The Inevitable Impossibility


by E. John Winner



Born to die

Some German theorist came up with the idea that primitive peoples approach death as always a mysterious, even incomprehensible, visitation to the tribal community, requiring avoidance and always met with fear.  He must have been thinking of the faculty at his university.

Actually, the archaeological and anthropological records are quite clear.  Primitive peoples know what death is, prepare for it, and deal with it with ritualized burial routines.  It is simply another event in a universe filled with events, and eventually, as the individual well knows, every individual of the community will die.  It is the community’s survival that gives meaning to the individual’s life; performance of one’s duties for the good of the community prepares a person for a death worthy of the community.

In our culture, however, some are so convinced that death will never touch them that one suspects the fear of death is the primary motivation behind their choice of what is essentially a  hedonistic lifestyle.  One quickly discovers  their fierce opposition to any mention of the possibility of anyone’s demise: “I don’t want to think about that!”  “It’s morbid!” One wonders why we don’t simply outlaw any mention of death, and to some extent we do: it’s why so many Hollywood movies have happy endings, even when the logic of the narrative points inexorably towards the hero’s death.  People don’t die, they “pass away,” “go to a better place,” and “are no longer with us.”  At the very worst they “breathe their last breath.”

Of course in such narratives, one’s enemies are allowed to perish in the most gruesome ways imaginable: shot,  hung, stabbed, beaten to a pulp, strangled,  immolated, crucified, blown to smithereens, beheaded, disemboweled, impaled, drawn-and-quartered , whacked, gassed, nuked, wiped from the face of the earth, and killed, killed, killed.   Grammatically, such narratives cannot speak of an enemy without asserting he or she as (at least in potential) the direct object of the verb ‘kill’.  It is here that we see the denial of the selfhood of other human beings most graphically displayed; when thinking along these lines, one cannot imagine oneself dying, but it is easy to imagine the death of the enemy who is perceived as merely and only a thing to be destroyed.

This trenchant opposition to the possibility of one’s own death structures the worldview of many, like the operating system of a computer always running in the background, regardless of what other programs are in use.  It determines how we meet every moment of our existence, how we raise children, and how we prepare to leave the world to those children, once they are grown.  The terrible truth, of course, is that we never really prepare the world for  the next generation, since we deny the possibility of our own death.  We tacitly assume that we will outlive their children who, after all, are only brought into the world as a source of entertainment.  No wonder we so cheerfully send their children off to war: even the death of the child is but the performance of a theatrical tragedy that we learn to live with; even, perhaps, secretly enjoy, as the catharsis of our own fear of death.

Such people live each moment not as if it were the last (although they frequently assert as much), but as if there would never be a last moment; as if this were the only one that ever existed and the only one that ever could exist and as if it could not end. This is the “eternal now” that we often hear described as the time for our greatest enjoyment in life, something frequently claimed as being derived from “Oriental” philosophies such as Buddhism.  But, a Buddhist doesn’t deny the passage of time or its culmination in death. Rather, he learns to live with it.  The “eternal now” is the wet dream of one who is in love not with life, but with the fear of death.  A reflective, reasoning person learns to live life on its own terms; the hedonic recidivist refuses to learn to live.  One can imagine someone replying, “We don’t need to learn how to live, we just do it,”  but this can only be true of animals, incapable of rational self-awareness.  Human beings must always must learn how to live. Our infancy is too prolonged, our self-sufficiency outside the womb too inadequate, to assure our survival.  If we become individuals, it is thanks to the community that raises us and to which we consequently are thus obligated. We are not and cannot be, by nature, individualists, except within a social domain.  The supposedly “free,” isolated individual is doomed to an early death.

The claim to self-centeredness is thus denial of one’s own childhood and of the process of maturation.  Maturation is a temporal process, and its inevitable stopping point is death.  No wonder some deny it.  Their existence would be perceived as wholly atemporal, if it weren’t for the inevitable frustrations and crises of survival.  Life thus reduces to a meaningless sequence of immeasurable enjoyments, randomly sectioned by annoying events of purposeless frustration and disappointment.  Too many believe that such a life – with as few frustrating events as possible – constitutes “happiness.”  Yet, paradoxically, this is not really living, it is the mere passage of time.  Every period of unbothered enjoyment is but an intermission between crises.  Those not attending to their own history may not remember a spouse dying or even deny that spouses ever die (one psychological benefit of belief in an afterlife).  But they can no longer cherish the remembered pleasures of the espousal.  These pleasures were expected as their due and consequently were as meaningless as the pleasures of defecation (which comparison I think a Warhol acolyte once actually asserted).   Although they yearn for atemporality, the inevitable crises of life assure that their existence is the mere counting of empty time.  And yet, despite this, the final moment of the last count remains denied.  But for some, better the meaningless count of “eternal nows,” than the complex, and tentative, living of time as the making of meaning, which we always find among those who acknowledge and accept their own mortality.

