Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Note on Death

A Note on Death

These thoughts have been provoked by reading Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety.  The section of his book entitled “Solutions” offers Christianity as one of the major solutions to the problem of status anxiety.  In his chapter on Christianity he deals mainly with the subject of death and dying and how we should face it squarely.  

Once again de Botton introduces his subject through literature, this time through that wonderful book by Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886).  De Botton tells us that Ivan was a man “overwhelmingly concerned with status.” (p. 227) With only a few weeks to live, Ivan’s mind is very concentrated, which activity, according to Johnston, the thought of impending death is wont to promote.  He realises that he has lived outwardly a sham of a life, lived just to impress others, while inwardly he has lived a rather banal, barren and lonesome existence.  All his former preoccupations, fashionable dinner parties, impressing others “might not have been the real thing.”(Quoted p 228)  These last words in parentheses are the words of Tolstoy.

That is indeed what we human beings long for – “the real thing.” We might term it today as being true to self, being really oneself, being authentic, following one’s dreams, or in the words of Abraham Maslow, “actualizing” one’s real self.  Dr. Maslow coined the term “Self-Actualization” as the pinnacle in the hierarchy of human needs.  Dr. Maslow summed up the concept as:"A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write if he is to be at peace with himself.  What a man can be, he must be. This is the need we may call self-actualization ... It refers to man's desire for fulfillment, namely to the tendency for him to become actually in what he is potentially: to become everything that one is capable of becoming ..." (Quote taken from )

I remember some years back reading the two excellent books, memoirs, of Fr Joe Dunn who was one of the foremost documentary makers for Irish television, RTE, in the last forty years of the twentieth century.  As to why so many young men in his youth went on for the priesthood, he offered as one major contributing factor, namely the awareness of death and how often tragically short this life is.  That point struck me forcefully as being very true.

Today, with the advance in both technology and in medicine, and consequently in our longevity, the thoughts of death are now pushed very much to the fringes of our concerns.  I read recently also in some psychology book that the really modern repression is death, or rather the very thought of it, never mind its reality.  However, my own life experiences and the early studies I pursued prevented me from repressing this fact.  At college I studied theology, philosophy and English literature in my first degree.  The spectre of death loomed large in all three.

I well remember reading Helen Gardner’s carefully and judiciously selected Metaphysical Poets (Penguin, 1978, originally 1952) in the late seventies.  We learned that many of these poets were preoccupied with death and dying, and why wouldn’t they be as very few of them managed to live beyond their early sixties.  I remember reading George Herbert’s poem “Mortification” which treats the old theme of the stages of human life and our eventual death.  Therein we read these words, (note the abrupt beginning which was typical of the metaphysicals): “How soon doth man decay!.../When boys go first to bed,/They step into their voluntarie graves,/Sleep bindes them fast; onely their breath/Makes them not dead:/Successive nights like rolling waves,/Convey them quickly, who are bound for death.”(See Metaphysical Poets, p 132) This preoccupation with things funereal fell under what was at the time called the Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying).  De Botton refers to a parallel and related activity in the sixteenth century, namely “Vanitas Art.”  This is describes thus: “‘Vanitas Art’, named in tribute to Ecclesiastes [“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Eccles 1:2], was hung in domestic environments, often in studies and bedrooms.  The canvases featured a table or sideboard on which were arranged a contrasting muddle of objects.  There were flowers, coins, a guitar or mandolin, chess games, a laurel wreath and wine bottles: symbols of frivolity and worldly glory.  And among these were placed the two great symbols of death and the brevity of life: a skull and an hourglass.” (p. 235) The express purpose of this was not to depress the owner and his visitors or guests, rather it sought to concentrate the mind on the value and worthwhile-ness of living life to the full.  If life is short, then to be engaged in worthless or valueless activities was a waste of valuable time.  Life is short so we should be loving, kind, forgiving, understanding, open to others etc.
The above picture of the Pope's Cross Phoenix Park, Dublin, is one I took about 4 years ago. The Cross is of course the quintessential Christian symbol signifying life in and through death.

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