“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone…” (WH Auden)
This post was originally going to be about dancing, but I’m putting that off. A dear friend has recently suffered a devastating loss—both parents within 10 days of one another—and for many reasons, I feel like the dancing can wait.
We knew something like this might happen, but of course we couldn’t have imagined it would happen in this way, at this pace (because when it comes to losing loved ones, this death can never happen the way you want or expect it to). And while this was happening in our friend’s family, far away, there, where it would seem like everything had stopped, and narrowed, and altered beyond recognition—things nevertheless kept going here. Love, work, dance, travel, conflict petty and large, celebration, reunion—it all just keeps going, and death seems urgently important and absolutely incongruous, at the center of it all, and yet something we push to the margins of our attention as much as we can, a thing that hurts the eyes and mind to look at directly.
Auden’s poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts” captures this jarring incongruity, where the most tremendous ending somehow co-exists with the absolute drive to carry on:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. (WH Auden, “Musee des Beaux Arts”)
It’s not that the living mean to be indifferent to the dead, and those who love them; it’s just that the “human position” is one of forward movement; things can, and must, “sail calmly on.”
* * *
For my friend, I feel the deepest sympathy. I want nothing more than to make this less awful for her. And yet, partly because life demands that I keep living it (with its mix of pleasures and obligations), and partly because no matter how all of us rush to help her, there’s a limit to what we can do: one of the most terrible things about death is the solitary, lonely, personal nature of loss.
* * *
“The Death of Ivan Illych,” if you haven’t read it, is a brilliantly insightful story about how people understand death. Tolstoy’s particularly good at representing—mostly sympathetically, sometimes satirically—the less noble, less elevated feelings we have about the end of life. In fact, in this narrative, it’s the earthy, natural, less “civilized” responses to death that are the most humane. The greatest comfort that Ivan Illych finds, as he dies, is with his servant Gerasim—the uneducated, unrefined peasant, removed from all concern with the manners and conceits of Ivan’s shallowly materialistic social set, is the only one who can offer any meaningful, intimate, physical care of Ivan’s body, and the only who can be honest with his master about what’s happening to him. Ivan’s whole life has been spent in the pursuit of promotions—better jobs, and houses, and friends, and living room furniture—all in the effort to appear better in the eyes of every other similarly superficial, status-conscious, striver. And as Ivan learns while he’s dying, it’s been an empty and futile pursuit that is meaningless next to the simple compassion of a servant, or a small gesture of affection from his son at his deathbed. The title of the story, it turns out, is meant both literally, and with figurative irony—the narrative describes Ivan’s death as a way to prompt us to think about what it means to live, and to live well (hint: genuine, loving connections with other people matter much more than stuff).
But what I’m thinking about today is the start of the story, which settles into the perspective of Ivan’s friend and co-worker. Peter Ivanovich attends Ivan’s wake because as his “friend” that’s what one must do, but while he’s there, his thoughts wander from horror at the callous, selfish greed of Ivan’s widow, to his horror at Ivan’s early death, to concern for his own mortality, to speculation about whether he’ll be able to get a promotion now that there’s a vacancy at the office, to an impatient desire to discharge his social obligation to the family so that he can move on to his card game. The point that Tolstoy makes is that it’s completely ordinary—not excusable, just ordinary—for us to respond to the death of others with a certain amount of empathetic care, and a certain amount of uneasy self-interest. Tolstoy starts the story with someone who’s better at the latter (self-centeredness) than the former (empathy), establishing the problem which Ivan’s experience of dying is meant to resolve (hint: to experience grace, rather than desolation, you need to feel for and with other people, not just for yourself).
And yet—even as you feel your own loss acutely, or feel with your friend as she deals with overwhelming absence, you can’t help but think of your own situation. I think about logistics (how do I find the time to go and help my friend? Where does this obligation fit in with all others?); about how I’ve handled loss in my own family in the past (with a certain amount of avoidance, to be honest); about how I want to live this life so that I have no regrets at the end. I feel terror at the prospect of being in my friend’s situation one day—from managing my family’s affairs to being present and caring at the bedside, I’m convinced I’m not up to the task. I feel guilt for not being more present for others in the past, and then guilt for feeling guilty, because I’m dimly aware of the self-centered nature of all of these thoughts, and it’s not supposed to be about me, after all, is it? I’m not as shallow as Peter Ivanovich—I’m not checking my watch and planning my escape right from the funeral to some cocktail party somewhere—but I find it hard to think about what death means for someone else without thoughts—many of them unbidden, some of them petty or unworthy—of what it all means for me.
Donne knew this too—that we must practice empathy, but that empathy is inextricable from our own-self awareness, which in turn must comprise our awareness of being only part of a whole:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. (John Donne, “Meditation XVII”)
When Donne offers us this particular memento mori (latin for “remember that you will die”), he’s exhorting us to be mindful of what we’re doing now to prepare for death—as with Tolstoy, that means being mindful of what we’re doing now to live a good life, one which does good for others as well as ourselves. You’re not going to succeed in thinking exclusively of other people all the time, and that’s all right—total self-abnegation might be the lot of saints, but can’t be the goal of people who must look after themselves as well as others in this world. What’s vital is that you have the capacity to get that—to realize that as absorbing as your own experience must necessarily be, it’s as small as it is precious, and most of what makes it worth living is how that little precious bit fits in with the multitude of others.
All of which helps me feel like I’ve struck the appropriate balance between self-centeredness and empathy. And none of which makes me feel any less useless in easing the suffering of my friend, for whom no amount of philosophizing about all that has not changed for me, can do anything to reverse all that has changed irrevocably for her.
Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s anything that any of us can do. This has happened in my friend’s life, as it will for all of us sooner or later. I can think all I want about death, and what it means for me or for my loved ones, and death doesn’t care one iota if I do (as Emily Dickinson observed, “Because I could not stop for death—He kindly stopped for me—”). Death—absence, loss, cessation, blankness—defies meaning.
To help my friend, I can’t offer her explanation or reason—at least, not about what dying means. Living, however, is another matter. While she feels her loss so acutely, the most that the rest of us can do is go to her and fill up her life with friendship (as much as we can, because the blank spots will always be emptily there). And when the shock of loss starts to fade, just a little bit, we’ll be there too, a little more sensible that we need to make the most of what we have, while we have it.