Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where...

Let's see where I am with all this. I've been trying to get at the link between our powerful sense of personal and unique identity, which I'm calling "ME-awareness," and our unwillingness to face the fact of our mortality. I've suggested a very crude typology of response to our mortality. A couple of people have pointed out very sensibly that most of us have a mix of these responses; I'd agree with that, and add that maybe our mix changes by the day, and according to the stage of life we're at.

And, by the way, I'm using "mortality" not as a euphemism for "death," but to avoid confusion with "dying," the process itself. So, mortality as a fact about human existence, about life itself.

I'm summing up because I'm aware that this isn't a daily chat sort of blog, and should anyone add themselves to the swelling throng of my reader, it might be puzzling to be dropped into the middle of all this stuff!

In addition to the ones I've listed, here is another kind of respons: the kind of aloof stoicism, unemotional detachment, that Yeats sums up as "cast a cold eye on life, on death..." Someone who: isn't running scared; isn't trying to drown out the thought of mortality with the noise of one huge continuous party of a life; hasn't got a religious belief that involves a literal heaven and afterlife; who might or might not put service to the people and the planet to the fore but isn't trying to evade or blot out the thought of the Grim Reaper.

Such a person doesn't push out of mind the possibility of a slow and unpleasant decline via disease, isn't torn by the thought of leaving loved people behind, is someone who endures pain and unpleasantness and isn't impressed by sensual pleasure or intellectual delight. A cold fish, you might think. Such a person can contemplate his/her own death with equanimity.

I've yet to meet such a person.

I'm not sure they exist.

Because I think most of us are scared by, fight against the thought of, the Grim Reaper, at least. some of the time. That may be fear about the manner of dying, an objection to the Reaper's appalling bad manners and impatience ("The Ruffian on the Stair".) It might be a dread of personal exinction, the ending of ME.

Writers from antiquity onwards have offered consolations in the face of our mortality. But in Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" there is a powerful passage that really shook me when I first read it. Some of the language may seem a bit remote or strange nowadays if you're unfamiliar with it, but just give it a shot. Maybe try it out loud.

A young man has just been told to resign himself to his death:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world, or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling —'tis too horrible!

The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature, is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

Well, you can trust the Bard to get inside your head.

Shakespeare moves from the horror of imagining yourself - your body - in the cold ground, to finding no consolation at all in the idea of your soul surviving death. So Christian faith isn't helping a lot here. And I think, no doubt presumptuously, that he is not only responding to the fear that even a Christian can't be sure where his soul will land up, but also instinctively to the dread of the end of a human consciousness.The first part ends in a sort of howl - "'tis too horrible!" Any life, however dreadful, is better than no-ME.

Let's try to tighten all this up a bit (not before time, you may think.)

People deal with the fact of our mortality in all sorts of ways, and similarly they face their actual deaths in all sorts of ways, if indeed they have any time in which to do so. Something that makes it harder to do so is our instinctive dread of the end of identity, of my precious unique individual self - exit ego: the thought of no more conscious awareness, no more ME. This dread seems to me profound and irrational - after all, we all know it's going to happen, so what's the point in fearing it? "Ay, but to die, and go we know not where..."

I'm interested in ways we can lessen this dread. And that's because it may be that we can come to terms with our mortality during our lives, and face our actual deaths when they come more calmly, if we can lessen our dread of ME-extinction.It may be that we can lead richer lives, relate better to those around us, and even - have better funerals!

Next time, I'll move onto ways people have of dealing with the dread of extinction, and eventually I'll write about a way that I have come across, (and so have plenty of others) which I think can help a lot. But no missionary spiel, no snake-oil, no sales pitch, I promise.


  1. Good thoughts. I think that people in the full flush of life, filled with vitality, find it hardest. And whatever people believe, do they they really believe? I mean, REALLY believe? Very few, I'd reckon. Misgivings are bound to abound.

    But age, decrepitude, pain, illness, an increasing sense of social marginalisation -- these are all good reconcilers, yes? I think there does come a point in the lives of many when death is preferable to any more life.

    I shall muse on. You give us plenty of food for that, as ever, GM!

  2. The keyword I had to type for that last comment was 'berid'. A new and most appropriate verb?

  3. I think you're right about misgivings. I wonder how many virtuous religious people look forward to dying and going to heaven? Surely they should do so, logically? But what's logic got to do with?

    I also think you're right about some old people feeling that it gets easier to leave life because of great age and the decline in vigour - the world, I guess, moves steadily away from one, and perhaps that makes leaving it easier. That's different, I guess, from wishing to get away from an unpleasant terminal illness.

    I had a reasonably ancient and deeply religious (RC) cousin who said, the last time I saw him, after he'd had a couple of small-ish strokes and very bad arthritis, "Can't see much point in going on with this."

    He wasn't in pain when he spoke, I think he just felt, as they say, his time had come. He also felt, as many od people, naturally enough, seem to, that the world was going to hell in a very rapidly-trundled handcart.

    I was interested that he didn't speak of looking forward to heaven, though if there was one, I'm sure that's where he'd be, after the usual spell on Mt. Purgatory sewing mailsacks, or whatever is the form there.

    Yes, I think he wanted to be berid.