Okay, i agree i am not 60 years old retired chap who has started worrying about the inescapable, insidious start of significant physical–and sometimes mental–decline leading to a sort of death anxiety. Rather, i am in my late 20’s, single chap who recently has had some time to ponder about all things in life-big and small. And among all those one of the biggies is definitely – Death. I know you must be thinking what about the other things in life – Love, relationships, career or kids, don’t they matter at all? I agree with this assessment of yours that there are too many things in life to ponder about other than death. For death, is not a continuation of life as all the religious books loftily say (brag?) about but death is a sort of full stop An ending to a life, to all his/her dreams, thoughts, wishes. For nothing progresses after death come knocking at your door. And if i remember correctly, this was indeed the reason i began to think about it.
Death or lets say Mortality (for those people who begin to equate the word death with the ghastly image of a tall hooded chap with a scythe in its hand or the Reaper, as is known in some circles) is indeed one of the neglected things in life. I am reminded of Saul Bellow‘s ruminations about it: Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything.
Despite being so important, we daily run and hide from it seeking shelter in humor, hedge against it with good works, shun reminders of our mortality. Yet we all share the reality of mortality, and we know it, try as we might to throttle our thoughts about it.
The previous evening i had a mild-tempered discussion with a friend who was quite sure that one can live one’s life without even pondering about death if you live by the name of god. His prime argument being you live on this earth as god’s creation, consume god’s gifts ( food, air etc) and then when we die, we simply shift our residences to the A-class facilities called Heaven. And the faithful buy their ticket to heaven by incessant prayers. At this juncture of our conversation, i was reminded of the definition of “prayer” by Ambrose Pierce in his Devils’s Dictionary:
Prayer: A petition that the laws of nature be suspended in favour of the petitioner; himself confessedly unworthy.
I chuckled and decided to share in the joke hidden here.
“The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right.”
Somewhere in here is the realisation that nobody is in charge, and hence this call to prayer, this call to delay or deny the realisation of mortality is “self-cancelling” as the late Hitchens said.
Now, i understand this faith, but just didn’t see why we should believe in that. So, i decided to put my obliging friend on a test of faith. What about a devout fellow with a life-threatening metastasing tumour, (or as Hitchens described it “blind, emotionless alien” ) wouldn’t he/she want to prolong his/her life to be with friends, family and kids? Or does he/she decide to give up earth and migrate to heaven? The answer in many cases comes to the fact that everyone appreciates the modern benefits of medicine and hence prolong their own life. So, saying that they don’t think about mortality would be simply wrong and quite a fallacious statement in itself. And invoking the argument that gods awards the appropriate cancers is strange, since you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia. Hence, both the arguments don’t work – devout people don’t think of mortality and they just want to go heaven. By the way, the evening ended by a toast to our status as a mortal animal and immortal friendships we make while alive
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
(From, the ode of Calimachus to his beloved Heraclitus)
I still remember when as a kid living in the riotous aftermath of the bloody Babri Masjid demolition, witnessing the terrible shock of bodies lying bruised, some killed. One would think the carnage which men undertook in the name of an invisible, inactive and hypothetical god might have sensitized me to the effects of our dear friend, death. But alas, in all those sufferings and even when popping up this latest pill to alleviate my debilitating spine, i am constantly reminded of our perilous position. Death or Mortality is our constant companion, whether being brought upon us due to irrational acts of man or the unforgiving nature of blind chance it always strikes a note of fear.
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And i have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and
And in short, I was afraid.
So where does it leave me? I do realise that we are mere mortal animals and cannot avoid death by incessant/irrelevant prayers or even by the ever-mordernisation of medicine. I have seen death dancing in people’s eyes willing to kill for the same god who apparently also gives life to the victim. I have seen death in the faint- heart beats of a dying man. I have seen them all, you would say. And yet in some corner of my mind, i am still afraid of its cold embrace, it’s ever watching eyes and its constant companionship. But at least i am not blind to it and best of all i can count it to be my ever vigilant friend. Ahh don’t worry i am not being drawn into Nietzsche.
Death has this much to be said for it:
You don’t have to get out of bed for it.
Wherever you happen to be
They bring it to you – free
In an ode to the polemical genius, Christopher Hitchens…