Facing death

I listened recently to a podcast of Nuala O Faolain’s interview  about her approaching death.

Available here  http://www.rte.ie/podcasts/2008/pc/pod-v-120408-40m53s-marianfinucane.mp3

She is a highly intelligent woman, a writer and has just discovered that she has terminal cancer and not very long to live. The interview explores her feelings at this time, how she reacted to the discovery and how it has affected her and her attitudes.

… as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life… It amazed me, Marian, how quickly life turned black, immediately almost… I can’t be consoled by mention of God. I can’t… though I respect and adore the art that arises from the love of God and though nearly everybody I love and respect themselves believe in God, it is meaningless to me, really meaningless……the very essence of this experience is aloneness … and you’re walking around and all you know is that whatever it is you are feeling or thinking is yours and nobody else’s. And there is nobody else to lay it off on and that aloneness is the centre and the thing that you never know when you are well ……I thought there would be me and the world, but the world turned its back on me, the world said to me that’s enough of you now and what’s more we’re not going to give you any little treats at the end …

We all know that we are going to die sometime but normally this fact does not worry us or affect our attitude to life. It will happen sometime in the unforeseeable future. Death, extinction, did not bother Nuala until she unexpectedly learnt that for her it was going to occur within a few months. And then everything changed. Life became black and meaningless. Most of the things that she had enjoyed and that gave meaning to her life lost their savour. Two questions immediately intrigue me. Why? Why should the knowledge of imminent death deprive life of meaning? And, would belief in God and an afterlife have made a difference?

What gives meaning? Why should one thing, action, event have meaning while another does not? Part of the answer would seem to be significance. This wedding ring has meaning for me because of its significance. That pebble on the beach has no importance and therefore means nothing to me. The phrase ‘this bread’ in the context of the Eucharist has enormous significance for believers, in the context of a bakery it has no particular import. A kiss on the cheek when greeting a stranger means little. A kiss from a loved one means everything. Significance, it would seem, is determined by relationship and context.

Time is another major factor. We do not want our pleasure, joy, happiness to be limited by time. We do not want to be parted from what we love and those we love. There will be an end sometime, but no parameters have been set, no limits fixed and so we can look forward to a future stretching into forever. Because the future stretches forever there is no point in thinking about it. This allows us to focus on the present. The present is here now. It will always be here, here now and tomorrow it will be here again. This takes the pressure off the present. If the present is not quite as we would want it, that’s OK, we can work to improve things for tomorrow. We look forward to tomorrow. Tomorrow will be better. We look forward to enjoying the fruit of our labour, to working on projects, to holidays, to seeing our children grow. In fact life is a process projected into the future, working, growing, creating, discovering. We do not think about an end, only about going on and on. 

Until you are told that in six months time there will be no more tomorrows, that time for you will cease. And suddenly there is no looking forward to a future. There is only today and the next few days. There will be no more projects, no more growing, or creating, or discovering. It is like driving a fast car, exulting in the speed and the skill, and then it runs out of fuel and you are left sitting in a motionless vehicle, going nowhere. A car that can not go has lost its meaning. Life with no future has no meaning, or has it? Of what value is this moment now – not the past which led up to it, nor the moments to come, but this moment now? Can it be separated from the past and the future? They only exist in the mind. Only this now is real. Only this now exists. What, if anything, gives it value? This is the real question. For me now this moment, why should it matter? We may say that what happened in the past can affect our attitude to this now, enhance or detract from its significance, help or hinder our ability to grasp it. Likewise the now may be important because it is the springboard to the future. I suspect that this is one of the factors which led to Nuala’s sadness. She had had a full rich life, lived with exuberance and many achievements. In comparison her now is barren and sterile lacking, as it does, any possibility of a future.

The analogy that immediately comes to mind is that life is like a surfer riding a wave. It is lived at speed and to the full, balancing relationships, projects, experiences in an exciting onward rush. Then suddenly the shore is in sight and in a few moments one will be cast like flotsam onto the beach. The ride will be over, finished. There is nothing left to live for but these few last moments before extinction.

But the analogy cannot be carried very far because the wave of life does not come to an end in an explosion of white surf, but goes on and on. And the surfer? She ceases to ride the wave, certainly. But what happens then? Is she absorbed into the wave which continues on its onward journey? Again, the analogy fails. Nevertheless D. W. Mann’s description of life as a standing wave is very helpful.

