We have a problem with infinity. I don’t mean our inability to comprehend it (the infinite being forever ungraspable by finite minds), I mean with how so many of us appeal to infinity to make sense of our now.
Many faiths make use of eternity in their views of the afterlife, getting their Freudian wish-fulfilment in an everlasting paradise and their primitive desire for vengeance in the eternal damnation of different hells. The faithful take great solace in the belief that there will be an after and it will not have to end. But when this mortal coil is just a preparation for eternity, a warm-up act to the main show, it can become easy to think of this life and this planet as a place merely to wipe your feet before entrance to Heaven. On this view, we lose a sense of closure and finality in death. It becomes a brief intermission rather than the dropping of the curtain on the epic story of a life.
It has been observed that given an infinity, anything that can happen, will happen. In an infinity in which you cannot die, consequence becomes a meaningless concept. If you fail to achieve your goal this time, no matter, try again ... and again ... and again ... for eternity, until you get it. Failure means nothing as success is always eventually guaranteed, and as such, success must lose value being as it is all that there is. Along a timeline of infinity, all is reduced to infinite insignificance.
There is no guarantee in this life that we will have the chance to try again, and even if we do, there is no assurance of success next time. It is this uncertainty, created by the press of time defining our limits, that gives us reason to try harder, become better, to get it right in the one life we know we have. It is the fact that life ends that makes life so meaningful. This is what I want to explore, having been pushed to examine the universal of death and our localised wariness of acknowledging it by Richard Holloway’s latest book and by the recent death of one of my closest friends.
Derren Brown recently said, in a conversation with Rev. Richard Coles:
“If you watch a movie or read a book, that last chapter makes sense of everything that happened before. But when we get to the end of a life, things just end, and it’s absurd and meaningless ... This is a good example of where our myths have abandoned us. There is no narrative around death ... So unless you find that for yourself, what happens at the end? You probably feel like a cameo to your own death because the main roles have gone to the doctors or your loved ones ... And that is one time when you should really be able to take ownership of a story and find closure for it in the way that you would in a film or a book.”
For all the iconoclastic good postmodernism served in removing the various veils of prejudice from reality, by showing us that stories are not objective facts, postmodernism also failed to register that some veils (stories) are a part of reality. We don’t need to take our stories as empirically true to take our stories seriously. With the stripping of myths from our daily lives, we have lost human methods of addressing the largest parts of human life, such as death.
We no longer have a cohesive, shared story of death in our culture. However, our collective, subconscious attitude towards it has been shaped by Judeo-Christian myths. According to Genesis, death was not a part of the original shape of life; it is not until original sin enters the world that death is also brought into it, with God cursing humanity to
return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.
Under this way of thinking, death is an unnatural state of affairs, an aberration in the perfect plan of our creator. Milton paints Death as the offspring of an incestuous pairing between Sin and Satan, and in orthodox Christian teaching, Satan is always aligned with death and is the enemy. Christ conquers this figure with everlasting life. This is why we tend to view death – when we confront it at all in our modern lives – as an injustice to be fought and conquered if possible.
This way of thinking has not served us well, and Holloway writes convincingly of the need to see our eventual meeting with death not as a struggle or confrontation with an enemy. Instead, we should greet death, not eagerly (the end goal of a healthy view of death should always affirm life) but with a stoic embracing of its inevitability, allowing it to shape our view of life and lend meaning to all that came before. Holloway’s latest (though hopefully not last) book, Waiting for the Last Bus, lays out the groundwork for how we might achieve such a positive outlook at the end, for how to die well.
Raymond Radiguet wrote that “the painful thing is not to leave life, but to leave whatever gives it meaning”. He argued that it was the loss of meaning, such as a great love, that made death so lamentable, and I would expand the point to say that dying for no meaning is what makes death a tragedy. To die in place of a loved one, or in service of a greater good, or in defence of values that you hold as transcendent, that is to die with meaning. To exit life struggling against death’s bouncers, mourning that the party will go on without you as you are evicted from life, is to become a victim of death and die for no purpose.
Of course, grand causes worth dying for are all well and good if you can find them, but what of those who aren’t in positions of power or great influence, those of us who might only be remembered by a handful of family members before they too pass away? What purpose can be found in the smaller spaces of everyday life to permit us a meaningful death?
Horace Mann put it both ambitiously and modestly as, “Until you have done something for humanity, you should be ashamed to die.” As for what “something for humanity” might look like – that is for you to decide. It doesn’t matter if anyone else disregards your meaning or values something else, because they are not the one doing your dying. Besides, this is the foundation of all conversation and cultural endeavours: to interrogate ourselves and the world around about what constitutes the good life and what is worth valuing. We identify our values and then seek to spread them while pursuing that which affirms them. That might be changing the way an entire generation thinks; it might be influencing your own child for the better. It might be undermining the foundation of an institutional evil; it might be sheltering one soul from suffering and bringing joy into one other life.
