On Death and Dying
I once asked my grandfather, a decorated soldier from WWI, if he was worried about dying. “No,” he replied. “Why not?” “Well, Roger, we’re all going to die. We just don’t know when. So, if I worry, I will die. If I don’t worry, I will die. So, why worry about it?” I was about five years old at the time and we were standing outside the Swansea Hospital, as was, by the seat where the old men used to sit and gossip. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was my first lesson in Stoicism.
“The day I was born, I took my first step on the path to death.” Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645), Spanish Neo-Stoic, among so many other things. Thinking like that tends to put things into perspective, for death walks with us every day. Death is our twin sibling, brother or sister. We face his shadow every time we look in the mirror and that shadow follows us around all day. “Death is a law, not a punishment, so why worry about it?” Also Quevedo. Dying is a different matter and yes, there are so many ways to go, some of them, especially nowadays, with the advent of life-preserving medicines, slow and unpleasant. Yet, mors omnia solvit – death solves everything. And it brings a release from all pain and suffering.
The lead photo shows a plaque in Avila (Spain). La Calle de la Cruz (1660) -The Street of the Cross. It is also known locally as La Calle de la Vida y de la Muerte – The Street of Life and Death. Why? It is rumored that here, turning left outside the main cathedral, duels were fought. Two men entered, but only one emerged alive. It is interesting to meditate on the close proximity of life and death, always there, side by side.
So, for the fun of it, let’s change the question: what is life? “What is life? A frenzy. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a fiction. And the greatest good is small, for the whole of life is a dream, and dreams are nothing but dreams, after all.” Life is a Dream, Calderon (1600-1681). Looked at from this point of view, what is death? Is it the shutting down and the turning off of the cerebral computer or is it the great awakening from the sleep of life? You can think of it either way but, either way, it’s pointless worrying about it. As my grandfather also told me: “If there’s nothing afterwards, I’ll just fall asleep and that will be the end of it. But if death is the great awakening, then I will be very happy to wake up in a new reality.”
Robert Bly, in The Sibling Society, writes of the lateral movement that now embraces society with its grip of instant pleasure, instant gratification, instant happiness. As a result, we have strayed far from the vertical knowledge that sustained us for centuries. We have abandoned the wise words of our ancestors. Now the old are no longer the keepers of wisdom and the guardians of culture, the institutional memories of the race, if you like. Now they are foolish, clumsy, out of date with the world’s most rapid advances. Only the young, and their siblings, can keep up with the ever changing instants of life as presented to us.
But all is not lost. “What a peaceful life, that of the wise man who withdraws from this noisy world and follows the hidden path along which the world’s wisest people have always walked.” Fray Luis de Leon (1527-1591). We can move far from the madding crowd. We can construct our own realities. We can base them on the words of wisdom handed down to us over the generations. Switch off the TV. Watch the sun as it moves across the cathedral face (Monet) or the walls of your house (Moo). Live each moment of each day. Do not fall into despair. Above, don’t worry – it does no good at all.