Sunday, May 10, 2009

"Yet a few days..."

I find it significant that almost all of us who have died for a brief time, as did I, have no further fear of death.

I hope that the permanent end of my life is far, far away; I have no wish to rush its arrival. But when it does arrive, whether it is tonight, another 3317 days from now (as that is how many days have passed since I first passed on for almost seven minutes), another 17,029 days (the count of my life up until that first brief death), or a number of days far more random and less coincidental... I will not fear its arrival.

Roger Ebert recently shared his thoughts on death in his Chicago Sun-Times journal entry "Go Gentle Into That Good Night," which you should read if the topic of death doesn't make you uncomfortable. It's a rambling, far-reaching, insightful piece that echoes some of the same sentiments that I have said and felt over the years. He even quotes one of my favorite snippets from the works of Walt Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)


Like Ebert and Whitman and probably you and me, my life is a series of contradictions. Each day is in itself marked by still more contradictions. I have come to accept that as my nature.

That doesn't mean I'm always happy with it. I would like nothing more than to be a source of happiness for others, but I know that my mercurial nature (shaded with what my friend Bob Wayne once described as an intense empathy that makes my own moods all too often reflective of the moods of those around me) sometimes produces results that do not inspire such. Being aware that this is my nature helps, but it doesn't allow me to overcome.

Ebert is 66. I am 55. The statistical odds are that I have lived more than half my life already--a great deal more than half. I may wish that I had done more with the portion I have lived, and I may dream of doing more with the portion yet to come, but I am also aware that I will not change the world, nor will it really notice the day of my passing.

Today, Susan bought a sampler stitched in 1839 by one Sarah Redhouse; this is not a replica or a recreation, but the very piece of cloth upon which those young hands labored for dozens of hours to meticulously stitch an intricate floral pattern that surrounded a bit of verse from Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written on a Country Churchyard," one of my favorite poems.

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Most of us live as flowers born to blush unseen, wasting our sweetness on the desert air. All of us, I suspect, at one time had a heart once pregnant with celestial fire... where did it go?

It's a provocative essay that Mr. Ebert has written, and a moving one. I hope that death takes its time in revisiting both Mr. Ebert and me, but I say this now so that everyone can recall it at the moment when it seems meaningful: I have no fear of death. It is calming and soothing and encompassing and relieving and far removed from anything that life can offer.

I am not religious in an organized or explainable way. I can offer fragmentary glimpses into my own metaphysical beliefs, but I cannot define them any more than they can define me.

I believe that there is something in us that exists beyond this body. I do not believe that the complexity of personality and psyche and intellect can be defined entirely in physical, measurable aspects.

I do not believe that death is merely the absence of life. I believe that it is something else in its own right.

I do not believe in a divine force of judgment that punishes us for our actions in life, any more than I believe a parent would punish a newborn baby for its actions in the womb.

I believe that whatever it is that defines us, whatever exists beyond the physical, continues to exist in some form or manner after the body has died. I do not, however, claim to know what that form is, or whether it remains fully conscious of the experiences that we call life.

I believe that our noblest purpose is to bring happiness to others.

I believe that memes not only exist, but that memes can be linked to aspects of our world in ways that we cannot understand. Memes tie themselves to places, to songs, to objects so that those things taken on special meanings to us. Those meanings are real, connected by memetic bonds we can't discern or measure.

And I believe many more things, which I will talk about as time allows and situations dictate.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Spectacular essay. I share your belief about bringing happiness to others. Conversely, living for that purpose usually tends to boomerang that happiness back to us.