm officially old,
though deep inside not
old officially or otherwise,
I'm oddly almost cheered
by the thought
that I might find out
in the not too distant future.
Now for lunch.