With bodily birth the self is born.  The universe of self-experience comes into being through the severance act of birth.  But the resultant separateness, which I have said lies at the heart of the self-experience, is from a biophysical perspective more illusory than real.  While the body lives, it remains a standing wave of active earth, gathered and propelled by the happenstance channelling of genes into an amnesic emissary from the mineral world.  We are of earth but not within it, moving ever so slightly beyond it but always in its outstretched stream, borrowing and returning, dust to dust. Into this fabric each of us weaves, from earth, through man and woman, man into woman, out of woman aloft into life, and finally back into earth, our single stitch of life.  The generations quit the earth, like ragged seams.  In all but ecstatic moments we feel separate, but in physical fact our bodies join us to the earth, to one another, and to the seemingly separate universe that envelopes us.[Mann D.W., A Simple Theory of the Self, W.W. Norton, New York, 1994 p. 42f]

The feeling of separateness is an illusion. On the physical level our bodies are absorbed back into the wave. There is, however, much more than the physical process, though even on the physical level there are depths and depths that physicists and cosmologists are only beginning to understand. There is also the spiritual dimension, though some, including Nuala, might disagree. Yet testimony going back to the dawn of human history shows an awareness of ‘something there’, a dimension that transcends the physical and the human.*

  For some this awareness was always there. For others it may occur as the result of a significant experience. For still others it may have been part of the environment in which they grew up but, like fairy tales and belief in Father Christmas, evaporated with the social pressures and tensions of lived life. Finally, there are those for whom is was never a factor. Nuala, I think, falls into the third category.

Anyway, whether the awareness is there or not, there is nothing, as someone once said, like the prospect of death to concentrate the mind. And to focus it on this all too fleeting now, revealing it with its beauty, with its ugliness, but this time more as a spectacle in which one cannot really participate because there is no time. There is not time to get involved, to engage with others, to initiate anything because the time left is so fleeting, or so it seems. The end is approaching so quickly, faculties fading and the ability to engage as before so uncertain that all one can do is to stand helplessly, already a bystander, soon to be gone. One feels alienated already, in a sense, rejected by life. “… all you know is that whatever it is you are feeling or thinking is yours and nobody else’s,” as Nuala puts it. 

Formerly subjective and objective time merged seamlessly, as did subjective and objective experience. Formerly, for example, going for a walk with friends you interacted with them, engaging in conversation and all the while the road passed by under your feet. You could see the road stretching ahead and where you would be in five, or ten minutes time, and all the while your friends accompanied you. In the distance, perhaps, you could see mountains where you and your friends would be in a few hours. The journey is a shared experience, a merging of both the objective and the subjective. And then, all of a sudden you are sidelined. The world has ‘turned its back’. Your friends continue along the road but you can no longer see ahead, or share the common experience with them as before. The mountains still exist but you will never reach them. And so you stand there, intensely aware of your situation, of the world about you, a world as meaningless now as a broken down car. Except it is not the world that has broken down but you.

Now you have become a prisoner in your subjective experience, an experience that is shared with no one else that you know. You gaze out at the world as at a cinematic display. You no longer belong. It belongs to others, to your friends, those you love. Above all it belongs to the young, vibrant with life. You stand at life’s edge. Behind you all is movement, conversations, shouts, laughter and activity. Before you is the dark void and you stand at the crumbling edge. There is a Zen story which goes like this:

One day while walking through the wilderness a man stumbled upon a vicious tiger. He ran but soon came to the edge of a high cliff. Desperate to save himself, he climbed down a vine and dangled over the fatal precipice. As he hung there, two mice appeared from a hole in the cliff and began gnawing on the vine. Suddenly, he noticed on the vine a plump wild strawberry. He plucked it and popped it in his mouth. It was incredibly delicious!

Apparently in the original it was a poisonous berry but D. T. Suzuki changed it thinking that this would not appeal to Westerners. Both versions are appropriate here and worth thinking about. The temptation to take poison must be great. It would quickly bring to an end a
n appalling situation. Death is certain. The only question is will it be now quickly, or soon, perhaps slowly with much suffering? Certainly Sartre would say, take the poison. Make your final act an authentic one in keeping with your status as a free and rational human being. 

But the strawberry version raises another question. Does subjective experience in itself have a value that transcends the here and now? The story implies that it does and that its value lies in moments of exquisite sensation. Most of us have probably experienced times of heightened awareness and profound happiness, perhaps on first falling in love, or before a beautiful sunset. There may have been other times when, in the company of friends, with talk and laughter flowing, all enjoying the pleasure of being together, we have felt such a simple and deep happiness that we wished this moment to continue forever. Such moments have a centrifugal effect, drawing us out of ourselves so that we feel that our being extends into that of others, into the wider world, into nature itself. While suffering has a centripetal effect, drawing us inward, enclosing us within this pain-full body. The point of the strawberry story is that this instant of pure pleasure allows the man to transcend his dire situation, if only for a few moments. 

Why some should have a sense of transcendence, while others do not, or very rarely; why some have faith in God and an afterlife, while others not, are questions with no easy answer. Nevertheless, faith or no faith, the approach of death means a closing in. Our dimensions begin to shrink to the extent of a failing body. We have been launched on a trajectory into the dark and all we can do is hope. Even if we cannot believe we can hope. And in hoping we can, perhaps, begin to transcend this dark now.

* cf Hardy, Alister; The Spiritual Nature of Man, OUP, Oxford,1979; Hay, David; Religious Experience Today, Mowbray, London 1990; Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit, Darton, Longman and Todd, London 2006 

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