Meditations on Mortality

Since my age starts with “seventy”, I’m in what I call my “Middle Youth”. I figure that “Late Youth” starts at seventy-five, so I’ve got a few years until then. And as befits a man in his middle youth, I’ve been giving some thought to the idea and the reality of death. Both my parents are dead, and if the ugly rumors are true, someday I will join them.

My thoughts on this matter have been occasioned in part by the recent death of the mother of a long-time friend of mine. She was a charming, warm, and loving woman, a mainstay of her family, who died far too soon

But then, when was that ever not the case? In “Macbeth”, he says of his wife the Queen, “She should have died hereafter” … and this is true of just about everyone. I know I would say that about my own mother and father, they should indeed have died hereafter.

While I know that words are fairly useless in the face of death, words are all we have to offer. All I can say to my friend that he is now a member of an exclusive club that no one wants to join, but most of us will join sooner or later—the club of people with a dead parent.

And although I know that words are weak tea in this circumstance, in alleviation of the deep and most understandable sorrow of my friend and his father and their family, I can only offer the following story.

In ancient China, a middle-aged man went to an elderly sage. He gave the old man some money, and asked him if he would write out a good-luck charm to protect his family.

The sage agreed. He did the required hours of meditation, as was the custom in those days before undertaking such a momentous task. Then he took out his inkstone and his inkstick and began his preparations.

inkstone 1.png

When his ink was at the exact ebon shade that the sage wanted, he took his calligraphy brush and a sheet of fresh rice paper. With firm, strong strokes he wrote three lines of characters on the paper, and gave it to the man.

When the man read it the good-luck charm, his eyes got wide. He shouted at the sage, “Why have you done this? What do you mean by this?” He was furious because the sage’s calligraphy on the rice-paper said:

Grandparents Die

Parents Die

Children Die

The man screamed, “Did someone pay you to curse my family? How can you call this a good-luck charm?”

“Ah, my young friend, it is indeed a good-luck charm,” the old man said, “because if it happens in any other order, that is very bad luck!”

I myself had the sad fortune of being in the room with my stepmother as she watched her only daughter die … so I can say from personal experience that if it happens in any other order, you do not want to be there to see it.

Other than my story, I can only offer my love and support to my friend, to his father and family, and to everyone who has lost someone that they loved. There is no easy path through it. People say “Time heals all wounds”, and in my experience, that is very true.

But ah, dear friends … the scars, they endure …

I fear that I have nothing more to add to that, other than to note that our lives are far too short. So let me take this opportunity to thank my friend, and his father, and all of my friends and family, for their enduring friendship and fellowship, and to say, enjoy the day to the limit, for the dark night is assuredly coming …

My very best regards to everyone—I wish for you the sun breaking through the clouds, the wide sweep of the sea streaked with wind-blown spume, the dark, silent forest full of secrets untold, a sunrise with a gentle dawn breeze, fresh new snow blanketing the ground to surprise you when you wake in the morning, laughter with your friends and family, and all of the manifold joys of this marvelous world.

As always,

w.

CODA:

WHEN I consider Life and its few years—
A wisp of fog betwixt us and the sun;
A call to battle, and the battle done
Ere the last echo dies within our ears;

A rose choked in the grass; an hour of fears;
The gusts that past a darkening shore do beat;
The burst of music down an unlistening street,—
I wonder at the idleness of tears.

Ye old, old dead, and ye of yesternight,
Chieftains, and bards, and keepers of the sheep,
By every cup of sorrow that you had,
Loose me from tears, and make me see aright
How each hath back what once he stayed to weep:
Homer his sight, David his little lad!

Lizette Woodworth Reese. 1856–1935

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51 thoughts on “Meditations on Mortality

  1. Whew…

    WIllis, that grabbed me in a way that I know you will understand.

