- Death be not proud or Life after Eighty

Death be not proud
Life after Eighty

Art by William Blake

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

John Donne

A fork in the road

When you live to be over eighty years of age, it's no longer possible to avoid thinking seriously about inevitably approaching death. We all know, theoretically, that we will die at some point in time. I say “theoretically” because we don't really believe it until at least the average milestone in life has been reached – around 42 years, unless, of course, serious illness or a life threatening accident has brought the milestone closer.

But at “over 80” the message becomes seriously clear. You're lucky if you still have some of your original teeth left; you certainly use eyeglasses or contact lenses, your gait is slow, your reactions dim. It was said, correctly, that Derek Jeter was too old at 39 to keep playing shortstop for the New York Yankees. And he agreed. If we wish to follow the seven-year-itch model, man reaches his physical prime between 21 and 28. Beyond that, if he is engaged in a strenuous physical activity requiring a high level of accuracy, he will notice a lessening of accuracy and an increase in the amount of energy required to achieve the same result as before. At 42 the downward slope of mortality becomes shockingly evident, which is why the necessity for eyeglasses is avoided by holding the page farther away until the truth can no longer be denied.

The existential question: “Why am I here?” hits you like a sharp left to the jaw. You don't know the answer, so it's best to ignore it: Why worry about something you can do nothing about? But something has changed. Maybe it's time to change spouses, buy that motorcycle you've always wanted, grow a beard. Or, best of all, chuck everything over the edge and go to Costa Rica or India – if you haven't already done some of those things at a young age when they were applicable. Often, however, releasing these safety valves isn't practical because of family responsibilities – especially children – career ambition, or just plain fear, all leading to remorse and, in the worst of cases, despair. The greatest remorse, after all, is for the sins not committed.

To keep to the title's point, we must first define what we mean by “death”. When we die we are dead. Right? Maybe wrong. It depends on whether we consider ourselves to be exclusively physical beings. Then yes, when we die, which, remember, we inevitably will, we are dead...period. But if we also have a soul and/or spirit, the question becomes quite a bit more complicated, for we must now ask if, when the physical body dies, the soul and/or spirit also dies.

There is ample evidence that the physical body exists. Don't smirk. Certain philosophers and mystics have affirmed that it's all an illusion, “maya”. Rene Descartes postulated the contrary: “I think, therefore I exist.” Samuel Johnson, annoyed at Berkeley for claiming that physical objects don't exist when not observed, kicked a large stone and said, "I retort it thus!" With or without such great minds, we can be pretty sure that the physical body exists. We can see it, feel it, suffer from its illnesses or because it doesn't always do what we want or even be what we want. We can't all be shortstops for the New York Yankees.

There's a guy I see occasionally on TV. He's an astrophysicist with an imposing name: Neil deGrasse Tyson and he's the director of New York's Hayden Planetarium. A cool expert if there ever was one. His job basically is to explain cosmology in layman's uncomplicated terms. The last time I saw him the host of the TV program, Bill Maher, asked, when Tyson had finished explaining the universe in five minutes, “And it's random, right?” Tyson smiled as though conversing with a child, “Yes, it's random.” If I had been there, I'd have asked him how he knows it's random. But Bill Maher, a professional atheistic comedian, just smiled, because it was what he wanted to hear. This, coming from the mouth of a famous astrophysicist, was evidence enough for him.

But not for me, no sir. You see, that astrophysicist knows a lot more than I do about the mechanics of the universe, the speed and density and size of the planets and other heavenly bodies, but that doesn't mean he knows the why of the cosmos or how it all began. So in respect to this question he is a over-educated ignoramus, just as Bill Maher is a very funny, over-egotistic comedian.

Within this universe, within this solar system, on this planet earth, we human beings live an average of 75 years or so if all goes well, which it often doesn't. Such a short visit, considering the universe's age and how long humans have been around, is no big deal. Is such a comparative speck in time and space worth it? We seem to think so, or we wouldn't hang around even as long as we do.

According to the Buddha, Kierkegaard and even Shakespeare, life is full of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But, as even they would admit, life may also experience moments of love and happiness.

Most of us experience moments or periods of depression, some more than others, with or without reason. (I just finished reading that “El Chapo” Guzman, the Mexican drug lord, recently recaptured and awaiting probable extradition to the United States, is experiencing depression. So the guards gave him a copy of Cervantes' “Don Quixote” to cheer him up. This sounds apocryphal, especially since according to other reports El Chapo is illiterate.)

An effective antidote for melancholy is to think about how much better off I am than so many others who are suffering from war, violence, hunger, fear, illness, and so on. To be despondent about what others suffer is at least not egoistic, except for that queer feeling of relief that it isn't me.

