O death, where is thy sting?
They are replacing fire and smoke detectors in my apartment building in order to meet council standards. Most apartments in my building have built-in balconies. Across mine I have had installed concertina-type doors to cut down heating bills in Sydney’s deepest winter. Thank God for global warming. And I was told that I had created a separate room which therefore required an additional detector.
Around about a year ago all windows were fitted with locks to ensure that they couldn’t open wide enough to let a child fall out. I asked the chap who is advising on the smoke detectors what should be done if a smoke alarm goes off accidently? Open the windows wide he said before the alarm activates alarms in all of the apartments. Must keep my key to the window locks handy I thought lest my monthly cheroot causes panic.
When visiting Southport, a seaside town in England, earlier this year I was told that I couldn’t drink my glass-bottled drink outside on the pier for fear that I would carelessly drop it and cause serious injury to lightly shod passers-by. There are lots of mandatory rules these days to keep us safe. Bicycle helmets and seat belts, for example, and still we die. What’s going on? We most definitely need more rules if we are ever to live forever.
I have been thinking about death recently and came to the conclusion, temporarily at least, that it is overrated. Marcus Aurelius (in Meditations) has a seemly sensible perspective on the whole grisly business:
Do not then consider life a thing of any value. For look to the immensity of time behind you and to the time that is ahead of you, another boundless space. In this infinity, then, what is the difference between him that lives for three days and him who lives three generations?
On the other hand, George Burns’ aphorism that no-one wants to live to be a hundred until they’re ninety-nine, has a ring of verisimilitude about it. Certainly, those running our national health service appear think along the lines of Burns rather than Aurelius. They give me my flu shot for free, and a stronger dose to boot, to try to keep me alive; even though I am not sure what value I add to the human family that makes me so precious.
I also get a free pneumonia shot. My doctor told me that pneumonia used to be called “the old man’s friend” because it often put sick old people out of their misery. These days they want to keep old folks alive; presumably, judging by many distressing accounts, so that they can torture them in aged-care homes.
I began thinking of life and death recently when rereading Richard Dawkin’s God Delusion. He’s an uncompromising character is Dawkins. He bangs on about how awful the Bible is with all those stories of slaughter. He examples Jericho and the Lord’s instruction to Joshua to kill all of the men, women and children within the city; save, that is, for one particular household.
There is a lot going on beneath the surface in this Biblical story which has to be understood. But leave that aside, for Dawkin’s surely does, believing it all to be mythical hocus-pocus, and focus just on the mass killing. It is a drop in the ocean.
Billions of people have died, a great many in the most awful circumstances, since human beings first trod the Earth. It is as certain as taxes that many more than seven billion (perhaps even ten or twelve billion? I don’t know, I’m not an actuary) will die during the course of the next one hundred years. That’s a disposal problem to conjure with, never mind plastic bags. Maybe the Lord thinks as did Aurelius. What’s a few thousand dying in Jericho set against the unfolding of His grand plan?
Do we put too much store on dragging out our lives? There are any number of set days when there are collections in the cause of finding cures for various morbidities. None of it does any good in the end result. We will all die anyway and within a comparatively short space of time.
Bear in mind that I am not pretending to be above it all. I pray each night that God will watch over my family and friends. And I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child. Except, maybe, for a few saints we are hardwired to cling to our own lives and to be enormously protective of the lives of those close to us.
Reportedly one of the popes on his deathbed (I can’t pinpoint which one) said that “life is sweet.” Presumably he thought he was destined for Heaven so you wouldn’t think he would be regretful about leaving this mortal coil. But there it is. If human nature doesn’t quite trump religious conviction in the godly, it sure gives it a good run for its money.
My final thought on this is as follows. We, human beings, have our own perspective on death. And we cannot escape from it. However, intellectually, if not emotionally, I think we can imagine that our perspective isn’t definitive.
In a sense we are cocooned. If you are Dawkins nothing lies outside. If you believe in God more lies outside than in. Take your pick. Death has a bigger sting if you believe as does Dawkins but it clearly retains a sting whatever you believe.