Death as a Divine Messenger

A good slice of great literature (and even greater percentage of myth) concerns our relationship with death.  How can we cope with the inevitability of it?  Or, how can we trivialize it? Or, better yet, avoid it?

Sometimes, this literary grappling with death takes the form of a trip to the underworld, the land of the dead.  Some such ventures are heroic – Heracles goes as part of one of his labors, Orpheus visits  to rescue Persephone.  Some seek information  – Odysseus wants to know how to get back home, back to Ithaca; Aeneas wants to know his destiny.  Some represent a pilgrimage for wisdom – like Dante in the “middle of life’s journey.”  Virgil both gets to write about the underworld in the Aeneid and to accompany Dante on his perambulations through heaven and hell.  More recently we have Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.  Each story is trying to make sense of life and death, trying to come to terms with mortality.

Many of such stories begin when a young person is scared by an encounter with death.  The Buddha was frightened into leaving his royal palace at the sight of a corpse.  For the young Siddhartha death was a “divine messenger.” Gilgamesh was completely undone by the death of his friend Enkidu, and ventures out to find the secret to immortality.  And, in the Katha Upanishad, the teenage Nachiketa is sent by his father to find out “the secret of life and death.”  In Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, a trio of young men set out to find Death in a spirit of revenge after the demise of one of their companions.

Poetry too deals with how to conquer death in a metaphoric fashion.  Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146 is an admonition to elevate the soul above the body, and ends: “So shall thou feed on Death, that feeds on men, /And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.”  John Donne also vanquishes death at the end of one of his Holy Sonnets: “Death, thou shalt die.”  Oh, that it were so easy.

Sometimes, the initial fear of death prompts the protagonist to explore methods of immortality.  This is where Gilgamesh starts, in search of the magic plant that will allow him to stay both young and immortal.  In legend (if not in fact), Ponce de León searched high and low for the fount of immortality.  In the 16th century, Cranach painted a wonderful representation of it – old naked bodies going into the fountain and young bodies coming out.  Silicon Valley is obsessed with immortality projects.  But most of literature and myth (with notable exceptions) does not ultimately deal with death by denying it will happen.  Most – like even the saga of Gilgamesh – end with a reconciliation with death rather than the annihilation of it.  Thomas Merton’s goal was “to face the real limitations of one’s own existence and knowledge and not try to manipulate or disguise them.”  And yet, the 21st century slogan seems to be “no limits.”

When we were waiting for the News Hour last night on PBS, our local channel was advertising two shows about aging – one was called “Aging Backwards” and the other was “The Longevity Paradox,” both apparently how-to shows about avoiding aging and prolonging life.   Those PBS folks know their News Hour audience.  Is there such a thing as reverse aging?  I admire those who try to keep us old folk limber with yoga, functional through diet, and positive with mindset suggestions, but where is the show on coming to grips with the fact that all is not going to end well?

I cannot remember when I first recognized the fact of death.  I vaguely remember when my great-grandmother (whom I hardly knew) died – the same year I found our canary Billy (whom I was very fond of) belly up in the bottom of the cage.  We lost pets, I heard adults discuss the demise of others, and I guess I slowly realized the animals and people die.  But when did I realize that this applied to me Freud would say that I probably never did.  There have been moments – just before surgery, just after having a close call in a car accident – when death has seemed real, when the fragility of life realigned my thinking, but these moments did not endure.

Jorge Borges wrote a story, “August 25, 1983,” in which he imagines his own death.  Using his format, I did something similar and found it an interesting exercise.  I highly recommend it.  What do you think you will have to say at the end of your life?  What was important, transformational, disappointing?  Borges drafted his story just a few years before he died, and it is amazing what we learn about him in just a few pages.

And what would it mean to you if you knew you were dying, that there was a determined date for your termination?  Of course, we are all headed toward death, but what difference would it make if you could actually see the end coming?  There is a wonderful book by Stephen Levine, “A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last.”  It inspired this week’s story, “Encore.”

