That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang…
Shakespeare’s sonnet compares human aging with the aging of the year, and closes with the lines:
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
I have long been haunted by these lines, by their recognition of how short a time we are here and how dear the things of everyday life appear in light of life’s brevity. The metaphor comparing the times of human life to the seasons of the year is a common one. It must be where the original impulse for All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, and their earlier predecessor, Samhain, came from. (This time of the aging of the year is especially meaningful to me because my mother died in mid-November five years ago, so October is filled with bittersweet memories of the last time she was here, and with thoughts of endings.) When we think of ourselves as mirroring the life we see around us, we realize that the poignant difference is that after our autumn of aging and death, we don’t come back in the spring.
The idea that if we lived forever, life would lose something of its preciousness is also an old one. The knowledge that we won’t always be here can give life an edge, an energy, that urges us to cherish every moment. It matters a lot to me to appreciate and cherish the experiences of my life, but I have always been reluctant to admit that death is part of what helps us to do this. Couldn’t I cherish every moment even if I had a lot more of them, perhaps a limitless number? Is eventual death really the price we have to pay for this feeling of joy at being here?
Certainly plenty of people have said so. The biblical Psalmist equated knowledge of life’s brevity of with wisdom. Paul Theroux said, “Death is an endless night so awful to contemplate that it can make us love life and value it with such passion that it may be the ultimate cause of all joy and all art.” And Mozart, in a letter to his father, described death as “the key which unlocks the door to our happiness.” If we lived forever, would we procrastinate and never do the things we want to with our lives? Would we take life for granted?
I don’t know, but this time of year certainly brings a sense of urgency when we think of enjoying the last of things (the last produce from the garden, the last flowers, the last warm evenings, the last of the light) before they vanish for a while. Recently we had a mild sunny day after some cool gray days. It’s October, so I knew that winter will soon be here and I will be coming home from work in the cold and the dark. So I decided to go out for a walk and watch the nearly full moon rise. If it had been May, and I knew I had many more long warm evenings ahead of me, I might have skipped the walk. In the big scheme of things, the pleasures of a walk before dinner are minor, but they are real, and I might have missed them without the pressure of the changing seasons.
This is part of what people are getting at when they talk about how having eternity at our command would spoil things. If we didn’t know that our time is finite, would we ever do the things we want to do? Most of us would drag our feet forever when it comes to paying taxes or getting our teeth cleaned, but would we really put off joys like a walk on a pleasant evening? I’d love to say that if I knew I’d live forever, I’d manage to get just as much pleasure out of each passing day, but I have to admit that it’s probably not so.
A. E. Housman talks about the other end of the year, and of life, to make the point in his poem Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now. In the poem, a young man realizes that even the 50 springs he likely has left to him is a short time to look at the cherry trees in blossom, so he must go out to see them now. Garrison Keillor wrote a witty variant that talks about the autumn end of the year and of life; a 60-year-old man realizes how few autumns he has left and concludes that
It’s rather sobering for a fellow
To see the maples turning yellow.
Being reminded of our mortality can thus help keep us more focused on using our time well. Oddly enough, in the alchemy of the human mind, this can foster either a “Carpe diem” attitude or one of renunciation. The phrase “memento mori” is basically a reminder that we are mortal, and expresses an important theme in art. Being mindful of death not only keeps us more intent on using the time we have; it can keep us humble because everyone, no matter how important or powerful, is subject to death. In Christian art, fleeting earthly pleasures were presented as shallow or meaningless in the light of the eternal truth of God and heaven; thus the memento mori theme goaded people to reject rather than savor the joys of our brief time here.
That’s one way of dealing with the idea of death. There’s also a pessimistic view that nothing we have here is worth missing all that much when we go; that’s one way to get past the fear of death. Some see pain and woe and are not really all that sorry to go; some advocate living life such that you are not leaving anything important behind when your time comes; you should not be so attached to anything you are doing that you will mind setting it down when the time comes. This is hard for me to accept.
No matter how bad things get, life has still generally got something that keeps me wanting to stick around and see what happens next. I liked a recent quote from Freeman Dyson about how the best way to learn the future of science is to live long enough and watch what happens. (That’s my plan for the future of everything.) There are so many stories, personal and global, for which I will never know the endings; I want to live far enough into future times that I can get at least some of the answers, and some perspective on what we’re living through right now.
Also, life is full of things that I want to do. One of the most painful parts of the fear of death is the fear of not getting the chance to do all the things you have it in you to do. Keats wrote:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain…
I know the fear. Not that my brain teems with anything like the things that his did, but such as it is, I want to express what’s in there. Not to mention that I’d like to understand better what’s in there too.
Some philosophers have advocated the contemplation of death as a way to become familiar with it and stop fearing it. Seneca recommended this, and I believe it is an important part of some Buddhist traditions. More recently, Muriel Spark said that “[w]ithout an ever present sense of death life is insipid.” Horace told us to “Think each day, when past, thy last; the next day, as unexpected, will be the more welcome.” But I find the regular awareness of death to be so unsettling that I cannot enjoy living. For me, it leads to the very fear it is meant to quell.
