Since ancient times, who has not died?
Let me keep a loyal heart to shine from the pages of history.
—Wen Tianxiang (1236–1282) 文天祥, "Crossing the sea of Lingding" 過零丁洋. Wen is still known as a patriotic hero for his resistance to the Mongol invasion of China.
The secret of life is suffering. It is what is hidden behind everything.
—Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), De Profundis
Photo of a farmer in despair over the Depression, 1932, at Wikimedia Commons
It is one of the lessons of fairy-stories (if we can speak of the lessons of things that do not lecture) that on callow, lumpish, and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom.
–J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), from lecture On Fairy Stories
Photo of a young Afghan refugee by Franz, fsHH on Pixabay
If in the world there be more woe
than I have in my heart,
whereso it is, it doth come fro,
and in my breast there doth it grow,
for to increase my smart.
Alas, I am receipt of every care,
and of my life each sorrow claims his part.
Who list to live in quietness
by me let him beware,
for I by high disdain
am made without redress,
and unkindness, alas, hath slain
my poor true heart all comfortless.
—Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542)
“Oh, dying,” he said dismissively. “We’re all dying. He just knew his death would come sooner than he had planned. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t happy years, that it wasn’t a happy life.”
—Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life: A Novel, p 619
Image by Paul Brennan on Pixabay
How did I come to spend my life in this miserable valley?
In the middle of the night I get up. Ten thousand worries and griefs...
My soul does not come when called. It's gone back to its old home.
—Du Fu (712–770). Although he was one of China's greatest poets, he lived in tumultuous times, lost two children to starvation, wandered as an exile with his family far from home, dependent on wealthier friends, and spent the last part of his life in great sickness and poverty. From "Seven poems written while living at Tonggu during the Qianyuan Era" (758–760)
In the parallel universe the laws of physics are suspended. What goes up does not necessarily come down….Time, too, is different. It may run in circles, flow backward, skip about from now to then….
Another odd feature of the parallel universe is that although it is invisible from this side, once you are in it you can easily see the world you came from….
Every window on Alcatraz has a view of San Francisco.
Tha e nis air slighe na fùinne.
He is now in the way of truth. [He is dying.]
Tha e nis air fòid na fìrinne.
He is now on the sod of truth. [He is dead.]
There are no novel responses possible. Absolutely none that I could think of. Responses to the diagnosis; the treatment and its side effects; the development of cancer symptoms; the pain and discomfort; the dying; the death … I am appalled at the thought, suddenly, that someone at some point is going to tell me I am on a journey.
But much as I hate it, the journey – that deeply unsatisfactory, often deceitful metaphor – keeps popping into my head. Like my thoughts about infinity, my thoughts about my cancer are always champing at the bit, dragging me towards a starting line. From ignorance of my condition to diagnosis; the initiation into chemotherapy and then the radiotherapy; from the slap of being told that it’s incurable to a sort of acceptance of the upcoming end. From not knowing, to “knowing”, to “really” knowing; from being alive and making the human assumption that I will be around “in the future”, to coming to terms with a more imminent death. And then death itself. And there is no and. Maybe it’s just too difficult to find a way to avoid giving the experience a beginning and an end…..
The end of the journey doesn’t come until you either die cancer-free of something else, or die of the effects of a regeneration of the cancer cells. Good and bad; from here to eternity, and from eternity to here. But I have been not here before, remember that. By which I mean that I have been here; I have already been at the destination towards which I’m now heading. I have already been absent, non-existent. Beckett and Nabokov know:
I too shall cease and be as when I was not yet, only all over instead of in store.
From an Abandoned Work
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.
This thought, this fact, is a genuine comfort, the only one that works, to calm me down when the panic comes. It brings me real solace in the terror of the infinite desert. It doesn’t resolve the question (though, as an atheist I don’t really have one), but it offers me familiarity with “The undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveller returns”. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. And it soothes. When I find myself trembling at the prospect of extinction, I can steady myself by thinking of the abyss that I have already experienced. Sometimes I can almost take a kindly, unhurried interest in my own extinction. The not-being that I have already been.
I had delved down into a space where I perceived this great pool of gratitude and sadness. And don’t mix sadness up with depression or despair… All sadness is is a way of sensitizing you to what really matters, what’s really meaningful.
And death does that.
I see my death. It looms in front of me sooner than I would like, but because it’s there, because we live with that, I am so grateful for just this moment, for this time together. And that is a great gift.