wait - what ?
wait - what ?
And there is no question that we are preoccupied by dying. But why? It is because when we die, we leave behind not only the world but also death. That is the paradox of the last hour. Death works with us in the world; it is a power that humanizes nature, that raises existence to being, and it is within each one of us as our most human quality; it is death only in the world - man only knows death because he is man, and he is only man because he is death in the process of becoming. But to die is to shatter the world; it is the loss of person, the annihilation of the being; and so it is also the loss of death, the loss of what in it and for me made it death. As long as I live, I am a mortal man, but when I die, by ceasing to be man I also cease to be mortal, I am no longer capable of dying, and my impending death horrifies me because I see it as it is: no longer death, but the impossibility of dying.
Literature and the Right to Death
“To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Montaigne wrote in his timeless meditation on death and the art of living.
And yet in the half millennium since his day, we’ve made paltry progress on coming to such nonchalant terms with the reality of death. We are still profoundly unprepared when it strikes our loved ones and paralyzed by the prospect of our own demise. Our discomfort with “the idea of a permanent unconsciousness in which there is neither void nor vacuum — in which there is simply nothing” is what surgeon, bioethicist, essayist, and Yale professor Sherwin Nuland (1930–2014) explores with astonishing wisdom and sensitivity in his soul-stretching 1993 book How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter (public library) — a dimensional treatise on death and an effort to “demythologize the process of dying,” fusing philosophical reflections on its most universal aspects with the specialized complexities occasioned by the six most common disease categories implicated in modern death.
But Nuland’s hard-earned professional expertise, his life’s work in medicine and understanding the human condition, is merely the byproduct of his unforgiving personal brush with death — Nuland lost his mother to colon cancer a week after his eleventh birthday, a tragedy that shaped his life. “All that I have become and much that I have not become, I trace directly or indirectly to her death,” he reflects. This book itself was written less than a year after Nuland lost his brother to the same disease that had claimed their mother’s life.
Everyone wants to know the details of dying, though few are willing to say so. Whether to anticipate the events of our own final illness or better to comprehend what is happening to a mortally stricken loved one… we are lured by thoughts of life’s ending… To most people, death remains a hidden secret, as eroticized at it is feared. We are irresistibly attracted by the very anxieties we find most terrifying; we are drawn to them by a primitive excitement that arises from flirtation with danger. Moths and flames, mankind and death — there is little difference.Throughout history, he observes, our strategies for ameliorating that icy hold have varied, from mythology to humor to religion, but the past few decades have given us a wholly new phenomenon, one he dubs “modern dying” — a sort of packaged experience that takes place at the hospital, where we try to artificially enact the ancient ideal of ars moriendi, or the art of dying. Reflecting on his extensive work with dying patients, Nuland considers the impossibility of that ideal in a modern context:
As with every other looming terror and looming temptation, we seek ways to deny the power of death and the icy hold in which it grips human thought.
The good death has increasingly become a myth. Actually, it has always been for the most part a myth, but never nearly as much as today. The chief ingredient of the myth is the longed-for ideal of “death with dignity.”And yet despite lamenting the illusory mythology of dying with dignity, Nuland’s perspective is ultimately an optimistic one, reframing the source of dignity in death rather than denying it altogether, and doing so in wonderfully poetic terms:
The belief in the probability of death with dignity is our, and society’s, attempt to deal with the reality of what is all too frequently a series of destructive events that involve by their very nature the disintegration of the dying person’s humanity. I have not often seen much dignity in the process by which we die… Only by a frank discussion of the very details of dying can we best deal with those aspects that frighten us the most. It is by knowing the truth and being prepared for it that we rid ourselves of that fear of the terra incognita of death that leads to self-deception and disillusions.