When you consider how to follow Horace’s advice, you realize that practically you cannot live as if each day were your last, because you wouldn’t pay the rent or go to work. And realizing that life is a balancing act between present and future, if you try to simply keep the emotional awareness of your finitude ever before you, you can be in for some highly unpleasant experiences. (It’s not a good idea to meditate on the brevity of life during a long frustrating day at work, for example, lest you leap up from your desk and run headlong out into the sunshine.) And even when you have free time to enjoy as you like, it’s possible to be paralyzed by the feeling that you have to choose wisely because this might be the last free time you get. For myself, I find that I need to rely on at least a provisional assumption that there will be a future, where I can correct the mistakes I make today, enjoy the things I can’t today, and accomplish the things I don’t finish today.
However, it’s hard not to think about death. It is always before us. Montaigne, after listing a number of unexpected deaths, asks:
These so frequent and common examples passing every day before our eyes, how is it possible a man should disengage himself from the thought of death, or avoid fancying that it has us, every moment, by the throat?
So ignoring it doesn’t seem possible, but dwelling on it can be paralyzing or anxiety-provoking. Everyone has to consider what to do with the knowledge that he or she will die someday, but how? My own approach to this question comes through a Catholic childhood in which I assumed that everyone I loved would live forever in heaven, no matter what happened down here. I realized as I grew older that even this belief doesn’t really do away with the fear or the grief of death entirely, and I couldn’t find a good reason to believe in the promise of immortality anyway. But I’ve had a hard time replacing my original beliefs about mortality with new ones that I can live with.
Things have become easier as I have learned more about how life arose and continues on the planet. It’s scary to start seeing yourself as a vulnerable animal whose mind is part of your body and therefore can be wiped out by any number of accidents and is subject to the inexorable effects of aging and eventual death. But after you think about it some more (years more, in my case), you start to see how humans fit into the natural landscape and why death is a necessary part of the picture.
Tyler Volk, in his book What is Death?, explained how death is so interwoven with the processes of life that we would not be here without it. Longevity is the result of a trade-off of sorts; the more likely a creature is to survive the daily assaults of disease, predators, and other forces of nature, the more it will invest in maintenance and repair. Bigger animals or those that are somehow protected (creatures that fly, tortoises in their shells) will tend to have a longer life expectancy. (This reminds me of the balance each of us must strike between deciding when to live for today and when to save for tomorrow.) He describes death as the price we have to pay, after the fact, for our time on this earth. He also quotes Carl Sagan’s beautiful phrase about how the “secrets of evolution are time and death.” Without death, evolution would not work, and complex life would never have arisen. In the most basic biological sense, we would not be here without limits on our time here.
So death can be seen as an admission price that we pay at the end of the experience rather than the beginning. The biological understanding of this is recent, but the idea is not a new one. Robert Browning wrote of wishing to “in a minute pay glad life’s arrears Of pain, darkness and cold”, and Montaigne wrote that “Your death is a part of the order of the universe, ’tis a part of the life of the world…’tis the condition of your creation; death is a part of you.”
Edward Abbey wrote of being recycled into the life of nature after we die. In particular, he addressed those who are about to die in the desert and be consumed by a buzzard. In that situation, he said, you can comfort yourself with the idea that after you die, “your essence [will be] transfigured into the fierce greedy eyes and unimaginable consciousness of a turkey vulture. … For most of us a promotion in grade, for some the realization of an ideal.” I don’t know that I’d go that far, but I can see his point.
Thoreau, in his essay Autumnal Tints, lovingly describes the many colors of fall in New England, from late August through the last leaves of October or November, and also speaks of how the leaves, going so serenely and beautifully to their rest, teach us to die. “When the leaves fall, the whole earth is a cemetery pleasant to walk in,” he says. I re-read this essay every fall. I sometimes have a hard time adjusting myself to the approach of winter—the short dark days, the cold—so every fall I hang onto his words as we head into the darkness.
So the view of ourselves as part of nature’s cycles can bring some hard-won peace. Which brings me back to the idea of death giving life its savor, because, melancholy as this time of year can be, and as little as I like to think about death, I also find a certain passion in thinking of how briefly we are here. I listen to the chorus in the second movement of the Brahms German Requiem, for example, singing all-out about how all flesh is as the grass, and it stirs my soul. Marcus Aurelius found any number of poetic ways to speak of our finitude, including this:
The great river of Being flows on without a pause; its actions forever changing, its causes shifting endlessly, hardly a single thing standing still; while ever at hand looms infinity stretching behind and before—the abyss in which all things are lost to sight.
I don’t know exactly why these move me to such joy, exalting rather than terrifying. Maybe it’s the big-picture view of our own lives against the backdrop of something immense. For all that we are so ephemeral, we can understand so much of things we will never personally see or do; maybe that’s the blessing, the other side of being given a foreknowledge of our own deaths. Robert Macfarlane, writing of the horror of contemplating the vast stretches of time that are required for mountains to build up and wear down, writes:
Yet there is also something curiously exhilarating about the contemplation of deep time. True, you learn yourself to be a blip in the larger projects of the universe. But you are also rewarded with the realization that you do exist—as unlikely as it may seem, you do exist.
For me, those words express a crucial shift in perspective that I have made: from believing that eternal life in the hereafter was a given, to rejoicing at being here at all, even for a little while. Understanding as much as possible of how human existence came to be is, for me, a way of appreciating my life without slipping over into the fear of losing it.
Many of the quotes in this essay come from my own collection, but I recently discovered Michel de Montaigne’s essay That to study philosophy is to learn how to die, and I have borrowed some of the quotes he used and also some of his own words. I also discovered a web site on this topic, the key to life is that it ends…, and borrowed a few of its quotes.
October 31, 2005