The anniversary of the day of my birth was last Tuesday. I did not do much. Should I have? But my brother bought me dinner and my dad aims to as well, so I rest content.
I prefer to spend my birthdays reflecting on the previous year of life. But such reflections inevitably lead one to ponder the next year of life. But such reflections cannot be hindered from proceeding forward into “vast futurity” and, having escaped the narrow bounds of the present, to come to the black end of one’s own life. I realized (when I did not artificially shut down this train of thought) that there is a certain poetic sense to it.
The day of one’s death and the day of one’s birth are harmoniously related. I am born into the world from God-knows-where (either nothingness, or some eternal bodiless pre-existence, or from mere gooey matter), live a space of twenty, eighty, or a hundred years (maybe a hundred twenty if anti-aging technology advances by leaps?) and then return to God-knows-where (either heaven or hell, or back to the starry heavens whence I came, or into dust and nothingness). Birth and death are both great mysteries, great transitions to a new world. What that new world is is only explained by God through theologians by Christian Revelation, or else we don’t know and never will know, for most scientists do not concern themselves with such questions.
The death to which my mind so readily moves whenever I am prompted to think about “the past year” does not seem so out of place, so strange, so “morbid” as I first felt.
For death is inevitable. When people say “that’s morbid” I think they usually mean, “Don’t think about such nasty things.” For death, so they say, is dirty, unpleasant, and tasteless to dwell upon. And this is a valid complaint. Thinking about garbage heaps and public restrooms at the beach and eating day-old escargot is certainly unpleasant and tasteless to dwell upon (even mentioning them is a risk!) Gentlemen or even cads in polite company may forgoe useless attention to such unpleasantries. But is death such a thing as to be flippantly ignored? Clearly not.
Death is like a destination at the end of the train we are all riding. It is the plane landing at the airport in t-minus some-number-of-minutes whether we like it or not. It is the ultimate “End Freeway, 2 Miles” sign and there is simply no off-ramp.
There are two possible response to this inevitable unpleasantry. Ignore all the harder, or else give in and pay it some attention. Ignoring it (from observation) seems to involve drinking a fair amount, or else getting a very time-consuming job, or dating more than I have the time or money to afford. Hence I’ve decided to give in.
For this reason I embrace the yearly waypoint — marking another day another hour, another minute, another second closer to the moment when I will forever close my eyes, waking up only to the mysterious beyond, or else not at all — by having a drink, listening to songs and reading poems (Psalm 39 anyone? I’m not making this stuff up) about death. And not “death in general”, but my death. My very own, personal, inevitably, signed and sealed but not yet delivered, bona fide, custom-designed, divinely appointed death.
Now, you may call me morbid…
But I find that there are those who have similarly embraced Option Two in response to the coming sleep. Solomon (see Ecclesiastes), Dostoyevsky, even Nietchze shared a uncanny premonition that mortality was actually really real and couldn’t be avoided.
A more modern soul who feels my pain is Walker Percy. An excellent little biography of Walker Percy is available from the 1992 New York Times here. Though he is passed on, he yet lives. His books sparkle and crack with life, wit, clarity, humour, and the despair of earthly life that so betrays a mind already somewhat dwelling (O blessed!) in eternity.
Walker Percy makes us realize that the reason moderns (more so than any other culture) are so adverse to death is that they have been given a new strategy for Option One besides base pleasure or envigorating mental distraction. That strategy is Science.
From the biography by Madison Bell: “Like many Americans of this period, though probably more consciously than most, Percy committed himself to the “belief that science would eventually explain everything” and “somehow bring mankind through.”
But the Scientific-Sounding Distraction is just another distraction. If death is postponed, then won’t it still inevitably come? One hundred and fifty years is not much longer than eighty. Or if death is, by massive technological and medical advance, postponed indefinitely, won’t such advances take longer to develop than the measly 20, 40, 60 years left that you have to live? And even if they are developed within our lifetime, couldn’t we die suddenly of a car crash, a slippery tile, an angry neighbor, before the week is out? Or if we survive all accidents, wars, famines, and earthquakes, and if medical science has effectively provided the immortality of the species (or some of the species, see Lewis’ That Hideous Strength), then do we have any providence against the impending doom of the universe, the cooling of the stars, the return of the Big Bang upon itself, its final pathetic whimpering echo?
Percy confronted this complex dilemma, and returned to Option Two. Face it. Think about it. Talk about it. Philosophize about it. Pray about it. But don’t try to escape from death by escaping from the thought of death. Would you try to escape from a runaway semi-truck by thinking happy thoughts?
Only after we have come to Option Two, after we have dismissed the epithet “morbid” as a defensive ad hominem, after we have admitted and embraced the fact that we will one day celebrate our Deathday just as much (or more) as our Birthday, can we get about the business of knowing what to do about it.
For some the option is suicide. For others, a meaningless existence in a job, for others, a life of divine suffering through love, for others, a life of peace and bliss through religious experience, for others, a life of ecstacy through artistic production and aesthetic experience. Walker Percy asks: “What now? It would be a good time to die, but on the other hand I’d as soon not. . . . Life is much stranger than art — and often more geometrical.”
Whether your birthday is coming up this month or sometime next year, let’s commit to living our life, as sad as it may be that one day it will end. And let’s commit to figuring out together what is the significance, if any, of our short stint on earth between the “1982” of my coming to be and the “20??” of my passing away. For your birthday may come once a year, but your deathday only comes once in your life. Let’s don’t be taken by surprise.