The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it. This is a form of hope that we can all achieve, and it is the most abiding of all. Hope resides in the meaning of what our lives have been.But our greatest act of hope in dying, Nuland argues, is the dissolution of our illusion of separateness. He writes:
The real event taking place at the end of our life is our death, not the attempts to prevent it. We have somehow been so taken up with the wonders of modern science that our society puts the emphasis in the wrong place. It is the dying that is the important thing — the central player in the drama is the dying man: the dashing leader of that bustling squad of his would-be rescuers is only a spectator, and a groundling at that.Reflecting on the commonly documented medical fact that the dying can often survive for weeks beyond their prognosis, sustained merely by the hope to live until a specific moment of significance — a daughter’s wedding, a grandchild’s graduation — Nuland calls to mind Rilke’s famous lines of verse (“Oh Lord, give each of us his own death / The dying, that issues forth out of the life / In which he had love, meaning and despair”) and considers the true source of hope:
For dying patients, the hope of cure will always be shown to be ultimately false, and even the hope of relief too often turns to ashes. When my time comes, I will seek hope in the knowledge that insofar as possible I will not be allowed to suffer or be subjected to needless attempts to maintain life; I will seek it in the certainty that I will not be abandoned to die alone; I am seeking it now, in the way I try to live my life, so that those who value what I am will have profited by my time on earth and be left with comforting recollections of what we have meant to one another… Whatever form it may take, each of us must find hope in his or her own way.Nuland turns to the heaviest burden in dying, the feeling of regret over “conflicts unresolved, breached relationships not healed, potential unfulfilled, promises not kept, and years that will never be lived.” But even in this despairing proposition, he finds an unlikely and rather beautiful source of hope. Subverting Viktor Frankl’s famous formulation of the oft-repeated idea that we should live each day as if it were our last — “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” Frankl wrote in his spectacular memoir about the search for meaning — Nuland finds consolation in a heartening mirror-image interpretation:
Perhaps the mere existence of things undone should be a sort of satisfaction in itself, though the idea would appear to be paradoxical. Only one who is long since dead while still seemingly alive does not have many “promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep,” and that state of inertness is not to be desired. To the wise advice that we live every day as though it will be our last, we do well to add the admonition to live every day as though we will be on this earth forever.He returns to the hard ideal of ars moriendi, now enveloped in this newfound softness:
Since human beings first began to write, they have recorded their wish for an idealized ending some call the “good death,” as if any of us can ever be sure of it or have any reason to expect it. There are pitfalls of decision-making to be sidestepped and varieties of hope to seek, but beyond that we must forgive ourselves when we cannot achieve some preconceived image of dying right.But perhaps Nuland’s most salient point has to do with the necessity of death as a force of nature’s forward momentum — an idea partway between evolutionary theory and the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, with a touch of Alan Watts. He writes:
We die so that the world may continue to live. We have been given the miracle of life because trillions upon trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died — in a sense, for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life.In that sense, the dignity of death is indeed the dignity of life, and our only responsibility in dying well is having lived well:
The dignity that we seek in dying must be found in the dignity with which we have lived our lives. Ars moriendi as ars vivendi: The art of dying is the art of living. The honesty and grace of the years of life that are ending is the real measure of how we die. It is not in the last weeks or days that we compose the message that will be remembered, but in all the decades that preceded them. Who has lived in dignity, dies in dignity.
WRITER: But tell me before you go. What was the worst thing about being down there?
AGNES: Just existing. Knowing my sight was blurred by my eyes, my hearing dulled by my ears, and bright thought trapped in the grey maze of a brain. Have you seen a brain?
WRITER: And you're telling me that's what's wrong with us? How else can we be?
A Dream Play, Caryl Churchill adaptation
When the body and mind grow weak, the Self gathers in all the powers of life and descends with them into the heart. As prana leaves the eye, it ceases to see. "He is becoming one," say the wise; "he does not see. He is becoming one; he no longer hears. He is becoming one; he no longer speaks, or tastes, or smells, or thinks, or knows." By the light of the heart the Self leaves the body by one of its gates; and when he leaves, prana follows, and with it all the vital powers of the body. He who is dying merges in consciousness, and thus consciousness accompanies him when he departs, along with the impressions of all that he has done, experienced, and known.
As a caterpillar, having come to the end of one blade of grass, draws itself together and reaches out for the next, so the Self, having come to the end of one life and dispelled all ignorance, gathers in his faculties and reaches out from the old body to a new.
A melancholy autumn wind
Blows through the world;
The pampas grass waves,
As we drift to the moor,
Drift to the sea.
What can be done
With the mind of a man
That should be clear
But though he is dressed up in a monk’s robe,
Just lets life pass him by?
Why do people
On this set of bones
Destined to disappear
Without a trace?
The original body
Must return to
Its original place:
Do not search
For what cannot be found.
No one really knows
The nature of birth
Nor the true dwelling place.
We return to the source
And turn to dust.
Many paths lead
from the foot of the mountain,
But at the peak
We all gaze at the
Single bright moon.
If at the end of our journey
There is no final
Then we need not fear
Losing our Way.
is born and dies:
The emptiness of emptiness!
Rain, hail, snow and ice:
All are different,
But when they fall
They become the same water
As the valley stream.
The ways of proclaiming
The Mind vary,
But the same heavenly truth
Can be seen
In each and every one.
Cover your path
With the fallen pine needles
So no one will be able
To locate your
True dwelling place.
As Ikkyu does not think of his body
As if it were his body,
He lives in the same place,
Whether it is town or country.
A fleeting dream
So why by alarmed
At its evanescence?
The vagaries of life,
Not to cling
To this floating world.
If you break open the cherry tree,
Where are the flowers?
But in the spring time, see how they bloom!
To write something and leave it behind us,
It is but a dream.
When we awake we know
There is not even anyone to read it.
Look at the cherry blossoms!