    Your story about the old man and the sage is essentially the same one I told at the most painful (yet strangely joyous) funeral I have ever attended. It was that of my baby brother, five years my junior, who died of cancer at the age of 66. Pain indeed, as I felt it should have been me in that bloody casket, not him. He was a Vietnam veteran, who had spent two years there, mostly on the dreaded seven-week-long missions deep in the jungle, often drenched in agent Orange. The cancer rates among he and his compatriots is ten times the NZ national average. I stood and delivered a tribute to him that day, one I hope did him justice, and included the story in my musings.

    Painful – hell yeah. So why joyous? Because joy was central to him, his character and his manner. He not only found joy in every moment, but gave it to all he met. He owned a gas station just North of our capital city, Wellington, and his customers were the commuters.

    Man, that was a big funeral.

    Thanks WIllis

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  2. So far, I have been lucky. My only wish is that my son gets stuck deciding what to do with my body. I could express my wishes, but in the end I really won’t have any say in the matter.

    My wife and I have asked our son what he wants, so we can pre-pay. He has not decided. I can understand that he doesn’t want to think about it.

    My grandparents had plots and pre-paid funerals, and that was a blessing to my parents in their time of grief; one less decision to intrude on their grief. My parents did the same and my siblings and I appreciated not having to make emotional decisions while grieving.

    It’s only somewhat odd, but I wish my son would make up his mind. It would put my mind at ease knowing he had one of life’s painful decisions made and put behind him.

    Your post is much appreciated, Willis. Thanks.

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    • Please make the decision yourself, in your story it is evident that your parents and grandparents made the decision so that you did not. It is hard and your story has made me think on my own situation, Thank you.

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  3. Yes, the old sage was right. I never dreamed my sister, 9 years younger than I, would not out live my mom, but she passed away a couple of years before my mom who passed in 2015. While I miss both of them, I realize there is still life to be lived and enjoyed as much as possible. I like the saying “today is the first day of the rest of your life … make the best of it”. I tend to be pantheistic about life. I suspect that all conscious beings are probably the same one universal consciousness, but at different time-place portals in the space-time universe. But I have no way to be certain … until my body dies and whatever is left of my consciousness moves on to whatever is next.

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  4. Willis, I think you saw your cardiologist, or onkologist, or another -gist. Bear in mind that they are only human just like the rest of us. I felt that way five years ago before my heart bypass operation. Five years and counting on a borrowed time, not bad. And, by the way, miracles happen – my Bayesian fair lady calls them “zero probability events”.

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  5. Well told Willis, well told. My parents and I lost my younger brother when he was only 28, killed in a military plane crash. The shock killed my father within four years, my mother lived another 17 years. She mourned, but learned how to recover, my father never did. It is strange how people handle the death of loved ones.

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  6. It is truly sad when the child dies before the parent. It is without words to describe the hollowness of their lives when the parent is the genetic cause of their child’s death. And, further, how does one console parents when the child dies from the same genetic disorder after the parents have been counseled that the risk for the next child to be so affected? These scenarios play out in spite of incantations and pleas and offerings. There are 30,000 Americans who’s life course is so marked.

    I am grateful for each day that I am alive, no matter what the circumstances. Bravery, in the face of a shortened life, the ability to go on and on and on for these young people makes me grateful of my own good fortune. No regrets. Head up. Face the future for what it holds.

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  7. Hi Willis, thank you. I learnt a different version of the death-order blessing, in which Bodhidharma, the Indian founder of Chan / Zen Buddhism, pronounced it on being invited by the Chinese Emperor to say something for the good fortune of the Imperial family. The truth of the blessing, and sharing it, is the important thing.

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  8. Willis, I haven’t quite accumulated as many years as you but I often think on mortality. I suppose the consolation is that I can still think about it. Consciousness is a strange thing. We can recall the past in all its joys and sorrows and contemplate the future with its ultimate darkness. I’m not sure who I’m quoting but, “Life is a sexually transmitted terminal condition.” Speaking of quotes the line “She should have died hereafter,” is Macbeth’s spoken after learning of Lady Macbeth’s death.

