“Dying is an art, like everything else.”
— Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus”
I believe I’m going to die. I do not know if I’ll go to heaven or to hell, return for another shot in someone else’s body, or vanish into ashes and dust, but I do believe there will be no “me” as I’ve come to know my body, mind, and memories. Whatever might happen with whatever soul I have, anything connected with what we conventionally call my “ego” or my “self” is terribly ephemeral, and must, in time, be gone completely as another person’s dream.
I did not always believe that I would die, even though I “knew” as every adult knows that this life is a one-shot with its fairly clear beginning, middle, and end. Especially when I was young I knew that all things die but did not believe this ignominious stricture could really apply to me.
But after a diagnosis, extensive treatment, and post-treatment fallout from a nasty cancer a few years ago, I’m a convert: I believe.
Psychologists, philosophers, and artists have pondered for millennia this awkward limit to our plans and aspirations. The mythic Sumerian hero Gilgamesh searched for immortality at the risk of everything, and only came home sadder if wiser; in the Odyssey, in Hades, the shade of Achilles told Odysseus that he would rather be a living slave than a dead hero because in death everything was over; and Shakespeare’s Hamlet recognized that all our strutting and fretting leads to just the melting flesh, the candle going out. Freud, who defined our recent western epoch as much as anyone, wrestled with the value of our predetermined terminus, and argued that awareness of death – knowing there is an end – is exactly what gives life its sweetness; then, as his own death approached, meaning dissolved for him.
Like these others, I did not find life less sweet when I was young, strong, brave, and immortal than I find it now when Death is ever at my side; I did not find life less enchanting in the vivacity of my prime than I find it now when infirmities call regularly upon me; and I do not hold my life or life itself less dear now that my belief has changed. Only – now my peace and joy are tinged with sorrow that I never could and never had to know before: sorrow that I will have to say good-bye to you, and you, and everything; for even as I understand my role in nature is, like the lilies of the field, to make way for the next generation, still: I do not want to leave.
Belief is a funny thing: an acceptance of truth, trust, or opinion undergirded by a felt certainty, according to the dictionaries. Acceptance is the key here, I think, and acceptance is what converted me: I came close enough to vanishing that I recognized I shall. I have come to accept in trust a well-established opinion; I accept its truth, and so it forms the foundation of my belief.
Yet, in this belief I am more aware of every moment than I used to be: not because awareness of my certain death has made them sweeter, but because it has helped me focus more on what is than on what is not. My knowledge of death has not made my life sweeter, but it has reminded me that this sweet breath or this cold rain, this loving kiss or this pain in my broken finger is all the experience I will ever have. Death reminds me what Life intends to teach: Live. Now.
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