By Michael Shook
I turned 69 this summer, from which it follows, of course, that next year I’ll hit 70. That’s assuming I live that long. I expect to, but one never knows. At this age, I’ve lost a number of friends that I just assumed I’d be growing old with, some of them very much too young. And several old buddies – guys I’ve known for close to 60 years – have had multiple bypass heart surgeries. All this has me thinking about being dead.
More precisely, it has me continuing to think about being dead, or even more precisely, about death generally, and my death, specifically. Perhaps I should capitalize that: Death.
The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza thought that the “free person thinks least of all of death, and his wisdom is a meditation not on death, but on life.” I’ll go with that. But for most of us, probably Baruch as well, to get there I think one must first do some meditating on death.
I mentioned “continuing” to think about death because, for as long as I can remember, I’ve done just that. I can recall sitting in grade school when we were forced, for some forgotten reason, to have to sit inside, looking out at a beautiful day, and thinking, “What if I died tonight, or on my way home from school? This day, a day I should be outside playing baseball, will have gone, and there will be no more.”
I suppose lots of kids think roughly the same thing, and of course, at such a tender age, not having grown up in a war zone, my experiences of death were limited to the demise of birds, bugs, wasps (my enemy back then, no longer), and an occasional pet. Still, there was an omnipresent sense that this all was finite, could disappear in an instant …
In any case, here I am now. And if I died in the next moment, I wouldn’t be upset. I’d be dead! In itself, that wouldn’t be so bad. I’ve lived a marvelous life, experienced many and varied things, enjoyed the love of friends, family, and a small number of lovely women, to whom, one and all, I’ve reciprocated love (and hopefully done so well).
And it’s got to end sometime. My old work buddy was an avid fisherman who used to say that, once our kids were able to fend for themselves, we ought to shuffle off. Like salmon, we’d done our part by spawning, and now it was time to go.
All this is fine and dandy. Jokes about death abound, and accepting the finitude of our lives is easy to do intellectually. And meditating upon the transient nature of life is, I think, important, and can be a great help in our discernment of where and how to direct our lives, as much as that can be done.
But … all that is in the mind, the intellect. And the body is a whole ‘nother proposition. This is where Spinoza and many other philosophers, make the error of thinking that we are, or can become, highly rational creatures. We are not, and to learn to think and act that way is a daunting task, requiring a lengthy, dedicated effort. Oh, certainly, we can do it in bits and pieces, especially regarding something like, say, a business decision, or where to go to college. But we are animals, and our energies are primarily devoted to fulfilling our animal needs. Foremost among them is doing almost anything to keep living. That fundamental nature cannot be denied or fully subjugated. On the rocky shores of this immovable fact, countless schemes meant to resolve humanity’s difficulties, from centuries past to the present, have foundered.
So I am divided. On one hand, intellectually, I’m okay with it; when I die, I die. On another, in my bodily animal sense, I don’t want to! I grow weaker each passing year, more creaky, stuff falling apart everywhere. But the life force shall not yield, at least not easily. And I’ve still got trees to plant, trees I’ve already planted that need caretaking, music to sing, and family and friends to enjoy.
Then again, how much is enough? Some days I feel, eh, I am who I am, I’ve done what I’ve done – what more is there? I’m not going to start a new career (too much work), and anyway I’ve got more than enough to keep me busy. But there is a sense that, though I be old, I still have a responsibility, a duty to do something to contribute to life – not just while away the days casually, as if none of it mattered.
Like most things, it’s out of my hands (certainly the death part, thank goodness). I’m still figuring out the other stuff, and I daren’t take any time for granted. One of these days, something will bust, like a piston rod blowing through an engine block, and that will be that. Or it might be that the valves have too much slop, too many leaks, and there will be a slow demise, with lots of oil burning …
Whenever it does come, I hope I can let go with some grace, and gratitude. It’s a truly remarkable experience to live, and also to die. We should all be so lucky as to have the time and resources to contemplate it, Spinoza notwithstanding.