“To hold aloof from death is to cheat oneself of the profoundest insight into one’s own personal reality.”
Josef Pieper, Death and Immortality
At issue for me is my avoidance behavior. Though in my mind I am convinced that I should think about my death, I really haven’t done it much at all.
One might ask: “what exactly do you mean by ‘think about my death,’ and just what should it accomplish?”
Thinking about my death first of all means truly reckoning with it as the real, and possibly proximate, conclusion of my life on this earth. Sure, any reasonable person assents in the abstract to the truth that he could die at any time. But it seems to me that really reckoning with it is another matter.
This reckoning is not a morbid expectation of dying soon; and it certainly does not mean withdrawing oneself from an intense daily commitment to living life to the full. But it does involve coming to grips with the fact that my life here—in all of its wonderful and surprising aspects—always has the character of being a not-yet, and an on-the-way.
Somehow it is only those who realize the incompleteness and the partiality of life here—which includes that every aspect of life takes its meaning from a bigger picture often remote from our vision—who truly find the fullness, the wholeness this life can have.
This life of mine can and should be molding me, and those around me, into who we are. And this molding will include in it—perhaps in a surprising way—the time and the manner of my death, and the death of my loved ones.
I think I have let myself off the hook from reckoning with my death by telling myself, even subconsciously, that it is not the time yet for such reckoning. Or even, I think I’ve feared that doing such reckoning now would be to tempt fate.
I am convinced that in this I have been wrong. An inordinate fear has been at work. It is one thing to have a strong desire to live for a goodly length of time. It is another thing to hold back from reckoning with death because of a fear of it.
It seems to me that I owe it to my wife and children, and all my loved ones, to pattern for them a confidence regarding my own death–a confidence born in part from a daily reckoning. In the event of my death—at whatever point in time it comes—the confidence that I have shown now will be a bulwark for them, then.
And even more, this confidence that grows from a proper reckoning now, will transform our day to day life together, in the present.
Josef Pieper (1904-1997) was a German philosopher in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas. Many of his works have been translated into English and are still in print, including Leisure the Basis of Culture, Happiness and Contemplation, A Theory of Festivity, and The Four Cardinal Virtues, to name a few.
Photo: When we buried my father, September 2013.
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