Friday, January 25, 2013

Learning How To Die


"but learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die." ~ Seneca
 
This won't come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog regularly, but today I want to write to you about death.

The above passage from Seneca rings very true to me, and when my head is on straight, death--not in a morbid way--is never far from my thoughts.  The other day my kids were talking about death. A beloved family member had recently died, and my 8 year old said, 'I wish I could make a machine that would stop people from dying'. My 11 year old responded, 'People have to die though. The world would become crowded otherwise. It's nature's way of keeping our species alive'.

Two totally different interpretations there. One, emotional, the other, coldly rational. I sympathize with both.

Just a few days before I was commenting to a friend about the necessity of the 'old order' to die so that the new order could move the human project forward. Each generation is only good for so much progress before it becomes a hindrance to greater progress. Conservativism seeps into all of our bones after a while.

Living forever has never seemed to be the goal to me. It is tragic when young people die, or when people die tragically, or with important unresolved issues. When old people die of normal human causes, and seem to have left a good legacy behind them, and have gone in relative peace, the affair seems bittersweet: the point of life doesn't seem to be to live long, but to live well. With this consideration, even a person who does not make it into ripe old age can be seen not necessarily as a tragedy when they pass, but can also possess something of a bittersweet quality.

Of course, that's easy for me to say when I am not talking about the death of someone incredibly close to me: of course I will always appreciate the sweetness of knowing great, beautiful people, but the closer the person comes to you, the younger they are, and the uglier the circumstances of their departure, the stronger the bitterness will no doubt be. May we all be spared such bitterness.

But we all have to die, and it shouldn't surprise us. It's something that seems healthy to keep in our minds, to keep us kind, to keep us charitable, to keep us focused. Seneca has to be right about the amount of time it will take us to adequately prepare for that moment, and in so doing, may we also learn how to live in the process.
 

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