Their color and scent fall with them,
Are gone forever,
The spring comes again.
why is it all so beautiful this fake dream
this craziness why?
this ink painting of wind
blowing through pines
who hears it?
oh yes things exist like the echo when you yell
at the foot of a huge mountain
sin like a madman until you can't do anything else
no room for any more
one long pure beautiful road of pain
and the beauty of death and no pain
mirror facing mirror
sick of it whatever it's called sick of the names
I dedicate every pore to what's here
a well nobody dug filled with no water
ripples and a shapeless weightless man drinks
oh green green willow wonderfully red flower
but I know the colors are not there
the mind is exactly this tree that grass
without thought or feeling both disappear
not two not one either
and the unpainted breeze in the ink painting feels cool
Ikkyu this body isn't yours I say to myself
wherever I am I'm there
nature's a killer I won't sing to it
I hold my breath and listen to the dead singing under the grass
suddenly nothing but grief
so I put on my father's old ripped raincoat
when I was forty-seven everybody came to see me
so I walked out forever
my monk friend has a weird endearing habit
he weaves sandals and leaves them secretly by the roadside
even before trees rocks I was nothing
when I'm dead nowhere I'll be nothing
no nothing only those wintry crows
bright black in the sun
if there's nowhere to rest at the end
how can I get lost along the way?
that stone Buddha deserves all the birdshit it gets
I wave my skinny arms like a tall flower in the wind
no words sitting alone night in my hut eyes closed hands open
wisps of an unknown face
the wise know nothing at all
well maybe one song
melons eggplants rice rivers the sky
I offer them to you on this holiday
go down on your silly knees pray
for what? tomorrow is yesterday
I found my sparrow Sonrin dead one morning
and buried him just as gently as I would my own daughter
I hate it I know it's nothing but I
suck out the world's sweet juicy plum
you stand inside me naked infinite love
the dawn bell rips my dreaming heart
When it blows,
The mountain wind is boisterous,
But when it blows not,
It simply blows not.
Dimly for thirty years;
Faintly for thirty years, -
Dinly and faintly for sixty years:
At my death, I pass my faeces and offer them to Brahma.
–Ikkyu Sojun/Ikkyuu Soojun (1394-1481)
Excerpted from Wild Ways
John Stevens translation
Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.
And we the people are so vulnerable. Our bodies are shot with mortality. Our legs are fear and our arms are time. These chill humors seep through our capillaries, weighting each cell with an icy dab of nonbeing, and that dab grows and swells and sucks the cell dry. That is why physical courage is so important - it fills, as it were, the holes - and why it is so invigorating. The least brave act, chance taken and passage won, makes you feel loud as a child.
your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.–Charles Bukowskiread by Tom Waits
I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.
In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby.
Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.
Baby, drink milk.
Baby, play ball.
And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words:
Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug,
fluent now in the language of grief.
Reasons to Live
Can I get used to it day after day
a little at a time while the tide keeps
coming in faster the waves get bigger
building on each other breaking records
this is not the world that I remember
then comes the day when I open the box
that I remember packing with such care
and there is the face that I had known well
in little pieces staring up at me
it is not mentioned on the front pages
but somewhere back near the real estate
among the things that happen every day
to someone who now happens to be me
and what can I do and who can tell me
then there is what the doctor comes to say
endless patience will never be enough
our only hope is to be the daylight
from his newest book Garden Time
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.
And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they, where are they going?
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases,
As he sat there reading, aloud, the great blue tabulae.
They were those from the wilderness of stars that had expected more.
There were those that returned to hear him read from the poem of life,
Of the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips among them.
They were those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality,
That would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost
And cried out to feel it again, have run fingers over leaves
And against the most coiled thorn, have seized on what was ugly
And laughed, as he sat there reading, from out of the purple tabulae,
The outlines of being and its expressings, the syllables of its law:
Poesis, poesis, the literal characters, the vatic lines,
Which in those ears and in those thin, those spended hearts,
Took on color, took on shape and the size of things as they are
And spoke the feeling for them, which was what they had lacked.
Large Red Man Reading
I wonder if I know enough to know what it's really like
to have been here: have I seen sights enough to give
seeing over: the clouds, I've waited with white
October clouds like these this afternoon often before and
taken them in, but white clouds shade other white
ones gray, had I noticed that: and though I've
followed the leaves of many falls, have I spent time with
the wire vines left when frost's red dyes strip the leaves
away: is more missing than was never enough: I'm sure
many of love's kinds absolve and heal, but were they passing
rapids or welling stirs: I suppose I haven't done and seen
enough yet to go, and, anyway, it may be way on on the way
before one picks up the track of the sufficient, the
world-round reach, spirit deep, easing and all, not just mind
answering itself but mind and things apprehended at once
as one, all giving all way, not a scrap of question holding back.
–A. R. Ammons
five branch tree