Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Journal of a Soul 67

The Passage of Time

Interesting evergreen tree at Newbridge House, Donabate, Co. Dublin
The passage of time seems to be quicker the more one ages.  Indeed, as a friend of mine who is a mathematician stated: "This is quite logical because  to a 56 year old person like myself on the cusp of his 57th birthday another year is in comparative terms a mere one 56th or a one 57th of your life depending on how you calculate it.  One way or another ageing is inevitable.  Recently, I was quite intrigued when a past pupil who was about 19 declared that he would like to live forever.  Another young man in our company replied that such "would never happen and that his wishful thinking was in every sense delusional." St Augustine once defined time as "the measure of change." The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus averred that "one can never step into the same river twice," and further that everything was in "a state of flux." I was amused, as I say, by the wishful, if delusional, thinking of my young friend.  I thought to myself how great it was to be so innocent and full of enthusiasm for life. This was also quite ironic as we were in a local hostelry imbibing some alcoholic beverages in the wake of a commemorative service for one of his friends who had ended his life by suicide. Obviously this latter person had found living life totally unbearable.

The Importance of Philosophy

Philosophy is more an activity and a process than a learned body of reflections on life. While it may be the latter as is witnessed by all the countless books written on the subject, it is so much more.  It is the activity of questioning to the nth degree everything around us, the nature of the universe; what knowledge may be, if there is any such thing as Truth in an objective sense or is it always relative; what love, faith, hope and charity may be, indeed what emotions may mean; what the purpose and meaning of the life we humans experience is and so on and so forth.  There is also a philosophy of every subject under the sun.  We can surely ask what the nature of numbers is and what we are at when we do mathematics.  Are the tenets of mathematics universal and true everywhere in the universe.  We believe so and can adduce reasons to substantiate our contentions.  We can study the history of science and also its philosophy. What is the difference between practical knowledge and scientific knowledge? Is all scientific knowledge empirical?  In many cases, yes, but both at the subatomic and astronomical level, no - we need to use very abstract and much speculative thought there, but such thought is no less rigorous than the process of arriving at conclusions from empirical evidence. There are so many questions we humans can ask and none may be as important as the moral one as to what are right and wrong actions.  What is morality and why need we act in such and such way and so on. My young friend obviously had never encountered philosophy, that is, the radical questioning of one's own thoughts and opinions.  What would it mean to live forever?  Follow the thought experiment through, young man. Would you keep ageing and ageing and yet never die? Even simple tools eventually wear out? Humans are made of material stuff which breaks down.  Does not the simple physical law of entropy imply that everything eventually burns itself out? If we never died what would birth mean at all? There obviously would be no point in birth if there were no death! How would we deal with the population explosion? These are all philosophical questions, which at first glance may seem somewhat silly, but on reflection clarify superficial thought and silly shoddy thinking.  Essentially to live implies within its ambit the process of dying itself.  In fact, to live is to die.  Think of any simple plant or flower you might have at home or in the garden.  It grows, blooms and eventually dies.  I remember meeting a most interesting man who owned a pet shop.  One could see his total commitment to and love of animals of all varieties.  He opined that it was important for youngsters to keep pets, to nourish and see them grow and eventually die.  Keeping pets, he felt, taught children to accept that death and dying are parts of life.  As an animal, albeit human, I consume food, burn it and transform it into energy to keep my body going.  It is obvious that my body will wear out, break down and die - such is only natural.

Reflections on Death and Dying 

Having been brought up in a rural setting one could say that I am somewhat at home with the cycle of the seasons, with the sowing of seeds, the growth of plants, their cultivation and harvesting and so on in a never-ending cycle.  Within that scenario, death and dying are seen as a natural process. The peasant folk had and obviously still have their traditions like the waking of the dead - the celebration of the life of the departed one about the open coffin that is positioned centrally in the house of the departed.  Within this context not alone is grief made bearable but the sting is taken out of death at least for a short while.  These ancient rituals grew up within various communities as they attempted to help the grieving party cope with their sorrow and to make some social or communal sense of the experience of death.

And yet, existentially we all face our own extinction in a very private way - we each of us have to make some personal sense of our mortality, that is, if we are at least half thinking or even semi-reflective persons, as quite simply, no matter how many or how few are our family or friends, we die alone.  It is, alas, a journey only we ourselves can embark upon as we pass through the portals of death alone. Perhaps the greatest myth in our modern culture is the growth of sheer individualism with all that it entails. Modern individuals have built up around themselves their own private worlds of prestige, social achievement and material possessions - private worlds that give them a sense of identity - and all of that far too superficial or lacking in any depth.  Very soon we tire of superficiality, of building up  these rather tawdry worlds of vast egotistical proportions - rather like that portrayed in the novel, The Great Gatsby and most effectively indeed in the film of the same name.  All of these fantasies of individual power and prestige cannot keep the gnawing tooth of mortality at bay. Nor can any of these superficial attempts to build identity on the shifting sands of materialism keep the lonely soul protected from anxiety, angst and a host of concomitant emotional and psychosomatic complaints.

