How close do you have to be to dying in order to write, not just privately but publicly, about your own thoughts and feelings regarding your mortality? Probably pretty close. For as a rule in spite of the fact that we’re all under a death sentence and are going to die at some point we pretty much avoid the subject entirely.
But then it may happen that we receive notice from our medical doctor that death is near and everything changes. Our death may not be for tomorrow, and we may have been given months, sometimes years still to live, but we can now speak openly, go public as it were, because people’s sympathies as they read us will now be with us. It does seem as if our individual death sentence, different from that of the species, makes it OK to write freely about the subject.
And in fact your having received the news of your time alive on the earth being almost over will mean that no one will be bothered by whatever you might say on the subject. It’ll be OK to talk about it. For example, no one, I think, was bothered in the slightest by Christopher Hitchen’s recent writings about his own impending death from cancer. No one accused him, to my knowledge anyway, of a kind of exhibitionism or indecent exposure of thoughts that ought to have remained private. Most of us were probably grateful to him for sharing his thoughts with us.
We were and are grateful because no less than Hitchens we all live with the death sentence which comes with belonging to the species, but this one we don’t talk or write about. However, when someone does, as Hitchens has done, we can much appreciate it. For as I say we ordinarily cover up our mortality, and live, as it were, a lie. We live as if our days were not numbered, but unending, as if somehow Hitchens were not just like us, or we no different from him.
Why do we have to receive, say, a sentence of death from our doctor in order to talk and write about it? To share our feelings about it with others? Well perhaps it’s because death itself is so altogether ordinary, normal even. And in fact it’s not that it’s going to come, not its coming, but only how it comes that is important to us. The how, and also of course the when, is what we want to talk and write about. For just to know that you are mortal and going to die one day is nothing at all. It’s our biological nature, it’s the way things are, the plight we were born for.
It is Nature that brings life it to an end, and unlike the tumor, the accident, the war, Nature’s end has to be and what more is there to say. Furthermore it is our nature, our being human, a member of the species, that has never permitted more than three or four generations of a single family of homo sapiens to be alive on the earth at one and the same time. And because of this prohibition there are the many times in our own lifetimes that we have to say goodbye to those we love, those who come just before and just after, for no better reason than that is who we are, how it has to be.
That consideration, that we can’t for long continue to be with those who come after us, that is what bothers, or better torments such as my brother, now in his 80s and seeing the birth of his first great grandchild, the first member of a fourth generation and knowing that their time together is already almost over. It also bothered my father (“why do I have to go now?” he would ask) who had about him on family occasions many of his own fourth generation when in his 90s he died. Both my father and brother, and I too, will not have known their/our own seed into its embodiment in a fifth generation.
Perhaps we don’t talk about our mortality because we won’t change our nature by talking. And because it’s very American not to talk about what we can’t change we mostly put our mortality aside in order to live out our lives as fully as possible.
Remind me to “google” this thought —What species allows more than three or four of its successive generations to be alive on the planet at the same time? What species holds the record in this respect? Among the pregnant teenagers whom we read much about there may be those who will know their own great, great, great grandchildren, that is, a fifth generation, especially if their children, their grandchildren, their great grandchildren, as well as their great grandchildren’s children like them become pregnant in their teens.
So we don’t talk about these things, about our nature, our mortality, but rather about life’s cruel surprises, especially coming as in Christopher’s case in the form of a life destroying tumor, or in war a death in battle, or in life a fatal accident. Of our being condemned to die, all of us from birth, and that which I haven’t yet mentioned, of our being condemned to die alone, we say little or nothing. Again this is what makes us grateful to Hitchens’ words regarding his own encounter with the tumor that eventually would destroy him. We’re able to make the connection to our own lives, to our own mortality.
This is the way things are now. We choose not to talk about our mortality. But it may not have always been like this, that only the few, those close to death such as Hitchens, or the wise men of the past such as Montaigne and others, spoke of these things.
In our own country, and not many generations ago, say in the early 1600s when the three ships, the Susan Constant, Discovery, and Godspeed dropped anchor on the James River, and the newcomers on board went onto the new land, where their survival immediately depended on their hard work, on their unceasing toil on the land with only the strength of their muscles as a source of power, and where life expectancy at birth was a mere 30 years, perhaps then men did live, forced to by the hard conditions of their lives, as today in many places in the world, without hiding from themselves and from others their mortality. It wouldn’t then have been possible. In this regard how things have changed.
[While posting this Blog entry I read in today’s Times of the death of Neil Armstrong at 82, the first human to step foot on the moon, and thereby making “one giant leap for mankind.” The life of Neil Armstrong, having reached its end and now over and done with, may be just about as immortal as we can ever get.]