Wingeing, Death and Debility
Years ago, I was in the Australian Blue Mountains, climbing the rockiest, thorniest, steepest wilderness trail that I could ever hope never to find. We were a troop of philosophers from Sydney University’s Department of General Philosophy, doing a Bush Walk. My then husband was in “the other department” (Traditional and Modern Philosophy), but what the heck. Why turn down a chance to explore the Australian Bush?
Actually, I was discovering many reasons to turn down that chance, and muttering about my discoveries as we huffed and puffed our way up the steep mountainside.
“Stop wingeing!” my then spouse said sharply under his breath. He was an American, but concerned that we fit in with the stiff-lipped Aussies. Puzzled, I asked, also under my breath,
And what’s wrong with it?”
Well, obviously, it can go too far. But, on the other hand, what’s right with it? An example of what’s right with it comes to mind from here in Bucks County, years later. I had a non-Jewish friend in my congregation, Dale, who decided to convert to Judaism. She did me the honor of asking me to be a witness to this momentous soul change. Since I don’t think being a Jew is all that much of a picnic, I questioned her as we drove to the mikvah. Was she doing this under any misunderstanding? Did she really know the ramifications? By the intelligent thoughtfulness, thoroughness and wholeheartedness of her answers, it became clear to me that she did.
At the time of her conversion, Dale was beset with multiple health problems. She was coping with the pain and the trouble, with a stoicism that would have done any Aussie proud.
Not long after, I and another friend, Susan, had a date to meet Dale for brunch. When she failed to show up, when our phone calls rang and rang with no response, Susan remarked that, if anything were really wrong and we neglected to find out, we would never forgive ourselves. So we drove to Dale’s place, found her car in the yard and her door still locked. We alerted the landlord, he alerted the police, they broke in and … they found her.
One night, not long after the funeral, congregant friends gathered to share our remembrances of Dale. I said that, while I didn’t doubt Dale’s comprehension of the Judaism to which she had converted, all the same, I felt there was one aspect of her new way of life that she had never mastered. If only she had learned to kvetch, she might be alive today!
What’s the best way to live? What’s the best way to die? The Aussie way? The Jewish way? Or what? Socrates said that the study of philosophy is a preparation – he must have meant the best preparation — for death. The other day, a philosopher friend remarked that she and I ought to get together for the purpose of studying the interesting topic of how to die. Which leads me to wonder, how do you study that?
There are people, some of them friends of mine, who believe that this vale of tears is the preparation (the antechamber) leading (in the best case) to an incomparably better afterlife. So, in line with that expectation, we should keep our eyes on the prize and live accordingly.
There are others, also friends, who are pretty sure that … this is IT. That’s all she wrote, there ain’t no more. Just make sure you get frequent checkups. But if you have to die, at least hold up the side. Do it right. Don’t winge.
We have seen that Socrates, in the 4th century BCE, described philosophy itself as a preparation for death. But in the 17th-century, Spinoza, also a great and noble philosopher, said, “The free man thinks of nothing less than death.” Who is right?
What do I think? Well, I don’t think the “this is IT” people are right. Why not? Because by now there’s a helluva lot of empirical evidence that consciousness survives the body’s death. Highbrow opinion professes to know nothing of this data, but it’s there all the same. In a generation or less, I believe the mounting evidence will become undeniable.
If that’s the case – I mean if the soul isn’t just the body – then, on some level, we already know it. What that suggests to me is that fashionable orientations toward the-dark-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel – so pervasive if you devote a few doom-and-gloom hours to The New York Review of Books or The New York Times Book Review – involve distortions of our experience in the here and now. These clever writers are bending the evidence of things unseen. Spinoza writes, “We feel and know by experience that we are eternal.” We know, we feel, we sense intuitively, that hope is not stupid and death does not have the last word.
What’s the inference, with regard to learning how to die? The best preparation for death is to live as fully into the present, as truthfully into how it really is with us – intellectually, in feeling, in aspiration, in purpose — as we do anyway on our best days. Which I guess also means, winge or kvetch when you want to, provided you don’t make yourself too obnoxious. Real life is not a continuous picnic, though one can have fun all the same.
So the view of Socrates, that philosophy is a preparation for death and the view of Spinoza, that the free man thinks of nothing less than death are one and the same.
We prepare for death when we are fully alive.