To finde Deeth, turne up this croked wey. (Chaucer)

Death is a certainty.  To this we all agree.  But what do we mean by that?

Death happens to all living entities, but what is our thinking in this?  How do we see it?  We stick a needle in the back of an ant.  It struggles in vain to escape or, somehow, to counterattack.  Its legs and mandibles writhe erratically.  Something in us is moved to pity.  For now, it would seem that the ant has an imminent awareness of its own demise. Perhaps it also feels something we would recognize as pain, were we able to communicate with it properly.  If a one-cell creature responds in like manner to a threat, we cannot tell by way of microscopes. Neither could we see a tree shudder in pain as the ax-blade carves into it, if in fact it does.  So, we can think of the ant as having imminent awareness of its own life only because it responds to a threat in a manner similar to the way we know we would, were we to be impaled.  And that, of course, is why we feel something akin to pity when we watch the ant die, pierced by our needle.

Yet this still remains only an assumption on our parts.  We don’t really know what the ant feels.  We don’t have the slightest idea of its experience of this threat and inevitable demise.  After all, we do know that the ant cannot know that its demise is inevitable.  We can ascribe pain to it, and we can characterize its behavior as responding to a threat, but this threat could only be “perceived” – if one could even call it that – in the most vague and general way. In order to “recognize” a threat as potentially fatal, an intelligence has to be able to make a reflexive connection between three significations:  ‘living’; ‘intervening threat’; and ‘not living’. Even if the ant could connect the first two significations, it could never make any connection with the third.  What could “not living” possibly “mean” to an ant?  And how would this happen?

It is not enough to say here that “not living” is the signification of an abstract idea.  In fact, it is no idea at all, but rather, a negation.  Within its temporal and spatial domain, living does not happen; there is no possible intelligence there capable of having any ideas, and there are no knowable entities to have any ideas about.  While its own occurrence is possible (indeed, inevitable), once it occurs, possibility comes to an end.  Its potential is not realized; it cancels out all potential.  To die is to enter the realm of the impossible.

We have a very difficult time thinking about this, our inescapable future as suddenly becoming impossible. What could it possibly mean?  “A hundred years from now, whatever else happens, I will be impossible by then,” a sentence the grammar of which appears silly, even absurd. Yet, it happens to be as true a sentence as any making claim on a future reality, for any person speaking it.  The individual human being dies and thus becomes impossible.  No wonder so many believe in an afterlife!  If my future is impossible, what status has my past? how could I ever have been born?

Accidents happen, of course.  It always strikes me as comical, the enormous amount of ideological babble spewed across eons and continents, from innumerable people,  asserting that human life and intelligence could not occur by accident.  Why not?   Those saying such things seem to think that the assertion itself answers the question, but that’s not even begging the question – it’s simply ignoring it.

Our deaths are a function of our animal nature and consequently, they must be of a kind with the deaths of other animals. We can narrow this classification a little, by remembering that we are a certain species of primate, all of whom are mammals.   Thus, like it or not, we will die as all primates die.   Our blood pressure rate soars or drops; our heart beats rapidly as though escaping the confines of our chest (or it ceases all together);  or breathing becomes an irregular, choking gasp; sometimes our mouths fill with blood; sometimes their mucous membranes dry out and crack.  We know that it will become difficult to focus our vision at the last, because the dying person’s gaze becomes fixed and non-responsive to light.   We will either feel so much pain that life becomes intolerable, or we will feel nothing at all. And then, “the rest is silence.”

I do not for a moment accept the veracity of those reports of so-called “near-death experiences,” concerning those who have  “died” – in a medically technical sense – and yet have survived to talk about it, usually claiming to see some light at the end of a tunnel, or hearing some voice of a long-dead loved one, etc.  The problem with these reports is actually grammatical: there is no such thing as a “near-death experience,” there is life and then there is death, the undiscovered country, from which no traveler returns.  No mortal entity, once dead, can ever live again, and thus, whatever can be reported by the living to the living must have been lived; must have occurred as an experience of life.  The “near-death experience” is thus revealed as the experience of one particular mode or moment of living.   “Oh, but that is just semantics!” (I.e., it is just a grammatical remark.)   But grammar determines the knowable.  If it cannot be said, it cannot be known, in any communicable manner.  “Near-death” is a term of art for referring to some moment which is obviously and undeniably not-death.  “Well, but I am trying to communicate the incommunicable.”  Trying to square a circle will meet with as much success.

Are there any experiences beyond the range of the communicable, beyond the range of language?   Actually, no.  Every human experience can be communicated to another human, by reference to analogues embedded in shared experience.  We should remember that this is one of the important missions for the poet and the storyteller; that they help to generate the language with which we communicate our experiences to others, even and perhaps especially, when the experience has never been communicated before.

(Well, but is there anything at all we can know about that is beyond the range of the communicable?  Yes, indeed; too much, perhaps.  Unfortunately, there’s no way to refer to any of it except to say:  “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”  Or something like.  So, whatever could be “known” of whatever follows death itself, must remain moot to us, and we mute to it.)

