As a kid, after my parents put me and my sisters to bed, I would sometimes sneak back out to a hidden spot on the stairwell to eavesdrop on the adult conversation. My mother and father seemed happier at that time of night, and I was soothed by their relaxed voices and unguarded laughter. I suspect I also hungered for a secret connection with them and for reassurance that the grown-up world was well in control of everything good in life.
Around that time President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was five years old. My strongest memory of that event was how upset the grown-ups were, and how uncensored were their distraught reactions in front of me as the news spread. I had no anxiety about the reality of death, unaware as I was at that age of endings and beginnings, so this window into the adult realm was exciting. It felt as if I were eavesdropping on the whole grown-up world.
A few weeks after that, an old man who lived on our street also died. This was my first encounter with the death of someone personally known to me and it did upset me. When someone dies it means they go away, I realized. I became concerned about the most important old person in my life, my grandmother.
“Mom, is grandma going to die?” I asked.
“Oh, don’t say that!” she said, wincing. And so we didn’t talk about death. But I sure wanted to talk about it, and I did with an older boy on my street. He let me in on the shocking, if open, secret: “Everybody dies someday,” he said. “Even you.”
His words hit hard. If I was going to die someday, then where would I go? The grown-ups’ severe reactions to the President getting shot now had a different feeling to it. Everybody dies someday. If the grown-ups were not in control of this then who was? I recall a sharp increase of anxiety in my life at that time. Dying wasn’t just for old people, and I was certain I didn’t want to die.
By nature everything in us fights to live, and yet that’s ultimately a losing battle. The billions of human lives currently on Earth will nearly all be gone in another century, replaced by others who will also die. The suggestion of meaninglessness and possible annihilation could easily tempt one to cynicism, despair, or worse. Joseph Conrad captures the sickening emptiness in the bald apprehension of death through his narrator in Heart of Darkness:
I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary.
No wonder my own sweet mother found death difficult to talk about. But we must talk about it and face the anxiety that may attend it. As psychologist Irvin Yalom writes, “…given the centrality of death in our existence, given that life and death are interdependent, how can we possibly ignore it?” Well, we can’t truly ignore the terror of death for long, nor should we. “Though the physicality of death destroys us,” Yalom continues, “the idea of death may save us.” An intriguing paradox for sure, but how do we make sense of it in the present?
We find help in an essay entitled Ignorance, by philosopher Wendell Berry, where he expounds on how a human being, properly subordinated to the limits of his human nature and life, may experience, not terror, but simultaneous grief and joy, where death and life embrace as collaborators, not adversaries.
To illustrate, Berry describes one of the fascinating subplots of King Lear where the Earl of Gloucester, once a politically powerful man now blinded, destitute and suicidal, is aided by Edgar, the son he falsely accused and drove away. Edgar conceals his identity in order to help his blind father.
In an intense father-son role reversal, Edgar becomes his father’s physical and spiritual guide, leading the despondent Gloucester into thinking he’s thrown himself off a cliff to die, when in reality the Earl leaps off only a small rise of ground, high enough to be jarring but not fatal. Edgar, the consummate benevolent trickster, pretends further to be a passerby who, after witnessing the failed suicide attempt, proclaims these transformative words to the still despairing Gloucester:
Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.
Edgar’s life-affirming, grown-up words eventually call Gloucester back from the childlike despair and anxiety that led him to give up on his humanity, Berry observes. When Gloucester was able to look past the earthly reality of life and death to embrace the miraculous, rooted in the sublime mystery of human existence, his humanity was restored and his life preserved. Somewhere between the fearful child-self and the grandiose god-self was the actual man, whose life was worth living.
Gloucester, like Lear, was guilty of the hubris of the powerful that thinks human life may be agreeably and reliably manipulated if one is powerful enough or shrewd enough. In his arrogance, Gloucester “treated life as knowable, predictable and in his control,” writes Berry. This mechanistic view denies the miraculous and the mysterious, and regards life as a commodity subject to man, rather than man being subject to life and its constraints. As they say in the 12-Step recovery world, unless we accept life on life’s terms, we are headed for misery.
Misery came to Gloucester in his crushing fall from power, leading him to give up on his human life and choose death, though suicide is not the only way to give up on one’s humanity, Berry contends. Gloucester gave up on his humanity long before his political defeat; his desire to die was merely a further representation of his hubris. “Gloucester’s attempted suicide is really an attempt to recover [god-like] control over his life – a control he believes (mistakenly) he once had and lost….The nature of his despair is delineated in his belief that he can control his life by killing himself,” writes Berry.
A modern day version of that hubris may be the common belief that with enough time, talent and money one can get everything one wants in life. But the obvious reality is that man did not birth himself and making himself a god cannot prevent loss and grief and death. With one foot in life and the other in death, the warped and fallen god-man Kurtz in Heart of Darkness urges us to avoid his fate; his warning offered in his death whisper: “The horror! The horror!”
According to Wendell Berry, and perhaps William Shakespeare, grasping that “life is a miracle” involves releasing one’s ultimate trust in human agency – the desperate pursuit of a life without limits – which is an anxiety-ridden quest for the un-miraculous.
Gloucester eventually takes heed to this warning and has a different end than Kurtz. He recognizes, for possibly the first time, the truth of his limits, his endings, which yields a strange and peaceful joy out of his grief – a new beginning. He reclaims his life, and his inspired utterance is almost a psalm:
You ever-gentle gods, take my breath from me;
Let not my worser spirit tempt me again
To die before you please.
Twenty years after JFK’s death, at a time I felt great anxiety about the grown-up world I was now supposed to inhabit, I was at my precious grandmother’s bedside in the hospital. She was unconscious, and dying. I was trying to talk to her, hoping she could hear me. One of my uncles arrived and stood at the foot of the bed and began to cry, which provoked others present to cry as well.
Upset and frightened as I was, I might have cried too, but I didn’t. Instead, a mysterious awareness settled on me, a peaceful and ecstatic touch, that made all other concerns pale in comparison. I suddenly had a strong sense, even a knowledge, that my grandmother was going to be alright in death, and that I was going to be alright in life. It was the utmost opposite of anxiety, a simultaneous ending and beginning, and it was awesome. As I witnessed the end of a life I loved – my grandmother’s – Life itself seemed far more expansive and grand than I imagined before. It wasn’t something I needed to make different or control. Life just was, and it was good. In that miraculous moment I was enabled to better accept Life on its own terms, how it begins and ends, to be okay with my existence in it, and also be okay with the “ever-gentle gods” who will decide my death, when it pleases them.