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  9. Since I’m in the same ballpark, I call the seventies middle-aged, followed by a couple of senior decades. I’ll save old for the triple digits … still quite in the distance. Heck, the woman whose Christmas I shot all to hell some seventy years ago is still up and kicking, albeit she’s a bit slower these days and she’s yet to be old; sometimes I refer to her as my 94 year old teenager, what with the hours she keeps. At least she’s made it to see great grand children; I’m hoping to see her stick around to see great great grand children. I wonder how many pills they’ll have me popping by then.

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  10. Having just entered into the same decade as you, I’m feeling my mortality more and more. Too many obituaries that are people younger than me.

    I was at a funeral for one of my aunts. My parents had passed away a few years before and as I was talking with my cousin she remarked “You know all our parents are gone. I guess we’re all orphans now.” I replied “Gee, you’re right!” We both laughed but it wasn’t a joke, it was just to cover up our sadness. Still feel like an orphan in some ways. Damn, my eyes are watering. Must be the pollen.

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  11. “If ‘ere I depart this world and you wish to please my ghost, forgive some poor sinner and wink your eye at a homely girl.”
    -H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)

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  12. It’s tragic when a child precedes a parent in death.

    Last year I posted a little bit about my family breaking up. One of the old catalysts for that event happened many years prior.

    It was in the early 90s, my grown step-daughter was living at my and my wife’s (her mother) home. She had fled her own home, with our help, just a few weeks prior. Her boyfriend/fiance with whom she had been living, had finally convinced her of his abusive, anti-social, domineering ways. For the record, I knew the guy was a loser the moment I met him, and so did my wife. Our disapproval meant little, as many a parent of a determined young girl will attest. Anyway, she ultimately learned. And long story short, one mid-week day, as she was out job hunting, she was shot three times in the back by the jealous, sociopathic ex-boyfriend. The worst of the three wounds was a bullet to the lower back, which entered near the spinal cord and nicking one of the L5 branches (the L5 bundles go down the legs). With the help of several long and painful surgeries, she survived. We were blessed not to bury her.

    In the process of the law enforcement response to this shooting, the arrest, trial and imprisonment of the perp (he was convicted of Attempted 1st degree murder and sentenced to a long prison term), my wife and I were contacted by a group called “Parents of Murdered Children.” This is one of the most sad, lamentable populations you could ever imagine. As I kept trying to tell them, our child had not been murdered. Hurt, yes, damaged, yes, forever scarred by a violent trauma, yes, but not murdered, not dead. She had a chance to recover, and we set ourselves to the task of helping her to bounce back, find some normalcy, find her way to some form of life, of happiness. But to us, “healing” could not include fraternizing with “The Parents of Murdered Children.” They gave us nothing we needed, just incredibly sad stories, and survivor guilt. These people had become stuck in a moment, if you will. Their lives had turned into being living cemetery monuments for their departed children. This was, in my opinion, one of the worst parts of the tragedy that had befallen their families. They couldn’t move on, and they drew their support from a group that encouraged piety to memories rooted in past tragedy, not in grieving, dealing and healing, and ultimately moving on. As our daughter healed and slowly recovered, this sad group kept after us to join and attend their meetings, with many of them openly stating that WE needed them to heal. But I felt that they all needed less of the holding on to past tragedy, and more of something new, whatever that might be.

    There are many way for parents to lose their children. It doesn’t take a homicidal mad man. There are illnesses, accidents, suicide, religious cults, and even simple personal choice of shunning. Sad to say, most families eventually get a taste. Hopefully, your bite will be digestible. It is my sincere wish that all children outlive their parents.

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  13. Thanks for those words, Willis. As I struggle with the loss of my 33 year old son a week ago, I’ll find comfort wherever I can.

