That was the day of the white chrysanthemums, so magnificent I was almost fearful…And then, then you came to take my soul…
For someone way beyond middle age Amour is, as we used to say, quite a trip. To those unfamiliar with this Oscar winning French film, it chronicles the illness, degeneration and death of an aging French piano teacher, who is cared for by her loving, stoic husband. The acting is superb, the writing spare and focused, the pacing almost in ‘real time’ as the camera lingers on the woman’s first stroke, being bathes by an attendant, the husband’s excruciating attempts to get her to eat some oatmeal. In the end the husband, overwhelmed with grief for his wife’s guttural cries of pain, her loss of even a shred of autonomy or dignity, and perhaps also his own exhaustion, frustration, and anger, takes matters into his own hands.
This is the kind of last weeks, months, or years many of us may well expect. The very great majority of those who read these words will not die of war, starvation or lack of medical care. Although some, sadly, may be taken early by cancer, auto accidents or murder, most will die from age: with dementia or Alzheimer’s, after strokes or heart attacks or some other slow, debilitating condition reduces us to pale, burdened, endlessly needy shadows of our former selves.
There is an easy way out of the fear and grief this reality generates: to believe that pretty much the way we are now we go “somewhere else.” For me, like the idea of a personal, omnipotent creator God who cares how I live, notions of heaven or reincarnation were never what William James called a “live option.” The thought that I could be “myself” without a body or starting another life from scratch, knowing nothing, never connected. For me comfort must take another form.
An alternative suggestion is that people “live on in the memories of those whose lives they have touched.” While in Amour the couple had a daughter and one of the women’s students was a successful pianist, it was clear that after their death both of them would fade from people’s consciousness pretty quickly. And in any case, outside of the extremely few who are Very Great or at least Very Famous (Plato, George Washington, Shakespeare, Buddha) none of us are thought of very much after a few years, or at most a few decades: when the people who knew us for who we were – as opposed to our books or political acts, say – themselves pass away.
Which leaves us – or at least me – with the unshakable realization that what I face now is a future of continually becoming less than I am now: less intelligent, active, and industrious, with worse hearing, eyesight and ability to concentrate. There will be a gradual turning down of the volume until the player, one way or another, just shuts off.
I can still remember lying in bed, perhaps 7 years old, crying about all this, terrified at the thought of the annihilation of my just budding self-consciousness. My mother was reassuring, “Don’t worry, this won’t happen for such a very, very long time.” For some reason that was good enough then, but today Mom’s words carry, shall we say, a bit less weight.
What makes aging and death tolerable? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps we must all, as Dylan Thomas put it, “rage against the dying of the light.” And really there is nothing wrong with such a response. Surely it is just because the juice of the cherry, spilling out of your mouth on onto your shirt and you don’t care because it is so sweet, is so wondrous that it must be bitter to know one day all you’ll have in your mouth is dust you can’t even taste.
But besides anger (and its cousins grief, fear, and regret) there are other (non-heaven, non-reincarnation) ways to face death.
The first is simple and seems almost unarguable. Think of life – and I mean not just our own allotted time but the whole system which makes it possible: planets and seasons, microbes in our gut and nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil, the hydrological cycle and the truly magical way DNA gets a part of each of your parents into you. If we truly love life then we must love death as well. Without death there would be no system at all. Things would be unbearably crowded, all sorts of folks (in the broad sense) would have nobody to eat, and there would be little room for innovation, growth, and evolution. We would all be fixated in some vastly earlier stage of existence. And 99.99999% of what we get to taste and see in this life, including our own alternately glorious, dopey, confused and insightful selves, could never have come into being.
Hold onto that thought and join it with another: if I stop thinking of myself like a mountain, or a stone cathedral, or some other item which seems built to last and instead think of myself, my self, as something radically different, maybe death would seem less threatening.
Does a song regret ending? As the last notes of the symphony crash into the air and slowly fade, is there some regret from the melody and harmonies whose echoes will soon turn to silence?
Perhaps that is all we are: just a song sung by the universe. Does a song – does my ego – really want to last forever? Thankfully I’ve grown a bit since I was seven, and now I think not. We – I – will end, and if the song is as sweet as ripe cherries there might be a faint wish from us or others that there be a little more. But if we live with awareness and gratitude, compassion and love, we will face the end of the song with grace, knowing that the composer and performer is not us, but forces vastly larger, more creative, and (almost) infinitely more enduring.
Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and author/editor of seventeen books on ethics, political philosophy, environmentalism, and spirituality. His newest book is: Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters. Here is an excerpt.