An exchange of letters between Ian Brown and Jean Vanier was published in the Globe and Mail of Feb. 21, 2009, under the headline, “Am I fearful of death? No, I cannot say I am’.
Ian Brown writes about his father, age 95, who lives an active life – still going to the office! – but is increasingly limited in his powers. “What I have noticed is not his aging…so much as his dislike of aging. … His physical performance shames him.”
Brown then turns to his own prospects.
Looking at it from the age of 55…getting older looks like a discouraging journey into loneliness. … I can’t imagine getting older, therefore weaker and lonelier, without resenting it. The slightest health scare makes me anxious and the anxiety makes me cranky and the crankiness makes me feel bitter, even mistreated. … Last night, a still-lively 80-year-old gave me his formula for enthusiastically living in the world as you get older: “Active engagement with the future,” he said. “That’s the secret.”
Which sounds right…. But if you physically don’t have much future left, what motivates you to engage actively in it?
Brown’s line of thought is steeped in personal ‘identification’ with his living organism. The prospect of decrepitude and eventual death causes psychological suffering.
Brown does not feel that he has much choice in this matter. But if I am right, he has at least a plausible alternative. There is no need for Brown to care so much about the prospects of one human animal just because that animal is himself. He can invest his emotional affect in more likely prospects. He could take the advice of the “still-lively 80-year-old”, to actively engage with the future. Not just with the future of his organism, on which time is truly running out. With the future.
Brown asks what should motivate him to engage actively, “if you physically don’t have much future left”? All that’s required is to care what happens in the future.
Vanier’s reply to Brown is considerably more cheerful. Vanier reports that he doesn’t worry much about the future, because, “I try to live in the present moment…..Live today well. Each season has its beauty.”
He says he is not fearful of death, and describes an experience in which he came close to death, without suffering. “Many people die as if they were falling asleep.”
But fear of death is not primarily fear of suffering. We have reasons to live, and a desire to live, that are independent of our fears that death will be an unpleasant experience.
Vanier, like Brown, expresses a fear of loneliness. But the prevailing mood is optimism. “I imagine that all will be well when the time comes.”
Vanier describes his expectations of the experience of death. He believes in an afterlife, “this other world of light, of peace, of extreme tenderness of life after death.”
He writes of his love of the world. “Creation is so beautiful – the sun, the moon, the winds, men and women, all are so beautiful when they are looked at with trust and tenderness.”
He has clear expectations of an experience of dying. “There will be a wonderful moment of peace … Then there will be a moment of pain. We shall see so clearly how and when during our time on Earth we have hurt and wounded life, our own life and the lives of others.” An expectation of insight, of knowledge.
Why would someone expect that? He goes on “very quickly (on the other side, time is not the same – no minutes, hours, days, years and so on – all is one and in one; how to explain this new time, I don’t know), yes, very quickly, there will be a feeling of being loved as we are with all our brokenness and dirt and mess. Then we shall weep for joy – no tears, no eyes, but we shall weep…”
What can we make of this? It is a vision of a radically altered form of being, so altered that it is hard to understand as a form of being at all. A state of being without time, as we know it. Without bodies, even ghostly ones – no tears or eyes. And love. He says, “we shall weep for joy for we are loved as we are…”
We love our children, and we are emotionally affected by their lives and their prospects. Our involvement with our children is much like our involvement with ourselves. I think most parents would agree that we do not love our children because they are good (although we may fervently wish that they be good); we love them for better or worse. Vanier describes such a love coming back to him – to ‘us’ – in death. What is this really about?
He goes on:
And then one day (though there are no days, no years in that new world), the veil is torn, our deepest desire is fulfilled and we are One. Suddenly we discover who we are in God; Life flowing in us and through us, giving and receiving life like a beautiful kiss. All is in us and I am in all
Vanier is describing an experience of unity – of identity with all. This is a sense of ‘identity’ that is inseparable from emotional affect. As the Beatles put it, “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”
Vanier’s language is steeped in religious concepts, but what he describes is mostly the joy of love, which is well known even to atheists, although both atheists and believers frequently lose sight of it. It is a fact that we are able to love. We can care about others, and about the world. Caring makes us vulnerable to the pain of disappointment when things turn out badly, as they sometimes do. Yet without this ability to care for things outside our skins, very little would turn out right.
Why is death associated with an experience of universal love? Is it because we feel we can’t afford universal, unconditional love while we are living? Because it’s not practical to invite the city’s homeless into our homes – because it wouldn’t work out? Because if we attempted personally to raise the living standards of the poorest among us, without discrimination, we would only impoverish ourselves and our families? Death lets us off the hook; we know we no longer have to be prudent, and so, we really can love.
Or not. Because by then we’re dead. We can’t put off loving until the moment of death.