There is an anecdote Christopher Hitchens recounts in his memoir, Hitch-22. At dinner with William Styron, author of a short account of his depression, the “pimply and stringy-haired” waiter tells them that Styron’s book “saved my life”. On being invited to sit with them, the young man says he was changed by the book and sought help for the depression he was fighting through. Styron was a winner of the Pulitzer Prize who had a novel adapted into an Academy Award nominated movie, and yet it is this scene I would be most proud of on my deathbed. To affect so profoundly even one person is to be that much bigger than oneself, to transcend the individuality inside which I find lesser meaning. (I know that will horrify my libertarian friends, but I also live for those moments of offending sensibilities with which I don’t agree; argument should be sought for its own sake, Hitchens used to say, because “the grave will supply plenty of time for silence”.)
Often, it is the loss of loved ones that troubles us about dying – not so much the going as the leaving. Life prepares us in some small way for this each time someone we know dies. For those of us with no belief in an afterlife, we do not worry for the dead as there is no longer anything to trouble them; we grieve for ourselves, for the absence in our own lives. Our own death, then, is this loss of a loved one but extended to all loved ones in a single moment. At the point of our own death, we lose absolutely everyone.
For some, the consolation of future reunions with all those lost can buoy the spirits. If such convictions bring calm to the dying, very well, and I would never want to take that from them in that moment. But I do see those faith-based beliefs as false consolations, an indefinite deferment of having to face up fully to mortality. Holloway reminds us that “there is no escape from anguish. It comes with the human condition”. He then gently suggests, “The fleeting pain of admitting our situation is preferable to the constant pain of denying it.”
Far more compelling than the notion of an afterlife is Holloway’s paradigm-shifting take on the sense of loss that accompanies death. Sadness at what we will miss by dying should be a minor melody somewhere in the music of our final days, but the lead chorus should sing of gratitude. As Holloway puts it:
“We won a rare lottery when we were born. There must have been something in our DNA that beat the odds against fusing the sperm with the egg that made our particular existence possible. Millions did not make it off the wasteful assembly line in the great reproduction factory of life. We got through. We made it. For that at least we should be grateful; and even more grateful for the world that received and nurtured us.”
We will be sad to let go of those we love, but we can also be grateful that we had the opportunity to love them and they us. Holloway’s essential takeaway on this point can be expressed in one word: gratitude. This is the antidote to greed for more life, greed that cannot be sated and hollows us out before the final disappointment. Holloway describes it as “the inability to enjoy what we have now because we are already lusting after the next edition”, whether this is a secular eternity or the unending Heaven of the faithful. “So be brave in the face of death,” he writes, “and be sad at leaving. But don’t let those be your final emotions. Let it be gratitude for the life you had.”
Gratitude does not need an object at which to direct it, though a god if you believe in one or simply the universe if you do not make for apt icons at which to aim your thanks. But gratitude can also be something felt within, without the need to extend it outwards. And if in your final moments you need help locating a sense of this gratitude, you could do worse than turning to literature and the poets. Holloway recommends Clive James’ response to the question of what life matters if it is all going to end anyway:
This much: you get to see the cosmic blaze
And feel its grandeur, even against your will,
As it reminds you, just by being there,
That it is here we live or else nowhere.
Last month, I said goodbye for the last time to my aunt, Sue, who was one of my closest friends. After being told by her doctor that she likely had until the end of 2017 to live, she continued to travel as she always had, living in Mexico and Canada, learning Spanish, making friends, and – as she did more than anything else in life – connecting with, loving, and helping everyone she met. She chose not to undergo medical interventions that might have prolonged her life (though not necessarily her wellbeing) and died the way she had lived – on her own terms. Thanks to changes in Canadian law around dignity in dying, she was able to determine the time of her death, which meant that at the end, she could host a group of her family and friends with whom she laughed (even inventing an impromptu limerick to serve as her own spoken epitaph) right up to the moment she left us.
I wasn’t able to be in Canada with her, but my father and sister were; they told me how calm she was in her final weeks and days, how grateful she felt for the life she had lived and love she had received, saying that she finally fully felt how loved she was by so many. Having had her in my life since I was born, she has always been a part of who I am, teaching me much about life. And in her death, she continued to be an example to me, offering an example of how to die well. And that might be the best conclusion to a well-lived life, an ending the audience can applaud at the close of the curtain.
In memory of Sue Morgan
(1950 ~ 2018)
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• Richard Holloway, Waiting for the Last Bus (2018)
• Derren Brown in conversation with Rev. Richard Coles, ‘The Big Conversation: The search for Happiness”, hosted by Unbelievable? (2018) [Available as podcast here.]
• Genesis 3:17, The Holy Bible, NIV.
• Raymond Radiguet, The Devil in the Flesh (1923)
• Horace Mann, in an address to Antioch College (1859)
• Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22 (2010)
• Clive James, ‘Event Horizon’ in Sentenced to Life (2015)