Thoughts on consenting to die.
Do not go gentle into that good night;
Old age should burn and rave against the close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
These lines are from a famous poem, but Dylan Thomas is wrong. Simone Weil gives us some of the reasons. For Weil, heaven and hell are essentially the same. Both are a cover for nothingness. We come from the void and we return to the void. Heaven is the nothingness of consent to the void. Hell is the refusal to accept nothingness as the destiny of the soul. The only difference is whether we accept or refuse this nothingness. In consenting to die, we share in the transcendent value of God (McCullough, p 188). Why? Because we no longer belong to a world in which the self and its desires come first. Or as Weil put it, “The self is only the shadow of sin and error cast by stopping the light of God, and I take this shadow for a being.” (GG, p35)
When I consent to die, I thank God for my existence, the tremendous, miraculous fact and privilege of existing. I did not have to be; nothing that exists had to be. My existence on this earth is a gift beyond measure. But because I live, I must also die. Not just every living thing, but every thing that exists must die.* Only the time scale varies, from minutes for some insects, years for human beings, to aeons (a billion years) for the earth itself.
About Simone Weil let us admit that she too eagerly consented to death, starving herself to death out of sympathy with the Free French forces in 1943 at the age of thirty-four. But her idea of consenting to die still makes sense. We just have to understand that one may consent to die at various points in one’s life, not just the end. We consent to die when we confront our mortality. A philosopher, says Socrates, is someone who makes dying his profession (Phaedo, 61d). I can’t recommend it for most people, but most people seem to run from any thought of death. But sometimes we just can’t; death comes too close.
Not rage but awe
Several years ago, a young student in one of my college classes collapsed and died. The postmortem revealed that an unnoticed skin cancer had metastasized to his brain, causing his deadly seizure. He did not have time to rage, but I don’t think he would have. A gentle man so full of life, I think he would have accepted death. About this I cannot know for sure. What I do know is that his fellow students, several of whom knew him well, might have raged against his death. But they didn’t. Their experience, and my experience too, was one of awe and amazement that something like that could happen. They were sobered as well as saddened by the intrusion of death where it does not belong. This attitude makes sense to me. Death makes life more precious and serious.
Should we have raged? All I can say is that it would have been an immediate emotional reaction, a defense against the deeper and more complex emotions of awe (a combination of fear and wonder) and sorrow.
Why we fear death?
The unconscious can’t fear death said Freud, because nonbeing has no unconscious equivalent. “It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death . . . . In the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.” Robert Jay Lifton, a fellow psychoanalyst agrees only up to a point. Many of our most profound anxieties, he writes, such as isolation, abandonment, and desertion, are symbolic death equivalents, the way in which we conceptualize death, the only way we can. As Charles Ryder put it in Brideshead Revisited, “next to death, perhaps because they are like death, he feared darkness and loneliness.” For Lord Marchmain, and perhaps for us all, darkness and loneliness are symbolic death equivalents. Through these symbolic equivalents, death becomes our leading anxiety. Death comes to encapsulate all the terror of life.
How are we to deal with our eventual nonbeing, an event that sometimes seems to mock and render meaningless all our activities, achievements, and plans? Freud said, “if you want to endure life, prepare yourself for death.” But how in the world does one do that?
To prepare to die well, and so live well, means establishing symbolic connection with symbols of transcendence: with valuable persons, ideas, and activities that will continue after one’s death. This is the number one job of religion. Not to tell us that if we are good we will go to heaven, but to provide symbols of continuity between life and death for our use in this world now. The cross, the crucifix, the Bible, perhaps especially the gospels and the psalms, are symbols of continuity. Nothing is more mistaken than to believe that religion exists to assuage our fear of death. No, religion exists to assuage our fear of life, giving our lives meaning in this world now, a world that doesn’t terminate at my death.
Religion is not the only symbol of continuity. Culture is another. On the frieze of my campus library is Carlyle’s saying “In books likes the soul of the whole past time.” Sometimes, on my way over to the library, I feel that I participate in this literary tradition. Sometimes I believe that this symbolic connection allows me to become part of a larger order, an order that will continue into the future, even as I someday will not. That makes my life now better, richer, more purposeful, even if the distractions of everyday life intrude.
Is there an afterlife that can give meaning to this life? I don’t think it matters all that much. Seen as a way of symbolizing the continuity between life and death, belief in an afterlife serves us in this world now. But only if we live each and every day as fully as we can. I think this means following the teachings of Christ, for they too are about how to live, not just how to die. Other people will find other ways to live each day fully, but none will find that a selfish, greedy, grasping life is fulfilling. That’s just how we are made.
* The only exception is the universe itself, which may be infinite.
Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts for the times on war and death,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14, p 289.
Lissa McCullough, The Religious Philosophy of Simone Weil. I. B. Tauris, 2014.
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited. Back Bay Books, 2012.
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, translated by Arthur Wills. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952.