Thursday, March 17, 2016

The End-of-Life

Chakmultun, Yucatan
Photograph by the Author

Another question that my wife raised in our conversation of February 24 was about how we die. She reminded me that she (like all of us, I think) does not want to die like a dog; and yet she called up the images and experiences of all the very elderly people we know who have died in various more or less abject circumstances. The subject came up because Jean Sulzberger, a key figure  and lately unsung hero in the history of Parabola Magazine, died February 23; she suffered, like Louise Welch, from senile dementia, and this loss of personality and (to us, in any event) dignity seems to be much like dying like a dog — I'm hardly the only person in my immediate work circle that has had this question, seeing as we did Mrs. Welch’s deterioration at the end of her life. One remembers, furthermore, Patty de Llosa’s unflinchingly courageous recounting of her father Dr. Welch’s death in her fine book, Taming Your Inner Tyrant— something that was undoubtedly on my wife's mind when she reminded me of how negative and angry many of us end up growing as we age, and how our life shrinks down to a tiny set of circumstances.

My own father died a little less than two years ago, and his circumstances shrank in this way — he was injured, in wheelchairs and hospital beds, with steadily failing faculties — yet he managed to remain somewhat positive. It was surprising, given his many objective failings and weaknesses, but negativity, overall, was not necessarily one of them. Another friend of mine closer to his own age who came to know him somewhat — this is a person close to me and of the work — said he was relentlessly positive; and I think we should all hope that we have—somewhere— such quality in us. 

Yet it isn't the norm; we are all filled with anger, and as we age, it often seems to grow, doesn’t it? It reminds me of Mr. Gurdjieff’s comment: big angel, big devil. We may, over the course of the long curve of a lifetime, grow a big angel in us; but we grow a big devil at the same time, and he has more freedom than the angel, because there are no demands on his behavior.

 In any event, Neal’s question about how life shrinks down to a tiny set of circumstances towards the end prompted a conversation about how we measure life. I pointed out to her that in my experience, life must be measured inwardly first and always; and measured from this point of view, as I can tell you from more than one experience, a wheelchair and a bowl of Jell-O may have greater scope for inward inspiration and spiritual food than the entire Grand Canyon or a performance of Handel's Messiah. Everything in life which is measured inwardly, and from our spiritualized parts, is measured on a much greater scale with a much finer vividness of impression than the great outward events we assign so much significance too. If we truly become invested with the spirit of the Virgin Mary and of Christ himself, we can see that the tiniest thing is the most precious — something Meister Eckhart reminded his disciples of at the very end of his life, as one of his last (and perhaps most important) pieces of advice. 

It is this measurement on inward scale, through that immeasurably small yet immeasurably invaluable spark of divinity that animates all of us, that gives true scope to Being and to life. I can only hope and pray that as I age, my inward being remains capable of receiving life at that level and in that way. If I can feel true inward gratitude for the Jell-O, even if I am in diapers and helpless, it is a very big thing indeed — and that is, in a certain sense, where the hope of not dying like a dog lies.  It's in the potential for a humble and compassionate acceptance and gratitude for even the smallest part of life that I ought to invest my spiritual being. 

I thus have, somewhere inside me, the distinct hope that I will reach the end of my life inhabiting a sizable inward landscape, even if the outward one is tiny.

This reminds me of some questions I have been pondering on this trip to China, which I will go over in the next few posts.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

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