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Of Life and Death - A Writer's Perspective

In the ultimate analysis birth begins with hope and life ends with gratitude: for memories of a life well lived. If that is at all possible.

by Ruwantissa Abeyratne
writing from Montreal

Fundamentally, all writing is about the same thing; it's about dying, about the brief flicker of time we have here, and the frustration that it creates… Mordecai Richler

I do not usually write on philosophy. Last week a much loved niece asked me whether I write anything other than law, politics and economics. This has provoked me to write my musings on what I (and others I admire) think about life and death.



I believe life is a brief illusion that all of us face with an inexplicable and inscrutable courage. In a famous Bollywood movie, the hero, who has lost his young wife to an illness, tells his mother who asks him to get married again: “we live once; we die once; we love once; we get married once…we don’t do these things again”.

Although the first part of this philosophy is an incontrovertible fact, for some the second part remains a laughable inanity. Be that as it may, what many of us do in between these four phases is to relentlessly respond to a lifelong impetus that impels us to face the fever of life. We do this with an innate courage which constantly enables us to perform the duties that we owe to ourselves and others as long as we are able.

It was Christopher Hitchens who said in his work The Portable Atheist: “Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.” Hitchens equiparates “courage” with “intensity” which is what we do from birth without realizing. We go through our education, marriage, bringing up children, working a lifetime and retiring comfortably, with consummate ease. At none of these stages do some of us ponder death in the sense of the “brief flicker” that Richler refers to and we go our own feckless and insouciant way.

Not so, with authors who philosophise. They ponder all the time about the meaning of life, as the two examples shown so far in this discussion illustrate. Another example is, Mark Twain, who with his mordant wit once said in Letters from the Earth: “Life was not a valuable gift, but death was. Life was a fever-dream made up of joys embittered by sorrows, pleasure poisoned by pain; a dream that was a nightmare-confusion of spasmodic and fleeting delights, ecstasies, exultations, happinesses, interspersed with long-drawn miseries, griefs, perils, horrors, disappointments, defeats, humiliations, and despairs — the heaviest curse devisable by divine ingenuity; but death was sweet, death was gentle, death was kind; death healed the bruised spirit and the broken heart, and gave them rest and forgetfulness; death was man’s best friend; when man could endure life no longer, death came and set him free.”

In practicality this might seem improbable, given the nature of the human. We walk through life with hope in our souls and trust in our mortal bodies. Until these are flouted by age or disease we bathe in the glory of the evanescent pleasures of life. Youth makes us feel secure and invincible. For most of us this way of life sustains for a long time. Long enough for us to educate ourselves; get married; obtain gainful employment; have children; build houses and have millions invested. The illusory mirage that this will go on results in the unseen and unfelt courage that helps us achieve the things that count in life. The veneer of success and perceived happiness helps keep all secrets safe: secrets that may be lurking within our mortal being.

This was eloquently put by George Orwell who said: “A normal human being does not want the Kingdom of Heaven: he wants life on earth to continue. This is not solely because he is ‘weak,’ ‘sinful’ and anxious for a ‘good time.’ Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life.”

William Faulkner said in As I lay Dying: “I can remember how when I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind — and that of the minds who suffer the bereavement. The nihilists say it is the end; the fundamentalists, the beginning; when in reality it is no more than a single tenant or family moving out of a tenement or a town.”

From this intellectual soup a dichotomy emerges. Christians long for release from suffering by going to heaven and reposing in eternal peace. In this belief is the ultimate hope to be rid of infirmity and suffering on Earth. On the other hand, Buddhists believe that all life is in a cycle of death and rebirth called samsara. This cycle is something to escape from. When someone dies their energy passes into another form. As Helen Keller famously said: “Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.” In other words, if you do well here, you’ll do well there.

My take is that, with no claims to pretension of knowing the arcane philosophy of life, since scientists have pronounced that our genetic code determines only 30% of the health or ill health within our genealogy, and no one has proved or disproved the ultimate destiny of the human, randomness plays a big part in our lives. This might explain why children are born to die of hunger in some parts of the world and others are born into wealth in developed societies. It might also explain why such children born to wealth may die early of terminal illnesses or accidents.

In the ultimate analysis birth begins with hope and life ends with gratitude: for memories of a life well lived. If that is at all possible.

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