Friday, September 18, 2009

While Ye May

I've had mortality in the forefront of my mind recently. I try to keep it in front of me as much as I can in life. I think it's healthy for people to have it in front of them all the time and not off on the periphery so that when it jumps out at times it shakes you to your core. I think it's good to remember every day that you are one day closer. It keeps one focused in the right ways. I don't know if it's because it is Autumn and all the natural glories that are the wilds of Northern California are turning to the red/brown/yellow of sleep/death/stasis. Or maybe it's because our cat just died. Or maybe it's still rattling around from a few months ago when I visited my mother in the hospital right after the doctor told her to say her goodbyes, unable to imagine that she would make it through that part of her illness. Or because Radio Lab just did an episode on the After Life.

I was reading an essay by Sigmund Freud, of all people, about transience. It was the simple story of Freud taking a walk with a poet who was unable to enjoy the beauties of nature around them because all of it was transient, temporary, fleeting. Freud argued that this is all the more reason why it should be enjoyed, why it is important and precious. "A flower that blossoms only for a single night does not seem to us on that account less lovely." In the grand scheme of Time, eternity stretches in both directions and our time in temporal consciousness is but a blip, a blink. Then he went on to describe the process of mourning in early psychological terms, how one replaces the libido in lesser objects, but in the case of greater love one mourns until one is finished mourning. It's not much for a child to switch from the old blanket to the new teddy bear. It's quite a different matter when one loses the person they've shared every aspect of their life with for the past 45 years. He then mentioned the Great War which followed the year after that walk with the poet and how the global consciousness went there to that place of struggling with the apparent meaninglessness of existence.

Laurie and I were talking about Percy Bysshe Shelley's line about the vastness of space pointing to there being no God (which I think got him kicked out of Oxford if I remember correctly.) Of course, he also wrote "I think that the leaf of a tree, the meanest insect ... are in themselves arguments more conclusive than any which can be adduced that some vast intellect animates Infinity." Shelley was a bit tempestuous by most accounts. He was also one of the greatest poets in the English language. But Laurie and I were specifically focused on how the vastness of Universe can point to the lack of a God for some, while for us it serves to color our understanding of God. One interprets the data as one will. It also put me in mind of John Calvin's assertion that there are two kinds of knowledge: Knowledge of God and Knowledge of ourselves.
I'm not claiming a proof one way or the other. In my experience, and in biblical doctrine, there are those who are going to believe and those who are not. I have the experience of having been the latter and reaching a point in life where I became a believer, but I cannot save anyone personally. Mine is only to spread the word. I cannot make it stick. For those of us who are theists, we know that God is the purpose; the glorification of God is the meaning of our lives. Ecclesiastes says:
"Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, "I have no pleasure in them"; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity."
I'm only 32 and I've known people from every age group from babies to extremely elderly and everywhere in between who have died. The very nature of our existence tends to keep me in check most of the time. I try not to leave fights unresolved. I try to forgive quickly, to let things go, amend where I can and where I cannot, put it in the past. My gosh, the fact that we wake up each morning is an undeserved gift and it should make us all love one another. I don't know. I seem to be in one of those weird "walking through the woods with Simon and Garfunkel playing in the background" moods.
Maybe it's time I had some ice cream.


  1. Paul,

    I love swimming in your mind. Thanks!

  2. I think on death fairly frequently. My wife might tell you I'm just morbid and that I'm full of gallows humor. Who knows? What I do know is that we're all going to die. Seems like it's worth dealing with rather than ignoring.

    It was a fairly common practice amongst monastics (is it still in some parts?) to build their own coffin, and then use it for a bed until the day they die.

    I don't know how wide-spread the practice was. I read about it in a biography of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (d. 1783).

  3. I think it's good to keep in front of us. So often in our culture we're encouraged to ignore it and sweep it under the carpet quickly.

    That's a very good idea. Very practical and very contemplative as well. I love the idea. I doubt Laurie would let me do that.

  4. Well, maybe if you constructed a queen size, with lots of silk accents and some comfortable bedding. What wife wouldn't love that? If she still objects you may have to include a waters of the afterlife jacuzi.