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855) argued that because the amount of suffering outweighs the amount of happiness, the true philosopher, who must always act logically, should commit suicide. Every man or woman comes to a crossroads in life, or rather a fork in his path. The path to the left, that the physical body is all the human being is and the physical world is the only world, is the path of hopelessness. The path to the right is the path of hope. The traveler must choose. He would be a poor philosopher if he chose the left path, for it can only lead to despair. The right hand path at least offers something, if not certainty. So the thinking person must choose it. Along the way he will find faith, which will reward him for having chosen the right way. (This is not a quote, only a personal remembrance of the author's general intention as described in one of his books, possibly “Fear and Trembling”.) It worked for Kierkegaard, according to him. He was a dedicated Christian, though very critical of the Danish Lutheran Church. He asks ironically:

Where am I? Who am I?
How did I come to be here?
What is this thing called the world?
How did I come into the world?
Why was I not consulted?
And If I am compelled to take part in it, where is the director?
I want to see him.

He is considered to be the founder of existentialism. There are several philosophical positions related to existential philosophy, but in general it proposes that man exists and in that existence he defines himself and the world in his own subjectivity, and wanders between choice, freedom, and existential angst. Nevertheless, Kierkegaard's existentialism was quite different from that of the modern existentialists – Sartre, Camus, et al, who were atheists implying that life is hopelessly absurd, whereas K decided that hope and faith could lead to certainty, so it is logical to at least try it. But faith in what? For K it was Christ. For the modern existentialists this avenue is closed by a flashing red light, so they are left with their existential angst, existing, doing the good, or not.

When I was a child having my brain washed by Catholic priests and nuns, to the question “Why am I here?”, the catechism taught: “to know, love and serve God,” which has its own logic. To serve someone or something one should love it; to love it one should know it. But how, in God's name, are we to know God? “God” is a vague notion, once we slough off the Santa Claus image. So let's start with something tangible: nature. Nature is beautiful, good and wise. It exists on its own, not man-made like a bridge, a building or the internet. Nature does more than exist; it lives. Well, maybe it's not always good. “Nature is red in tooth and claw,” Tennyson said, and he had a point. And there are natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis that kill a lot of innocent people. At this moment of scribbling, the news is obsessed with the zika virus, which apparently causes microcephaly in babies. Ah yes, the suffering of the innocents! How do we explain it? It's one reason why the modern existentialists are atheists: A good God would not permit such suffering, and we don't want to know about an evil God. But what if there is one? But what if there are both – good and evil gods? In Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov Ivan, the eldest brother, observes the suffering of the children of his time and place. As a result, although he doesn't deny God's existence, he rejects Him as unjust and cruel. There must be something else involved; there must be some other explanation. If not, the absurdists are right, And we don't think they are. That other explanation is reincarnation and karma. More on that later.

Does death really exist, or is it an ignorant invention of mankind? Man is the only creature who could ask that question. You might well object that the idea is ridiculous because we see death every day. And even if we don't actually see it (leave that to the hospitals and morticians), we know of relatives, friends, acquaintances who were here yesterday and aren't here today. So yes, everything that lives, dies. It is the inescapable condition, the fine print in the contract of life. We see it or we know about it, but we don't experience it. If we did we wouldn't be around talking about it. We have the best-selling near-death experiences, sure. I don't doubt that they are true, but those who report them are honest enough to describe them as “near-death”. No one has actually returned from total death – except perhaps Jesus of Nazareth, and who knows what his resurrection really means. According to Rudolf Steiner, it was a kind of spiritual (etheric) resurrection, which only the disciples were able to witness.

We can be certain that every living physical organism has died, is dying or will die...physically. If, however, a spiritual world also exists alongside, beyond or within the physical one, and if we can accept the existence of that world at least as an hypothesis, then we have already taken the first step on an existential path that does not depend on faith, and is different from that other path, a surrender to atheistic nihilism. It is the middle way – always the best way – which at first nods to the spirit, greets it as an old friend whom we've lost track of. “Hi there, long time no see. My intuition tells me you're back.”

The first signpost along this path indicates that although the physical body dies, the spirit that energized it does not. It returns to that other world, the one from which it originally sprang, one which it had never completely abandoned. The fact that we are thinking it is of itself evidence of the spiritual world's existence, for thinking is a spiritual activity, the brain being the necessary physical instrument to enable thinking during physical life. According to this way of seeing things, the brain does not think; it reproduces the thoughts of thinking, similar to the way a guitar, or other musical instrument, produces the sound of music.

