Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Visit to a Grave

It's been over twenty-seven years since my sister died, in an automobile accident rather similar to the one that laid me up for a month a few years ago.  A sudden snow and a slippery road; that's all that it takes.  I survived.  She did not.  I grow old.  She does not.  What they say on what is called Remembrance Day in other parts of the world is, of course, true.  Those who died young will not grow old, as others do.  We comfort ourselves by noting the obvious, it seems.  She was just married, and had her whole life ahead of her--another notation of the obvious, but for the fact that she actually did not have a long life to live.

I remember being stuck by the fact that it was unjust.  Perhaps I still had some expectation of justice in those days.  I have few expectations now, none of which depend on the workings of fate.  It's a point on which I differ from the ancient Stoics.  They believed in Providence, and that all that happens is ultimately for the good.  I know that what happens, happens, for good or ill, and am not sure it matters what we think has happened, except to the extent that this (our thought, our perception) impacts us and others.

I'm not sure why I visited her grave, beyond the fact that it had been some time and I thought I should.  I remembered, and was saddened once again.  I wished she had lived, had children, seen mine.  I remembered being a child, with her, and becoming an adult, as she did  And I felt as the poet perhaps should have wrote, and perhaps meant, intimations of my own mortality.

As far as we can tell from what he wrote for himself, Marcus Aurelius thought death would bring either complete dissolution--nothingness--or dissolution into the Divine Spirit or Reason that permeates the universe, which would not be nothingness, though I'm not sure what it would be.  What happens after death fascinates us, and it's natural that it does so.  But as death comes, or will come until we figure a way around it, it's foolish and futile to despair over the fact that it does come.

Epicurus and his followers felt that we will no more exist after death than we existed prior to life.  And, they at least professed to find this thought liberating.  They maintained that the fear of death was banished through this realization.  But, being fearful creatures, we fear it nonetheless, as we fear not existing.  Of course we often dislike living as well.  We are hard to satisfy.  We're very demanding, we humans.

The Stoics were wise, practical thinkers.  Do the best with what you have, and take the rest as it happens, says Epictetus.  That we will die is something beyond our control, as is how and when we will die, except in extraordinary circumstances.  What, if anything, happens after we die (to us, in any case) is similarly beyond our control.  Whether we despair or not is in our control.  How we live and think and feel is in our control.

The same applies regarding the death of those we love.  There is no harm in remembering, just as there is no harm in recognizing and accepting our ultimate fate, provided we don't despair, and provided we continue to do the best we can with what we have.

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