If I Should Die Before I Wake…

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about letting go. There are many things that we have to let go of – the past, our youth, our mistakes – but the one I didn’t mention, that seldom gets mentioned, is death. Having just heard Mr. Rogers (in the body of Tom Hanks) telling me that there is nothing about life that is not manageable if it can be talked about, maybe it’s time to talk about death. (Highly recommend the movie.)

Early religions – Judaism for example and the Greeks – relegated the dead  to a shadowy place which did not seem very pleasant. The Greeks had Hades and its “shades.” (Remember Aeneas’s trip to the underworld?)  The Old Testament Sheol was held to be a still and dark place where souls – good and bad – went after death.

Eventually there was some belief in a more substantial afterlife –it was the Pharisees who believed in resurrection (but not necessarily of the body) and the Sadducees who did not. Paul had been a Pharisee so he was already half way there when he was struck by the light and began to preach the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Of course, hand in hand with the possibility of heaven came the threat of hell. In Buddhism and Hinduism, souls were reborn again and again until they got it right. Interestingly enough, the goal for Buddhists is nirvana or extinction, non-returning, while the goal for Christians is eternal life. In all cases, however, death is a threshold to be gotten over. And that threshold is constantly at the end of our horizon whether we acknowledge it or not.

In Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death (also highly recommended), the author discusses the way we all deal with death. Some of us believe (or try to believe) in an afterlife. Some of us think that our lives will live on in our deeds, a ripple effect (think of Fred Rogers), some that our projects will live on after us (our immortality projects), and some that we will live on in our posterity, our children and grandchildren. And some of us think all of the above, depending on the circumstances at the moment.

And some of us just keep hoping it will be otherwise – that medical technology will somehow solve the problem before our time has come. There is apparently a thriving business in this aspiration in Silicon Valley.

I thought about death as a child. Every bedtime ended with this prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.

This was followed by a list of “God blesses,” which always included members of the immediate family, Nana and Papa, and sometimes visiting friends or beloved pets or teachers. But the line, “if I should die before I wake,” left this particular child with the specter of departing sometime before the oatmeal was ready in the morning. Think about that. Adults may often wake in the middle of the night thinking about their own extinction (a la Larkin’s “Aubade”), but what did it mean for every child in a culture (this was not something my parents invented) to end every day with a reminder of their mortality? And did I believe that I would go to heaven if I did die before morning? Somehow, I think I did. But it is harder now.

Jung, among other, talks about the therapeutic value of a belief in an afterlife. Yes. But the key word there is belief. That is one way to cope. Another is acceptance of death as part of life, as necessary to life, as what gives shape to life. There is an article in last week’s New Yorker by the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who is living with a diagnosis of “rampant” lung cancer. He is going to die before long, but has had a chance to reflect on it for those of us who think we won’t die “before long” and this is what he recommends: “Take death for a walk in your minds, folks. Either you’ll be glad you did or, keeling over suddenly, you won’t be out anything.”

Whatever method we choose, death has more power when we don’t face it in one way or another. Only then can we get on with it. Shakespeare said it the best:

So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

One more thing – this is the season of Old Father Time who is pushed out of the way by the Baby New Year. I have written on these symbols before, but it is worth noting on the eve of a new decade that the year may become young, but we will not. Let us keep this truth in mind (and here we are facing facts again!) as we watch the celebrations and frame our resolutions. Let us resolve to live within our own time. We can chuckle at the baby new year just as we delight in our grandchildren; but we are in a different time of life. And I, for one, am often glad of it. I think of the words of Don Mclean’s “Wonderful Baby”:

Wonderful baby nothin’ but new,
The world has gone crazy, I’m glad I’m not you.
At the beginning or is it the end?
It goes in and comes out and starts over again.

The story for this week, “A Balm in Gilead,” is about accepting the ending of things (or not). Here’s to the New Year, and may it be full of meaning, acceptance, and peace.

Guns, Mortality, and Old Age

During WWI, Freud wrote an essay entitled “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.” I recommend it. He says that WWI is a “new” kind of war in its disregard for noncombatants, the wounded, and any rules of engagement. Freud points out that the Great War brought two forms of disillusionment – one having to do with the illusion of the true nature of man and nations and the other regarding our illusion that death either does not exist or is very far away. Massive disruptions and killings make us face the fact that death is close, just as far away as the next trip to the mall. “Death will no longer be denied; we are forced to believe in him. People really are dying, and now not one by one, but many at a time.” So it felt to Freud in 1915; so it feels to us today. People are dying in a way that seems senseless and makes us feel defenseless.

The recent (and continual) rounds of massacres of the innocent scare us with their demonstration of the thin veneer of civilization. They also remind us of our mortality in a way that other things do not. Tactful news outlets do not publish the bloody photos; however, our imaginations are as graphic as any photo. Regardless of how healthy we are, how many sit-ups we can do or how often we get a mammogram, it could be us.
One would think that the older we got, the more we would make friends with death. He is a neighbor, after all, and we have many mutual acquaintances. If you live in an area dense with retired folk, the way I do, deaths come along at a regular pace – sometimes long-expected and sometimes suddenly, but yet we cannot quite believe that it could be… me. Yes, we know we will die; we simply do not quite realize it most of the time.

Our generation grew up under the shadow of the atom bomb. We should know death is never far away. I was a child in Florida during the Cuban missile crisis – we were well aware that we were within reach of short range missiles. My father dug a fallout shelter in the crawl space under our house and stocked it with rice and canned goods. We slept upstairs knowing that someday we might have to retreat to the earthen cavity to end our days, and yet time passed and so did that awareness. It is, indeed, amazing that mankind has not used this technology of destruction in the past seventy-four years. Especially since, let’s face it, we cannot even control the use of AR-15’s.

So we look into the face of random death again. Freud says that facing this unwelcome truth is no entirely a bad thing. It “has the merit of taking somewhat more into account the true state of affairs and of making life again more endurable for us… . If you would endure life, be prepared for death.”

None of this is to say that we should not do something about the violence that surrounds us, should not try to re-establish a civilized society where fear does not govern. If civilization could control the atom bomb for all these years, it would seem we could exert an effort to stop gun rampages, and we should do everything we can to do so. And if we find that the fear that guns engender is to the benefit of any person or agenda, we should wonder about why that is and what we can do about it.

My story this week, “A Spoonful of Sugar,” is about one woman’s insight into her own mortality. I recommend the Freud essay and also recommend Ernest Becker’s book Denial of Death.