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    • Harold, welcome to the blog. My heart is with you in your struggle, and I also have the sad knowledge that in its essence, it is a struggle for you alone.

      My best wishes to you and your family in this tragic time, hold fast to those you love,

      w.

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      • Thank you for the kindness.
        Although I don’t lurk here like I do on WUWT, I do visit occasionally.
        I have enjoyed your adventures, reading all of them. (I think)
        I once invited you to come adventuring with me on Mount Hood in a snow-cat.
        Have a great evening, Willis!

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  14. My best friend called me one day to tell me his 18-year-old son had suddenly died. I cried with him, went home and wrote this. My friend died soon thereafter. Your Chinese proverb bought it all back – I never showed this to anyone until today.

    Parents should always pre-decease their children.
    Now the grand scheme of the universe is undone.
    No father should have to mourn his daughter.
    No mother should have to mourn her son.

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  15. You are a kindly, caring, gifted man, Willis, with a large dollop of swashbuckle thrown in. I like your classification of the stages of life and am a believer that attitude of the kind you possess, along with some sprigs of broccoli, lucky biology and medical science hopefully keeps one moving excitingly forward in the adventure.

    I find myself, patriarch of my extended family now for about a decade, stretching late youth as best I can with the age of 80 in the offing (this September). Alas, I havent escaped the sorrow of the wrong order of dying, my oldest son’s life taken for a few dollars in Thailand nearly thirty years ago.

    I’m still working as a mining consultant with projects in Canada, Brazil and the Congo (DRC) as I don’t have hobbies that can match the buzz I get from that. I just renewed my passport for 10 years, too, and I hate to waste things so I’m going to do the best I can to use it up before I reach, what?middle age?

    Cheers, Gary

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    • Gary, thanks for your kind words, always good to hear from you. Sorry to hear about the wrong order of dying, I have seen the grief that brings. Keep the petal to the metal, my friend.

      All the best of this world to you,

      w.

      PS—What kind of mining?

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      • A late reply Willis, but maybe you’ll see it. I specialize in exploration and development of rare metals (more than half the periodic table of elements). Lithium, Rare Earths (17 wierd elements in a series Scandium to Lutetium – big use of Neodymium and Dysprosium in field magnets for windmills, Europium and a few others give us electronic color – TV computers etc. YAG laser crystals, a touch of Scandium alloyed with Aluminum makes it strong – baseball bats, airframes, etc ….), Rubidium and Cesium used in making atomic clocks (lose a couple of minutes in 10,000yrs) for timing closely spaced data bits in fiber optic cable, etc. etc. and is used somehow in seeing eye classified tech for delivering a bomb through someone’s bathroom window from 30 k feet or from a ship/sub.

        The reason I’m still in demand is few know the geology, mineralogy, processing and metallurgy for making pure end products. My name pops up so I get a lot of calls . I have a few patents even as recently 2017. So yeah I hope to stretch this out as long as good fortune is in my corner.

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  16. Willis

    Adapted from gliding

    When you’re out, have plenty of height and it is time to go home you can point the nose at home strip and go without having to check thermals.

    When you pass three score and ten you’re on a different final glide. So you better pause and investigate anything interesting on the way

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  17. When a man passes forty
    Though he flourishes as a leaf in bloom
    There is something about the sound of a crypt door closing
    That causes his face to change

    When your sons reach 5-6 they realise that death is an inevitable consequence of life and ask your advice. You have to listen out for it and have a good answer ready.

    I have noticed how all the comfortably remote un-pleasantries in life have a habit of catching up with me. So far they are never as bad as I imagined they would be. Why should dying be any different? I think Willis has the right idea, it isn’t the dying that is the problem, it is dying out of sequence.

    Exercise patently doesn’t help, Stephen Hawking just made 76. Perhaps you aren’t supposed to outlive your usefulness, now there’s a thought.