Knowledge and Consciousness

That some people know more than others is true, but all humans know more than all animals. Why, then, are bees so intelligent, or dolphins or whales, or cats? Such intelligence is instinctive, therefore not learnable as reading and writing are. Young birds don't really learn from their parents, they are only protected and helped along in order that their instinct may develop. I know that I know; I also know that I know not. No animal, though conscious, has that ability, a.k.a. thinking. The vegetable kingdom is imbued with enormous intelligence and beauty. (“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.”) Plant intelligence, however, not only is not thinking; it's not even truly conscious. Yet it exists. One level of being is always more consciously intelligent than others: we know more than elephants, elephants know more than trees, trees know more than rocks. In other words, human consciousness made an existential leap at some point in evolution, whereas animal consciousness reached a dead-end.

Is the human being then the highest level, the epitome of being, all-knowing? If, as the experts claim, the cosmos is random, then the answer is yes, for then no higher level or form of being exists. And no higher level of consciousness and knowledge exists. This means that the animal's intelligent instinct is also random. But instinct is not random. It follows stringent rules. Intelligence is also not random. Random is chaos, intelligence is form. In order for intelligence, whether instinctive or thinking, to exist, there must also exist a being or beings who possess it. And to know that intelligence exists, thinking is required. And the only being who can think is the human being. But wait! Human beings are not all-knowing, not by a long shot. Certain scientists think that it's merely a matter of time before we are able to know everything. But if it's all only random, what else is there to know? Only details. The essential, existential questions remain unanswered evermore. Higher knowledge, then, must exist, but it can only be possessed by higher beings, sometimes known as God, gods, angels, whatever. Or, perhaps, by certain rare elevated human beings.

According to Rudolf Steiner, the earth is a cosmos of wisdom: nature is wise, everything fits, the sun will rise tomorrow as it has since the beginning of time. In fact, if we hadn't had the days to count, there'd be no time. The earth's mission, meaning humanity's goal on earth, is to transform this cosmos of wisdom into a cosmos of love.

We are far from achieving this goal, that's for sure. And there's no guarantee that we will be able to do so. The first step is achieving freedom, for without freedom real love is not possible – it is a prerequisite. Freedom of the spirit. The physical body cannot be free; it is constrained by its own needs from within and from without. The spirit's constraints are self-imposed and thus subject to release. The spirit's strongest weapon is thinking, a spiritual activity which can lead to freedom, and then, in time and through much effort, to love - a form of greatly enhanced feeling.

Reincarnation and Karma

The length of time and the amount of effort required to accomplish this transformation of the earth is not sufficient in one lifetime. Therefore, logically, more than one life, many lives, are necessary to reach the finish line: love.

Reincarnation and karma (or destiny) are also, luckily, logical: if so much time and effort is needed, then the only way is many lives. Ah, one could object: although individuals die, their descendants live on and could continue the work. Certainly, but who are these descendants and where do they come from? Do they pop out of mother's womb ready-made, like Barbies? Or do they also have long, many-lived biographies, and loaded down – or up – with karmic baggage?

Nowadays ecological awareness has awakened. Humanity is responsible, for example, for global warming, and through it and other destructive actions, such as atomic weapons, the potential destruction of the earth itself or at least its human and animal inhabitants. Consciously or unconsciously we could feel: So what? I'll be long gone by then. But if reincarnation is a fact, then saving and protecting the planet is for our own benefit in future lives. An egocentric concept? Perhaps, but also practical and logical. So I won't take it back.

This leads to thoughts about the present. Although good things do happen, progress is slow, so slow that we octogenarians will almost certainly not see much of it during this lifetime. Young people are often cynical about the possibility of real change. Here I'd like to quote one of the last things Bernard Lievegoed, a Dutch anthroposophist, psychiatrist and educator, said:

It is not yet the time for reaping! It is the time to plant seeds, which will bear fruit in a future time.

Patience is the watchword, to live with questions and wait for the moment when the answer will come from the spiritual world. It is only by planting seeds today that a better world can be possible in the future. So what is done well today, even if it seems to have had little effect or is a failure according to the usual standards, is well worth doing. The secret is not to be despondent or surrender to failure; sooner or later the seeds will sprout.

Recently a friend confided in me that he suffers from thanatophobia (phobic fear of death) and it´s killing him. Thanatos is the god of death in Greek mythology, so the label is spot on. Whether his condition is a true phobia causing pain and illness or a passing anxiety attack related to a weak heart, I cannot judge. But it seems to me that he and many others like him would do well to convince themselves that death is a door to a new act of existence. In every good play the lights go down at the end of each act and come up again at the beginning of every new one. We may not be the lighting technician or the director, yet, but we certainly are the principal actors.

I think that the fear of death, thanatophobia, is really the fear of non-existence, something practically inconceivable, more threatening by far than death itself. Existence is mine; how dare you take it from me, Thanatos? But this inflates the angel of death enormously. He/she cannot take away anyone's existence. The curtain rises inexorably upon the next act, and “the play's the thing”. So death, I thank you, but be not proud, stop swaggering. I fear you not.

Frank Thomas Smith
February 2016