Some Personal Memories

The first death I can remember was that of my Grandmother Mary Phoebe Brophy in 1968 when I was ten years of age.  My young mind soaked in the experience as my mam and dad, as well all my uncles and aunts (all 11 of them) were very upset.  Perhaps the most consoling moment of the whole experience was being requested to kneel down and say a prayer at my grandmother's bedside and to touch her beaded hands.  I can still conjure up the vision of my grandmother's body in that bed all those years ago.  However, all in all, it was a positive experience, one that we were unconsciously taught to accept as a part of life, the final  mile stone along the journey of life if you like.  Then the second death I remember was that of my Uncle Paddy Quinlan at 58 of a rare cancer in 1970 - I remember so well the packed church and all the people who came to say goodbye on the day of his funeral.  I can still hear and feel the crunch of gravel under my shoes as I walked up to the graveside.  As I stood beside my father as they lowered the coffin, I saw a little white one and my father said gently, "that's your little angel brother Thomas who died many years ago." Since then, of course, there have been many other deaths, not the least of which were the deaths of my father and mother - experiences which I have recounted here and elsewhere in the blogosphere. Those particular deaths were wrenches to my being that I find quite difficult to describe.  One knows that when one has experienced their leaving of this world that your generation is next.

Sundown, Phoenix Park, October 2014

The theme of anxiety was at the very heart of existentialism from its very origins. This is a sense of anguish which can be defined as a sense of dread at the nothingness of human existence. This theme goes back as far as Kierkegaard in modern existentialism though it stretched way back further into ancient philosophy, too. In fact, anxiety as a theme pervades this philosopher’s work. Kierkegaard lived his relatively short life (1813-1855) in Denmark. The meaninglessness of his existence filled him with anxiety and despair and a sense of hopelessness and deep depression. At base his anxiety was a deep despair at the very nothingness of human existence. In the great universal scheme of things we are mere minuscule ants on a minuscule anthill called earth, lost in the infinity of space. How do we cope with the fact that we as thinking and feeling subjects will come to nothing in the end? Let’s hear Kierkegaard’s words: “I stick my finger into existence – it smells of nothing. Where am I? What is this thing called the world? Who is it that has lured me into the thing, and now leaves me here? Who am I? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted?”(Lavine, T.Z. (1984) From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest New York: Bantam Books)

Making Meaning

We are meaning-making creatures.  We are forever forming and moulding meaning from the very stuff of life.  If we do not do so we are an empty, hollow people whom T.S. Eliot describes so vividly in his poem The Hollow Men:

We are the hollow men

We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken grass
In our dry cellar.

Shape without form, shade without colour,

Paralysed force, gesture without motion ...

These people who are hollow are the superficial people we described in one of our opening paragraphs.  They are the ones who have built their identities on the shifting sands of their own private worlds of prestige, social achievement and material possessions - private worlds that give them a false sense of identity - and all of that, as I have said, far too superficial or lacking in any depth. Something in us is repulsed by lack of meaning and superficiality.  It's almost as if there is something in us - some divine spark - that wishes to ignite and set the fire of enthusiasm and joy alive in our our hearts.  We feel, indeed intuit or know at a deep level, that there is something somewhere drawing us on towards meaning, some amazing, if imaginary lodestone, drawing us ever onwards.  This spiritual spark in me demands that I call it God.  Perhaps, that is overstating my case.  And yet, those are the words that came out as I wrote these lines.  There is a fullness of life to be experienced if only we have the courage to reach out and embrace it.

And as a meaning-making species we have conjured religions up from our collective unconscious to guide us and lead us ever onward on our human journey to meaning and personal truth.  We have embraced spiritualities of various types to give us the courage and the sustenance to support us on our journey.  Whether such religions and spiritualities are actually the result of our own imagination matters not a whit.  Perhaps it comes from an outside power, namely God, and of this I am quite convinced some of the time, especially at moments when I experience all too transiently beauty, truth, love, wonder and mystery.  But yet, in another sense that matters not a whit either.  What matters is that we have a meaning, a reason to live and a reason to die.  In our faith, in our imagination or in our soul, our very meaning lives on, and that is what makes all the difference, a difference that no proselytizing atheist can ever take from us.  And death and dying in this scenario are surely as natural as birth and growth.  Yes, indeed. Amen to that!!

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