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    • “Exercise patently doesn’t help, Stephen Hawking just made 76. Perhaps you aren’t supposed to outlive your usefulness, now there’s a thought.”

      My rotund friend Dr Larry, a retired MD, believes in the “hummingbird theory of longevity” – you get so many heartbeats in your lifetime, so if you speed up your heart rate through exercise, you just shorten you life, and if you take it easy, you live longer.

      Not sure I agree with him, but then I do exercise, and I haven’t made it to 76 yet.

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  18. Willis: Approaching the age of 88, I guess I could be spending time thinking about the grim reaper. Other than making plans for financial distributions, I choose not to do so. The love of my life died 17 years ago. I lost a daughter shortly after. But, as our cardiologist told me, “Life must go on.” So I choose to live each day without dread for what will follow, and joyously greet the advent of spring. Flowers blooming, bushes leafing out…what a time to be alive!
    Jim Brock

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  19. What I’ve come to believe for me anyway is that life comes in phases. Hopefully the phases occur in the correct order like Willis described but sometimes the phases only some clear after the fact. You’re (wiring me) Willis but I found out this week that a woman that I worked for died of complications of cancer; she was 48 and 2 kids Not a phase I was anticipating.

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  20. I remember a shed load of “close calls” over my lifetime. They seem to be much more interesting than the warm meals that some others have to remember.

    Anyway, I have made a vow to myself not to attend my own funeral. If fate puts me there then the last thing I will have done is to have become a lair. Otherwise, I will be remembered as last seen: Warm, smiling and helpful, or the contrary, fire in my eyes and ready to rip someone’s ass apart. Most will remember me as the former. Some will never forget me as the latter.

    I hope to imitate Schrödinger’s cat upon departure!

    “I’d rather sail away like a swan that’s here and gone” (Simon & Garfunkel; El Condor Pasa 1970). I do not wish to give those close to me in my world the “world’s saddest sound”.

    The bell will eventually toll for all of us. Memories are the only thing we can take with us and I got a sack full. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in this life. Even the unhappy moments shaped me into a stronger and more determined soul. Worrying about the bell is like worrying about the climate. It is what it is!

    Willis, you got an even bigger sack full of memories to carry! So carry on and when the bell tolls I’m sure you will leave as many behind!

    PS: Just had to revisit The Warm and the Wild again. https://rosebyanyothernameblog.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/the-warm-and-the-wild/

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  21. My Mother told me after her last sibling died about a month ago, that it was a very strange feeling to be the oldest of 5 and yet the last one alive………best wishes to all………..This man reminds me of the Buddhist Monks that immolated themselves during the Vietnam War who were pointing to the truth…..I’m afraid that he and they were misunderstanding the nature of things……………

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  22. Bill: “This man reminds me of the Buddhist Monks that immolated themselves during the Vietnam War who were pointing to the truth…..I’m afraid that he and they were misunderstanding the nature of things……………”

    You lost me there. I had to Google “Buddhist Monks that immolated themselves during the Vietnam War”. The most famous one seems to be “Quảng Đức was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government led by Ngô Đình Diệm.” Most of them seem to be protesting the persecution of Buddhists. The Chinese takeover of Tibet is big in the list. What truth? Diem was evil? What nature of things?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_political_self-immolations

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  23. Willis: “In “Macbeth”, he says of his wife the Queen, “She should have died hereafter””

    Scholars say this doesn’t mean what you think it does.
    http://nfs.sparknotes.com/macbeth/page_202.html

    She would have died later anyway. That news was bound to come someday. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. The days creep slowly along until the end of time. And every day that’s already happened has taken fools that much closer to their deaths. Out, out, brief candle. Life is nothing more than an illusion. It’s like a poor actor who struts and worries for his hour on the stage and then is never heard from again. Life is a story told by an idiot, full of noise and emotional disturbance but devoid of meaning.

    It’s hard to have much sympathy for Lady Macbeth, she was so much involved in the foul murder of King Duncan.

