On the questions of mortality and moving on….
A couple of weeks ago, as I was preparing for my recent course “Why I Am Not a Christian,” I was reminded of one of my favorite modern novels, The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, which won the Booker Prize in 2011. What a terrific book. Short but completely compelling. Beautifully written. Moving. Thought provoking. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I won’t give up the plot, but, well, it’s about life, death, getting older, memory, and remorse.
Two lines really struck me. The first is spoken by one of the characters in a history class in school in his upper sixth (that’s the year English students prepare for university; it’s a lot more rigorous than our senior years in high school) (mine anyway; and I went to an unusually good high school!). When asked, at the end of the term, what history is (looking back at all they had studied), he responds: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
Brilliant. It ties closely into the plot – although in some ways you don’t realize it till the very end of the book, virtually the last page. But it’s an insightful comment about even what it is I do, with the distant past, where the documentation is thoroughly inadequate, and even this is based on memories that are fully imperfect. Out of that we try to create the certainties of what happened. Fat chance, when you think about it. It’s hard enough to recreate what happened 20-30-40 years ago. As this book shows in a gut-wrenching way.
The second line took my breath away and I reread it about ten times. The main character has just called his 32-year old daughter before going on a vacation for five days to Mallorca, making sure he got in touch and left on a good note in case something should happen to him on the trip, and it makes him think how much more important that would be before one’s “final” trip. So, he reflects: “And if this is how we behave before a five-night winter break in Mallorca, then why should there not be a broader process at work towards the end of life, as that final journey – the motorized trundle through the crematorium’s curtains – approaches?”
Wow–“the motorized trundle through the crematorium’s curtains.” What really wrenched my attention was the thought that one sometimes has: that’s really going to happen. There will be a time when my body will be sent to the incinerator, and I am no more. My body will be burned (or if you prefer the long-term approach, it will eventually decay; and if it doesn’t decay, it’ll be incinerated anyway when the sun blows up). And life will go on anyway (well, until the sun blows up). People will mourn. People will get on with their lives. The sun will still rise. Sports will still be played. The storms will still come. Nations will rise and fall. Our children will grow old and die. And then their children. And then their grandchildren. And soon, no matter how important or unimportant we seem to be to the world, we will be completely forgotten. And then *that* generation will come and go. And so it will happen. It happened to our parents; to our grandparents; to our great-grandparents; to …. all the way back. And it will happen to us, each of us, individually, one at a time. It will happen to me, with the motorized trundle through the crematorium’s curtains.
For me, these thoughts completely relativize everything I do. And they make me appreciate the good things I have and the life that I lead, life itself, so precious to me. They don’t make me despair or turn nihilist. They make me love existence and want to do more to help others love it.
But how ’bout you? What do you think?
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