Quite often I am told – reprimanded even – for writing columns seen as deeply depressing because they deal with death, its inevitability, the fact that what we enjoy in a lifetime is gone in a blink of history never to return and soon to be forgotten. “Yes,” I am told, “we know these are unavoidable truths but why on earth call attention to them, dwell on them, remind us of them, place them before us so insistently? What good does this do? Life is for living, certainly not for contemplating death any longer than it takes to make a will!”
There is no obviously good answer to this critique – unless you believe that such reminders are good for the health of the immortal soul – and I have to say I do not write such pieces with that in mind.
I write such pieces partly because it is intellectually satisfying to think about and express views on issues which have been the subject of philosophical and spiritual debate from the dawn of mankind. And, after all, to find something intellectually satisfying is very much part of enjoying life, especially the life of the mind – as important, surely, as the body’s life. So there is that – thinking and writing about death turns out to be a quite normal and challenging part of life itself.
And then contemplating death and the end of days brings vividly and valuably to mind the very opposite – life and all its glories and the need to treasure what you are forever privileged to possess. In a universe where infinity is the ultimate measurement, life itself has everlasting dominion and we are entitled to appreciate that.
A favourite poem is WS Merwin’s ‘For the Anniversary Of My Death’ in which the poet considers the obvious but also startling and overlooked fact that from the time we are born we experience every year a day which will be the anniversary of our death. Here is the poem:
For the Anniversary of My Death
Every year without knowing it I have
passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
It is a strange but interesting conceit to think that you are living beyond the anniversary of your death. It gives the opportunity to think that life’s pleasures and delights, those “fires that wave to us” are beyond the reach of the anniversary after which your own silence will set out “timeless traveler like the beam of a lightless star.”
Every day until then there will be countless opportunities to enjoy the fire of life. And never think that the fire of life is a great blaze of excitement and awe-inspiring events and extraordinary experiences or that those are even the main part of the flame. Definitely not so – life at its best is made up of small delights, simple satisfactions, everyday epiphanies, ordinary daily achievements, beauty unprepared for which suddenly strikes and becomes a joy forever.
The American writer, Kurt Vonnegut, tells of an uncle of his whom he loved. One of the main things his Uncle Alex found objectionable in human beings was that they so rarely notice it when they are happy. When times are sweet – and they often are – we should acknowledge it. Often it is the most ordinary of times. Vonnegut might be drinking iced lemonade with him on a hot summer’s day in the shade of an apple tree and his Uncle would interrupt the conversation: “If this isn’t nice, what is?” Not a bad question to keep asking as you go on with the rough and tumble of your life. “If this isn’t nice, what is?”