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Coming to Terms with “All Men Are Mortal”

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I came upon something the other day that I feel moved to share even though it is off topic for this forum.

I thought it worth sharing because — in addition to this being a time of year, approaching New Years, when we give thought to time’s passage — it deals with a big, inescapable reality in every human life, and it seems to offer a possible good way to deal with it.

That big reality is the fact that we all die.

But it’s more than just that our death is inevitable. We have that in common with other creatures. But we humans also know we will die.

That knowledge is no small thing. Some even take that knowledge as the salient thing about our species.

Dealing with this knowledge, the evidence shows clearly, has been a profound challenge for people throughout the history of humankind.

It’s been so big a challenge, in fact, that forty years ago a very insightful man could write a very good book arguing that The Denial of Death has been the major psychological engine shaping human history and culture. Even if that author, Ernest Becker, may have overstated his case, he also was persuasive that he was onto something important.

I’ve noticed about myself, as I’m moving through my 70s, my own desire to deny death has become more visible than it was when the currents of time had not borne me so far toward the waterfall.

Even though the logic is inescapable in that old archetypal syllogism — “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal.” – I observe myself looking for ways to escape.

It is my knowing that I’m not the only one confronting this challenge of dealing with the inevitability of death – particularly all those fellow baby boomers who are watching the candles on the cake grow in number, and who realize that less lies ahead than lies behind – that makes me feel I should share that idea I recently came across.

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The idea appeared at the very end of an article about Saul Bellow, one of the most gifted American novelists of our times.

“The writer Amos Oz recalled most vividly from his friendship with Bellow an exchange that they shared privately about death. ‘I said I was hoping to die in my sleep, but Saul responded by saying that, on the contrary, he would like to die wide awake and fully conscious, because death is such a crucial experience he wouldn’t want to miss it.’”

That was so far from my own attitude that, at first, I dismissed Bellow’s statement as somewhat bizarre.

But the idea apparently stuck some place in my mind, because after a couple of weeks it popped back up: I saw how it expressed an attitude toward the experience of life that was quite impressive. An openness to embrace it all, even the dying that is life’s inevitable conclusion.

Noting that the article descried Bellow as “craving experience,” I entertained the idea that perhaps this was an attitude that Bellow actually brought to life. (And I wondered if maybe that kind of openness is why Bellow was able to depict human reality so richly in his literary art.)

Openness of that kind seems to be a spiritual gift (or accomplishment). In my observation, the most spiritually whole people do seem more fully alive; they seem to possess a greater than usual capacity for deep experience.

So I began to imagine that, perhaps, one could look at death that way. And one might, in that way, make the most of the inevitable.

Bellow’s attitude — Such a crucial experience, I wouldn’t want to miss it — seems to me healthier than the denial of death I toy with.

I play with the idea that I’m going to live forever. It’s a running joke of mine, but to part of me it’s no joke. I am not up for dealing with death anytime soon.

So I’ve embarked on my “Live Forever” project, which right now consists largely of taking two special supplements—one of which has been shown to lengthen telomeres, whose deterioration is a big part of why we fall apart as we age, and one of which has substantially lengthened the life span of some mice.

Nothing wrong with taking good care of myself. But I know that in part I really am trying to put off facing the inescapable reality that, like Socrates, I am mortal.

Which brings me back to my sense that Bellow offers here something of value. After all, which is the better choice for dealing with what can’t be avoided: Fear and Denial, or Embracing?

I know I’m not yet in a place where I could embrace death as a “crucial experience.” (And I’m talking about even a good death, let alone some of the really bad death scenarios.) Nor am I sure I’ve got what it takes to get there.

But I do think it is worth striving toward what Bellow is pointing to. By practicing looking at death that way, I believe, I can open up that space in my consciousness from which I can regard death as something I’m going to make the most of, and accept, as part of my life experience.

Being so committed to embracing the experiences of one’s life, that one can include that last “crucial one” that Bellow wouldn’t want to miss.

Which suggests that the practice of embracing that experience at the end, from which there is no escape, provides a still more basic benefit: it serves as training for making the most of life.

The challenge “Embrace the experience of the moment” is one we face every moment.

That kind of being fully alive – being fully open to life — is part of the human ideal.