Friday, 19 September 2014

Death: Do Not Go Gentle

When I was a young social work student we learnt about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's four stages of grieving - denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance.  I'm sure there are other models that work as well to help us understand the grieving process, but this is the most widely known and it has a kind of elegant simplicity to it.  Not that grief is elegant or simple.  We don't progress smoothly through these stages and pop out the other end calm and accepting.  We bounce around between them like rubber balls.

James says we are "a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" but we're not easy in our minds about that fact.  Most of time, as I said in my last post, we just pretend it's not true and that we will live forever.  However, there comes a time when we can no longer do so.  Someone close to us dies, or comes close to death, or we ourselves feel death's wings brushing us and we can no longer ignore our own mortality.  What are we to do?

One option is to follow Dylan Thomas's advice and fight like hell, going down raging at the injustice of our lives cut short when there is so much left to do.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

That's anger.  But anger is exhausting.  It requires a huge amount of adrenaline and after a little while it leaves us drained and numb.  At that point, we are likely to do something like the anonymous author of the old American blues number, 'Death Have Mercy', sung here by Harry Manx.

What is this that I can see?
A cold mist is runnin' all over me.
Wanna stretch my eyes wanna stretch my limbs.
Ain't that the way death begins?

Oh Death!  Death be easy, Death be easy.
Oh Death, pass me over for another year.

You were a flower, one day death come
Cut you down, oh so soon.
You were a flower, one day death come
Cut you down, oh so soon.

Oh Death!  Death be easy, Death be easy.
Oh Death, pass me over for another year.

We try and make a deal with death.  Just give me one more year.  Just give me a little longer to make my mark, to finish my appointed task.  Let me just put off the day.  In effect, we are asking to be allowed to regain our illusion of immortality for just a little bit longer.

What drives this anger and this bargaining?  I suspect it is a sense of despair, a sense that death renders our lives meaningless, a sense that if we are not eternal, if we are not gods, then we are nothing.  We fight this notion with every nerve and sinew and bone in our bodies.  We refuse to be mere mist! The author of the book of Ecclesiastes (traditionally ascribed to Solomon) put it this way:

Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.

The wise have eyes in their head,
but fools walk in darkness.

Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said to myself that this also is vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Solomon expresses what we all feel at times - the sense of despair at the point of our existence. Throughout the Book of Ecclesiastes he returns to this theme, reiterating the sense of purposelessness and meaninglessness of life.  Yet although he wavers throughout the book he keeps coming back to his one hope - that God is able to make meaning out of this meaninglessness.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

As for Solomon, so for us, our only hope against the power of death is our existence in and with God. Our relationship with God is the only way we can be relieved of the need to be gods ourselves, and the despair and frustration we feel when we discover we are not.

1 comment:

Esther.Smith said...

Love the youtube clip! Great quotes.