    Too bad the quote wasn’t from Hamlet. Hamlet is a meditation on mortality, start to finish. Hamlet could have said something nice about Ophelia, but he was interrupted and didn’t get the chance.

    Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2. Claudius to Hamlet.
    http://nfs.sparknotes.com/hamlet/page_24.html

    ‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
    To give these mourning duties to your father.
    But you must know your father lost a father,
    That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
    In filial obligation for some term
    To do obsequious sorrow. But to persever
    In obstinate condolement is a course
    Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief.

    Or, in modern English. Your father died. His father died. His father died. It’s natural. Get over it!
    Which sounds a lot like the Chinese good-luck charm at first impression, without the all-important interpretation.

    Herodotus said something similar which doesn’t need interpretation:
    “In peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury sons.”
    https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Herodotus

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    • Interesting as always, YMMV. I find the following:

      She should have died hereafter;
      There would have been a time for such a word.

      This line has caused some debate. Four possible meanings are

      (1) she should have died after the battle when there would be time to mourn properly;

      (2) she should have waited for me, seeing that my death is so near;

      (3) she would have died at sometime, either now or later;

      (4) she should have died after the battle for now, with her gone, I know I shall not win.

      The first explanation seems most logical. For more please see the full analysis.

      w.

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      • Shakespeare is a “just the facts, ma’am” kind of guy. He might be trying to tell you something but he doesn’t tell you what he’s trying to tell you. Makes for better literature, and for discussion in high school classrooms.
        We can all have our own interpretation.

        What is Macbeth’s concern? For himself, for her, or indifference to everything? By this point he has killed so many and he is doomed, so I’d say he is beyond caring for anything or anybody. YMMV.

        But I think the point of the scholars I mentioned above was that the English language has changed since then, with much thanks to Shakespeare himself. In particular the meaning of should and would (shall and will). And there is still a difference in usage of those words between American English and British English that is confusing to me. I will leave this to the experts; the OED probably is the best place to look.

        “should” in Shakespeare’s time is said to have meant “inevitably would.” As in she would have died anyway. (It was a suicide.)
        http://www.dictionary.com/browse/should
        http://www.wordreference.com/definition/should

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  24. The English language got pegged shortly after Shakespeare and Elizabeth with the King James edition of the bible. Shakespeare got his name hidden away in Psalms. Why did Shakespeare never do Arthur? Have they figured that out yet? I haven’t been keeping up.

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  25. “In ancient China…” or in ancient anywhere, or anywhere not-so ancient, “death was a common, ever-present possibility. It didn’t matter whether you were five or fifty. […] Life and health would putter along nicely, not a problem in the world. Then illness would hit and the bottom would drop out like a trap door […]”

    That quote is from “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande, a surgeon. We all know this about the past — death in childbirth, infant mortality, childhood mortality, and if you survived that, a short lifespan. So the sage’s good luck charm was not for a normal sequences of deaths, but rather a charm for a very rare sequence of deaths at that time.

    “There’s no escaping the tragedy of life, which is that we are all aging from the day we are born. One may even come to understand and accept this fact. My dead and dying patients don’t haunt my dreams anymore. But that’s not the same as saying one knows how to cope with what cannot be mended. I am in a profession that has succeeded because of its ability to fix. If your problem is fixable, we know just what to do. But if it is not?” (ibid)

    “You don’t have to spend much time with the elderly or those with terminal illness to see how often medicine fails the people it is supposed to help. The waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver’s chance of benefit. They are spent in institutions — nursing homes and intensive care units — where regimented, anonymous routines cut us off from all the things that matter to us in life.” (ibid)

    Anybody who plans to get old should read this book now. Anybody who is already old or has a parent who is old should go buy a copy and read it with a highlighter in hand! It is possible to have a good life at old age, but it does not happen by default. Unless you know the issues in advance you could find yourself a trapped, miserable inmate in an uncaring institution, or your family or doctors will do things they think are in your best interest but which you will hate.

