Thursday, December 01, 2005

Life and death - and life

Our lives give us an illusion of permanence: there are slow years, decades, and in the beginning not even a real sense of their eventual ending. But in reality it is such a brief moment we spend in the world. At heart we are rootless, nomadic species, at the mercy of random fate: in no place and in no time do we truly settle in. The Enlightenment is not very effective in capturing this truth: it is not good with impermanence and insecurity, with tragedy, if you may. Art and religion do much better, are more tuned to long views, to this human predicament, human condition. These darkish thoughts I suppose are largely due to the fact that this weekend we will begin burying another generation of my family after a 20 years break since the previous one. In the coming years there will be many of these occasions, and some that I am still very much afraid of - in the 80's these leavings did not touch me this personally: now I see to the both directions, to youth and to old age, and many of those that will be going, that are going were once the permanent, loved cornerstones of my own life. They seemed permanent. It is a very brief, fleeting moment that we spend in this world.

Dark thoughts? I wonder. It would seem meaningless to complain. This is the human condition, this has been our strange fate. And of course, this impermanence gives us a high value to our lives, to our brief and fundamentally tragic moment. It is all we have and it can be taken away or wrecked so easily. Much of our feverish modern activity is aimed to conceal this truth. But yes, there is also wild exhilaration in this beautiful landscape with its ice cold air of chaos and danger. And boundless sadness.

A brief postscript. I would not address here the hope of the Christian theology (such that is not so clearly stated in what is reported of Christ's actual teachings) that is so widely shared in my family - it would seem to be a separate matter, out of our hands, something that cold Enlightenment reason is better in handling. For me religion is not very much about its literal truth but of its description of the human experience in the world, in a sense also of its potential worthiness of being made true. And that seems a very far away thing in relation with the current reality of death and human impermanence. This is a very abstract, and in many ways a very mystical way of seeing religion, far beyond the literalness and crudeness of its mainstream practice, and in many ways not very far from some aspects of Finnish Pietism that so much dominates my family's spiritual heritage.


helsinkian said...

Life and death are gigantic issues - forces that we humans can't control. Grief after a loved one dies is one of the lowest depths in life. Life's joys offset the downsides in time and in mourning after some time the bright memories emerge to give meaning to those who are left to grieve.

The modern condition is how I feel it much bound to the inability to feel at home and not to be able to enjoy the moment. Whereas real losses weigh heavily, much of the cause of grief in our everyday lives isn't really much at all. In the beginning of the first act of Chekhov's The Sea-gull Masha tells that she's clad in mourning since she is mourning her own life, she's unhappy. Her opening line contains much of the emptiness of those who have it all but don't know what to do with it.

Death is a reminder to those who live that there is so much to do but so little time to do it. How much time people spend killing time in many ways and in the end time is the most valuable resource we have, it is almost synonymous with living. I'm not talking about killing time having fun, I'm talking about killing time in boredom. Of course after a death a whole lot of time is to be spent grieving, recovering from a loss takes time. But sometimes losing someone can kick start one's life, realizing that there are plenty of purposeful things to do, that just could be done before it's time to die.

stockholm slender said...

I see your point about modernity very well. There is a certain shapelessness to our experience. Though I don't think I feel totally modern or post-modern in this respect. I see patterns and coherence where they don't, tragedy and meaning. Maybe this is classical (and also Christian) heritage. (Though I am familiar with classical thinking only through translations.) In any case I don't totally buy into the modern despair and modern sentimentality.