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.

Baby New Year and Old Father Time

Happy New Year! The time of year prompted me to consider the image we have of an old man for the old year and a baby for the new year. The old man of the lapsing year often is conflated with the “grim reaper,” making him more than a little threatening. But generally, the ancient one (and he has gotten so old in only one year!) is just handing off a lantern or an hour glass to the babe with the admonition, perhaps, to make the most of the new life, the new year. As the light gets stronger and the days get longer, everything seems to renew. Soon the sap will be rising.

And we are swept up in it in this rebirth of the year. All us old people are making resolutions, showing up at the gym (this is always the most crowded time of year for exercise facilities and doubtless good intentions are very profitable), going on a diet, enrolling in a conversational Spanish class or some other vehicle of self-improvement, and yet – we are still old. The year is new, but we still need that cataract surgery, our arthritis still aches. Nature recycles through the seasons, but as individuals we – get old. The media tells us today is the first day of the rest of our life (and this is surely true enough), and yet we enter into it with the old body, the baggage of memory, and the parameters of circumstance. None of that changes as the year rolls over and the old man hands the lantern to a baby new year.

We want it to be otherwise. Psalm 103 tells the faithful that “[the Lord] satisfies you with good as long as you live, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” As in the image of the new baby and the old year above, I got to thinking about what this promise really meant. The eagle appears approximately 34 times in the Bible and is often associated with renewing strength. One remembers the emotional passage from Chariots of Fire, when the Olympic runner Eric Liddell, who refused to run on Sunday, reads to his audience from Isaiah 40: “But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

Apparently the eagle was thought to actually be able to renew itself; the persistent legend is that at about age 50, the eagle can make a decision to fly to a special mountain where its beak, talons and feathers renew themselves after about 5 months. Certainly a five month hiatus for most fifty-year-old humans would renew some of us, so maybe we can take something from that. But the eagle thus allegedly garners another 10-20 years of life. Birders and scientists say the legend is not true, but eagles do often go through a severe molting at about five years and can look pretty scruffy for a while – until their new feathers come in and they are “renewed.” Many think that is the source of the legend. In any case, there it sits in the Bible to inspire us to a new birth, to renewal.

None of this is new. Man from time immemorial has complained that Nature renews itself in ways that the individual man cannot. (I know, I know, the scientists are working on it!). Hopkins complained on a spring day that:

See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.

We get reprieves. Good doctors replace our hips, we recover from illness; good fortune gives us a better day now and then. But our bodies are not a renewable resource in the long run. (A lesson often learned too late, as some of what we suffer in old age is the result of youthful mismanagement of this precious resource.) Hopkins ends his poem with a plea for renewal of another sort. “Send my roots rain” he pleads.

In an earlier post, I wrote about “Second Growth,” quoting from Emerson’s journal about Thoreau’s observations that “men may have two growths like pear trees.” But the growth in pear trees is physical; any second (or third) growth human beings have has to be mental, spiritual. And this growth is within the old body; with this dichotomy there must be some sort of conciliation.

This is also the season of Epiphany. (See my story by that title in this month’s fiction. It is a little sentimental, but it is a Christmas story, after all.) In depictions of adoration of the magi, artists from Fra Angelico to Rubens often portrayed the wise men as of different ages: young, middle-aged and old. According to the apocryphal legends, the oldest was Melchior, Balthazar was in the middle, and the youngest magus was Caspar. Apparently, epiphanies are possible at any age.

Perhaps the best we can do is to follow the advice of Andre Gide: “Know that joy is rarer, more difficult, and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all-important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation.”  Perhaps the reconciliation of body and soul involves the willingness to accept the moral obligation of joy, even in diminished circumstances. Meanwhile we, with Hopkins, pray for sustenance for our roots.