    There are many quotes from the book that would fit with this discussion, but it’s better if you read the book yourselves.

    http://atulgawande.com/book/being-mortal/

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  26. Hello Willis,

    Late to the party here, but I was astonished when I happened to check your blog–to see what I had missed– and found this meditation.

    I must say I like the Hobbit-like concept of “Middle Youth.” I think you mentioned this in another essay. I plan on adopting this for myself; although at 73, soon to be 74, I think you’ve got the date wrong for transitioning into “Late Youth.”

    I have recently discovered the ideas of Stoicism as a philosophy of life. I consider myself lucky to be reasonably well educated, but for some reason I had never been exposed to Stoic Philosophy until a few months ago, when I randomly picked up a copy of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci. I was hooked! I followed up with A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine (The best practical guide IMO), and Epictetus’s Enchiridion (“Handbook”).

    Most recently I have been reading the Letters on Ethics (Epistulae Morales ad Lucillius) written by the Roman Stoic Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, The Younger) to his protege, Lucillius. I’ve been trying to read one each day as a way of reminding me on how to live virtuously and flourish. The letters are remarkably accessible and applicable to current day life. They are not dry and boring at all; Seneca’s writing is filled with wisdom, and he has a wonderful sense of humor.

    All of which brings me full circle to the reason I am writing you, Willis. For today I serendipitously happened to be reading “Letter 30,” in which an impressed Seneca approvingly describes how his aged friend, Assidius Bassus, “is facing his impending death after a stroke. Bassus’s mind is sharp and he is philosophically able to look at his own death with equanimity. “Life is given to us with death as a precondition. Death is where we are headed, and for that reason one would be mad to fear it. It is uncertainty that frightens us. . ..Death is a requirement that is imposed equitably and unavoidably.”

    How do you put Stoicism to practice?

    Paraphrasing Irvine:

    The Stoics recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value–our wife has left us, our child has died, our beloved pet is no longer, we’ve lost our job, etc. The Stoics thought that doing so will make us value our wife, children, pets, job, etc more than we otherwise would.

    This technique is called “negative visualization.” Seneca described this in a letter he wrote to Marcia, a woman who three years after the death of her son was still as grief stricken as on the day she buried him. “She should remember that all we have is “on loan” from Fortune, which can reclaim it without our permission–indeed, without even advanced notice.”

    Epictetus counsels “when we kiss our child to remember that she is mortal and not something we own. That she has been given to us ‘for the present, not inseparably nor forever.’ In the very act of kissing the child we should silently reflect on the possibility that she will die tomorrow.”

    Consider two fathers. “The first takes Epitetus’s advice to heart and periodically reflects on his child’s mortality. The second refuses to entertain such gloomy thoughts. He instead assumes his child will outlive him and she will always be around for him to enjoy..The first father will almost certainly be more attentive and loving than the second. When he see his daughter first thing in the morning he will be glad she is still a part of his life, and during the day he will take full advantage of the opportunities to interact with her” The second might not even look up from his newspaper to acknowledge his daughter in the morning. During the day he may fail to take advantage of opportunities to interact in the belief that such interaction can be put off until tomorrow.

    I hope I haven’t been too long-winded, Willis; and that you find these comments of interest and Stoicism as fascinating as I do. If you are interested in Seneca’s Letters, I recommend the translation by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long available from Amazon. I can send you a PDF copy of Letter 30 if you contact me at my email (I didn’t want to violate any copyright issues by posting it here).

    I’ve very much enjoyed following you at WUWT over the years and, more recently, here.

    All the Best,

    Robert Gorkin

    Like

    • Speaking of stoicism, and meditations on aging, I recommend this book:
      “Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life” by Daniel Klein.

      Epicurus asked how to live the best possible life.
      “Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.”

      Like

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