The poem in my previous blog was entitled, “The art of dying.” But the basic idea is that our lives are the works of art. Our lives are poetry written in our living day by day. We are the poets.
Our dying is part of the poem–an especially important segment, the end of a stanza, you might say. Our poem goes on after our death, but we are the poets who craft the epic as long as there is breath in us.
I think of this quite a lot since we moved into a retirement community, where everyone, in one way or another, is moving toward death in a relatively short time. Death is a more frequent experience than in other demographic communities. This is not a pessimistic or morose observation–it’s simply factual.
You might say that here we have a concentration of poets working on the final stanzas of their life-poems. Since this idea occurred to me, I have a different perspective on my fellow residents. I tried to express this in my poem:
Waiting in a large room,
And though we’re not alone
We practice our art–
Inwardly and outwardly, both.
We see each other, but
Mostly miss the signs that
Each is creating
An art of dying,
Never knowing when
The project will be complete.
The first response I received was: “I hope you haven’t had bad news that has placed you in the position of focussing on the art of dying.” I thought to myself, “Yes and No.” I consider the poem to be reflective, not morose or depressed. Two other readers, one who is close to my age and the other a former student, thirty years younger, both said they find themselves in the poem.
In response to the first reader, I wrote that I wasn’t prompted by bad news. There is a lot of my philosophy of life embedded in the poem. I have been influenced by Soeren Kierkegaard’s teaching that we “live towards our death”–that in an important way our lives are defined by our death and what we consider worthy to die for–as was the case with Jesus. Kierkegaard was reflecting on how we live our lives–in the awareness that our dying is connected to the way we live.
As I was working on the poem, I was reminded of the anthropologists’ opinion that the ability to reflect on life and death–being aware that we will pass away–is a mark of the human species. Anthropologists sift through pre-historical remains for signs of burial practices, for example.
I’ve also been influenced by Erik Erikson’s discussion of Gandhi and the Hindu understanding of the life cycle. The four stages in this cycle are: growing up, the householder phase, the achiever phase, and the growing old/dying phase. The final stage challenges us to prepare ourselves for finishing our lives in an appropriate way. The final years should be an appropriate capstone.
A major point in my poem is that medical science (“the voice in a white coat”) complicates the final stage, because our lives are extended, often in unexpected ways that render our “art of dying” more complex, but also contribute to the distinctiveness and beauty of our lives:
Like a great cathedral
Altered, added to
In every age,
The beauty of our art lies
Not in what we once conceived
But in the unmistakable
Add-ons time lays upon us.
I think of the great Chartres Cathedral. The current cathedral was begun in 1194, and it had to take into account the remnants of four earlier churches that had been built on the site, only to be destroyed by fire and other calamities. Consecrated in 1260, a major addition was built seventy-five yeas later at the east end. In 1506, lightning destroyed the north steeple, only to be replaced by a flamboyant structure totally different from the steeple to the south. The magnificent choir, with its frieze depiction of the life of Mary, was completed in the early 1700s. Yet the whole of the cathedral, six hundred years in the making, is a thing of beauty and inspiration. Our lives are like that.
There is a tradition of reflecting on the art of dying. The ancient Romans, particularly the Stoic philosophers, discussed the theme. Death was a motivation for leading an honorable life, since they believed that our reputation is all that survives–immortality is in what others remember of us after we are gone. Stoics considered suicide to be an option in cases where life is no longer useful.
The Christian tradition of the art of dying goes back at least to the early 1400s. “The Art of Dying” is the title of two writings “which offer advice on the protocols and procedures of a good death, explaining how to “die well” according to Christian precepts of the late Middle Ages. They were written within the historical context of the macabre horrors of the Black Death 60 years earlier and consequent social upheavals of the 15th century. Very popular, they were translated into most West European languages and were the first in a western literary tradition of guides to death and dying.”
In contrast to the Stoic emphasis, the Christian tradition reassures us that God’s grace accepts us, whatever our condition, whether useful or not, and urges dying people to intensify their faith in Christ.
This blog installment will be extended into a Part II. As ever, your reactions are eagerly awaited.
(c) Phil Hefner 1/31/2017