Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
As you get older the intimations of mortality increase. Abilities decline, especially the ability to do sustained and constructive work. More and more effort is required to accomplish even the most trivial of tasks. The desire and the ability to engage in the day to day preoccupations of those with whom you live diminishes and you begin to live a little apart. The temptation arises just to let go and let be, to drift, averting the gaze from the steadily approaching terminus by occupying the mind with distractions. Rather than beginning to divest yourself of the accumulated baggage, the detritus of an often uncoordinated life, you cling to memories, to the comforting and the familiar. You arrived naked and alone, naked and alone you will depart – but this thought, lurking in the shadows of the mind, is not allowed. Instead the mind preoccupies itself with entertainment.
You can see where Dylan Thomas is coming from. He was young then, full of passion and the fire of youth. To watch his father quietly approaching death was very painful. He did not understand what it is to be old, what it is to have every option taken away, what it is to be lying in the anteroom, waiting for the final door to open. He understood that his father was dying, that his body was failing and could not support life for much longer. His understanding, though, was rational, an intellectual grasp but not a physical, nor an emotional one. Marx said that, ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.’ For Marx social being included and was part of material being. Dylan’s material being was that of a young and vigorous man. He could not appreciate what it was to be old, feeble and at the point of death. So he raged, and willed his father to rage ‘against the dying of the light’.
We don’t know what Dylan’s father felt. However, the approach of death, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, does concentrate the mind wonderfully, leading to an acute awareness of this moment now. Normally we tend to live in our heads, caught up in thoughts, projecting ourselves forwards, backwards, elsewhere, as we deal with a multitude of preoccupations. Normally the mind’s focus is anywhere but here and now unless compelled by immediate circumstances. For those facing death, however, this moment now achieves an intensity perhaps never before felt. And out of that heightened awareness arise two questions, like two sides of the same coin, ‘What does it mean to live? What does it mean to die?
For Christians questions concerning the meaning of life and death find answers in the life and words of Jesus Christ. To live is to love with a degree of unselfishness which only makes sense, and perhaps is only possible, if I am not just ‘I’, ‘me’ but ‘we’, ‘us’. Ultimately it is to make the discovery that my being is in God. And to die is to make the transition from this life to a risen life in Christ.
For Buddhists to live is to strive to unself the self; to strive to see reality as it is and not as we would have it be; to discover, as the Heart Sutra puts it, that ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form’. At the heart of Buddhism is the idea ‘pratityasamutpada’, codependency. Nothing exists of itself alone, everything is dependent on a multitude of causes. To live is to strive to pierce through the multitude of appearances to the emptiness that underlies them, to the extinction that is death, to ultimate reality.
The ‘now’ of those moments before death is unlike any other ‘now’. This is where the journey ends. There will be no transition into the future. No future, simply those two pressing questions to which no satisfactory answer is possible. This is the now of the mystery of life and death. Only hope remains.
Les mille voix de l’énorme mystère
Parlent autour de toi,
Les mille lois de la nature entière
Bougent autour de toi,
Les arcs d’argent de l’invisible
Prennent ton âme et sa ferveur pour cible.
Mais tu n’as peur, oh ! simple coeur,
Mais tu n’as peur, puisque ta foi
Est que toute la terre collabore
A cet amour que fit éclore
La vie et son mystère en toi.
Émile VERHAEREN: Viens lentement t’asseoir