Child Rearing / Child Raising / Hair Raising

Most old people have seen profound changes in childrearing in our lifetimes – child rearing now considered to be the incorrect term; we should talk about child raising.  OK.  But whatever it is, it has changed.   Those of us whose parents were children during the Depression and World War II heard about their deprivations as children, having to get jobs to help out financially, sitting in church every Sunday for hours, celebrating scanty Christmases and even scantier birthdays.  We baby boomers had it better, but one thing was still clear to us: we were secondary to the adults.  The adults controlled the menu, the television set (if we had one), and the level of noise in the house.  No meant no, and whining was instantly squelched.  We ate three meals a day at the kitchen table and Sunday noon dinner in the dining room.  There was only one telephone in the house – right in the center where no conversation was private.  No calls were answered during dinner.  Whether or not our families believed in corporal punishment, we were firmly under control.   In all honesty, we couldn’t wait to escape, but even at college there were long lists of rules – at least until 1968.

We baby boomers raised our children with slightly more tolerance, I think.  We allowed slightly more pushback.  I surely was more permissive than my mother, trying to cook what the kids liked (as long as there was meat or fish, vegetable, and starch, accompanied by a glass of milk) and insisting only that the evening meal be eaten together as a family.  Even this became a chore as the children got older; more and more events were scheduled during the dinner hour or their friends were calling.  The children had their own television and there was soon a VCR, so content was at their command as long as we remembered to return the tapes on time to Blockbuster.  There were fewer dress codes and I let the children decide what they were going to wear (within limits).  But even then, the trend was toward the emancipation of children.  Besides, as working mothers (many of our mothers had never worked outside the home), we were too tired to fight constantly against the tide of “what the other kids did.”

It was during their adolescence, when I was fighting a losing battle about getting everyone at the table for dinner, that I was teaching a class of young community college students.  One day I asked them (most of whom still lived at home) how many of them ate at least one meal a day with the people they lived with.  Out of thirty, only one young man raised his hand.  One young woman volunteered that her mother did the most absurd thing:  she cooked dinner every night, set the table, called them to dinner, and then everyone in the family loaded up their plates and took them into their bedroom or out to the TV room.  She said her mother got upset.  I cried for that mother,  but it was clear that this young woman’s mother and I were losing the battle.

And in the next generation (that of our grandchildren),  such battles (and it remains to be seen if they were battles worth fighting) have been completely lost.  Grazing has replaced mealtimes.  Toddlers and young children’s undeveloped tastes are catered to (even to the extent of preparing a second or third selection if the first is rejected).  Such power given to a child often involves much wasted time and food.   Entertainment is controlled by the children either by allowing them to select what to watch on television or giving them their own devices.  I am not assuming there is no censorship; most parents still prevent children from accessing violent or indecent content, but that is about all they control.  I sound old and critical, and perhaps I am.  The young parents are not so permissive because they are lazy; it is far harder to deal with children who have fewer rules, less discipline.  They rightfully worry about the child’s sense of self-esteem.  And they would probably tell me (if they were honest) that they were trying to avoid the sins of their own fathers and mothers.  OK.  But it isn’t always easy to watch or deal with. 

My generation witnessed huge cultural changes.  When I was young, girls couldn’t wear pants or sneakers to school.  There were no female varsity teams.  No one (at least it my family) assumed that young women might have to support themselves for the rest of their lives.  No one in my circle of friends had divorced parents.  If a girl at my high school got pregnant, she disappeared to “visit her aunt” for a few months.  I knew of no teenage single mothers.  The world has vastly changed and there is no reason child raising should not be the same.  Sometimes, however, I wish that it were not so very different and that I was better at adapting.

This week’s fiction, “When Elephants Fly,” is based on a composite of experiences with my grandchildren and somewhat exaggerated. Although the tale is pure fiction, it felt true when I wrote it!