(Note: read Part I of these meditations on death: Death – the great perspective maker.)
“The end of our race is death; ‘tis the necessary object of our aim, which, if it fright us, how is it possible to advance a step without a fit of ague? The remedy the vulgar use is not to think on’t; but from what brutish stupidity can they derive so gross a blindness?”
– Michel de Montaigne, Essays
In his Nichomachean ethics Aristotle rightly points out that there are an infinite ways of doing a thing wrong, and only one way to do it right. In other words, to act (or to think) rightly is to tread a razor’s edge between vast, windswept infinitudes of error.
This applies to the practice of memento mori as much as to anything else. Few are the ways to think on one’s death and profit thereby, and many are the ways to fall into the opposing madnesses of morbidity and blitheness.
In our age especially, mention your own death and most will accuse you of being morbid. They might be wrong, but they also have a point. For in pondering one’s death, one does run the very real risk of falling sway to morbidity – that wretched form of madness that eats away at the mind until its victim is no longer able to live for dread of dying.
Such is the obsessive compulsive locked up in his hermeneutically sealed room, who must wash his hands exactly twenty-seven times a day for fear that some stray microbe will run off with his life; who cannot step outside his front door, for fear that an out-of-control bus will veer off the road onto the sidewalk and run him over; who cannot even take a shower, for fear he will slip on the ceramic, and knock his head against side of the tub and die of a brain aneurysm.
The challenge in trying to cure the morbid man of his morbidity is that he is, in a very strictly logical sense, correct.
Men have died because they did not wash their hands twenty-seven times in a day and caught a deadly cold. Buses have been known to leap over curbs and to plow through crowds of unsuspecting passersby. And not a few men and women have slipped in their bathtubs and knocked their brains about and died of an aneurysm. And there is absolutely no way to know for certain that you are not that man who will catch the microbe, be sandwiched under the bus, or jar your brains into a soup.
But even worse than this (and this is the truth that drives the morbid man absolutely batty) is that even if you do escape all of these unlikely fates today, it only means that you are one day closer to your inevitable demise – for, as someone once said, “on a large enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”
To look death in the face is to know that we human beings are made of glass, and that the fragile vessel of our life may be shattered in an instant. The maniac is the man for whom this truth looms so large and so near, that his entire vision is overwhelmed by the specter of death, and he can see nothing else. He is the man who, in the words of Chesterton, “has lost everything except his reason.” He endlessly tramps the claustrophobic, but perfectly rational, circle of his brain, unable to break free into the infinitely more expansive world of sanity.
However, it would be a mistake to think that this is the only form of madness that we must fear in reference to the remembrance of our deaths. Certainly it is the most easily identifiable, and the one which our modern and enlightened psychologists and psychiatrists are willing, and perhaps able, to treat. But it is not necessarily the most dangerous, and certainly not the most common.
For if to think only about one’s death is to be mad, what are we to make of he who never thinks of it, who, indeed, will go to any lengths not to think about it?
Such a man does not drool and gibber and cower in dark corners. He does not need to be locked up in a straitjacket in a psychiatric institute. Usually he does not need to be medicated. He is perfectly capable of performing his daily duties. To all appearances he is normal, happy, and healthy. In fact, if there is any way in which he is conspicuous it is that he is more likely than most to achieve excellence in his work, to stand a cut above the rest, to climb the ladder of success more swiftly than others.
And yet, for all of this, he is still certainly and certifiably mad. Why? Because he believes – if not consciously, then at least tacitly – that he is immortal.
It is not hard to discover these madmen living amongst us. Look carefully and you will find him in that middle-aged neighbor who just accepted a promotion that comes with a six-figure raise, but which means he will work 70 hours every week for the next twenty years; in that new mother from church who has put her infant into daycare as soon as possible, so that she can return to the spinning wheel of the corporate rat race; in the friend from work who has been dating the same girl for eight years, refusing to commit because, as he says, he is “not ready to settle down” yet.
All of these are mad, because they are living as if they will never die. If the morbid man is the man who has lost everything except his reason, the blithe man is he who has quite simply lost his reason, choosing instead to live in a world of fantasy.
In fact, if you are at all like me, you need not look any further than the mirror to find someone who is a little “touched,” as they say. For insomuch as we all chase honor, pleasure, fame and fortune at the expense of doing the only thing that is of any importance in this life – loving God with all our whole hearts, minds and souls, and our neighbors as ourselves – we are living as if we will never die, and we are mad.
The more I think about it, the more it seems that the only ones among us who are truly sane in this respect are the saints: whose consciousnesses are permeated thoroughly with the awareness of their mortality, but who find therein only the strength needed to live well; who, unafraid to look the grim reaper in the face, unmask the beast and discover that he is an equitable (if eerie) companion and a worthy advisor; whose consciences are so pure and free that they are able to greet this strange and fearsome companion with the cheerful appellation “Sister Death,” as St. Francis did moments before his last breath.
Such is the only correct way to practice memento mori, to maintain the delicate equipoise between the error of the melancholic and the error the superman. And if we practice this well, though he is not a saint, we may be able to say along with Michel de Montaigne: “I am at all hours as well prepared as I am ever like to be, and death, whenever he shall come, can bring nothing along with him I did not expect long before.”
And that is what it means to be free.