Every human death is the same.   Male or female, old or young, decrepit or fit, by way of accident or intent or mere process of aging. Death comes to each and every one of us. Many people find this intolerable. How many monarchs have forced their subjects to build for them magnificent mausoleums, like the pyramids of ancient Egypt; enduring evidence of human hubris and stupidity?  Open any of these and discover the same decayed remains one finds in the grave of a peasant.  “But we are not to be identified with our bodies,” so begins the argument that the living experience of each individual being, so the experience of death must be different for each of us. But this simply evades the real issue: it is not the final moment of individual, living consciousness that defines the “experience of death,” it is the first moment afterward, which, I’ve already noted, no one can experience and then report to the living.

In Being and Time (1927), Martin Heidegger attempted to make a distinction between “authentic death,” i.e., death as experienced by an individual of courage and intellect, perhaps the very culmination of life, the event granting it real meaning, and “inauthentic death,” just the run-of-the-mill, household variety of death happening while no one pays attention to it.   Reading back through Heidegger to the ancient Greeks, we understand that an “authentic death” would be that confronted by a civilized person, while an “inauthentic death” would represent the curse of cowardice.  But while I respect Heidegger’s evidently civilized desire for a civilized confrontation with one’s own mortality, I must reject the distinction as attempted poesis of myth.  Death’s arrival is inevitable, but always surprising.  Preparing for it, as the culmination of one’s individual living, is simply impossible.  The most we can do is try to effect what others might say of us after our demise.  But that preparation (which is really the preparation Heidegger is discussing, although he is unaware of it) can never be finished, because death itself always cuts it short.  That can only mean that such preparation is irrelevant to death.  And, indeed, such is the case; what could it possibly matter to one what others say of one, after one has become impossible?  And although Heidegger doesn’t want the “authentic” individual to confront death as does the otherwise nameless “one” of generic subjectivity, I’m afraid this is unavoidable.  Any individual human dies in just the same manner as dies any “one” (the “Man” or “They” of Heidegger’s text).

Whatever it is (which we living can never know), death is the same for all human beings.   Someone who has attained any awareness of this accepts it and devotes his or her life to doing what can be done for others, and finding personal satisfactions in community with them.  There’s no real point in doing anything on one’s own just for oneself, which is doomed in the first instance.  Even an effort to contribute to a future – which is always closed off to the individual – must be undertaken as an effort to contribute to the future presence of others.

The end comes at last

We close the door on death (temporarily), but perhaps open the door to a new way of looking at life.  I suppose one could get all evolutionary here and remark upon the necessity of continuing the species, but this is a weak argument for those who care little whether their species continues or not. But simply living with others generates obligations, which can be taught, enforced by social behaviors (or by law when necessary), and which demand of us contributions to the good of others. We owe it to them.  We were nurtured by their forbearers, and we nurture them in turn.

The denial of death that leads to the pursuit of momentary pleasures, especially those that cause others harm (as well as oneself, eventually), neither generates an “eternal now,” nor sustains itself within it. This “now” repeats itself incessantly, becoming a predictable, and rather boring, pattern of seeking pleasure, enjoying it, loss, dissatisfaction, forgetting, seeking all over again.

To accept our own mortality is neither morbid nor despairing.  It means that we have a moment to recognize that what we each do in life will always have consequences, but it also means that the future, in which such consequences are realized, is not ours individually.  It belongs to our progeny and our community.  Those who have children owe it to them, having burdened them with the possibilities, risks, and responsibilities of life, to provide for their future and not simply their passing fancies.  And those without children share precisely this same debt to the children of others.  We enjoy the community’s benefits, and we share its responsibilities.   There can be no greater responsibility to the community, than to work for the continuance of that community.

The end of life is death, which means that while we know where we are going, we won’t know anything once we’ve gotten there.  The great challenge, then, is to forge our learning into a purpose for the journey.  Our lives cannot but be shared, and it would seem the broadest and deepest purpose that we can build for ourselves involves always reaching out to others, not to get something from them, but to contribute to their own efforts to create purpose.  We do not learn for ourselves, but for others; what we know is always contribution to the shared experience of community.  The search for meaning finds its goal within itself, as the continuing search for the meaning we share with others.


  1. Could you explain by one can’t do anything for oneself lone? Do you mean an individual human cannot survive by themselves? Or does this apply to the smallest details/habits each individual has for personal pleasure?

    • avaphotos,
      We begin with the child; the child cannot survive alone; then why do we demand individuals be solely responsible for their ethics and behaviors, when empirically this cannot be the case? I see the individual as the result of socialization and education – almost all ‘nurture,’ very little ‘nature.’ The development of my thinking on this derives from the Pragmatists, esp. James, Mead, Dewey, but I’ve recently read a strong reading of this from the Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsurō.

      The myth of the ‘free,’ intellectually isolated, Unique Individual has a long history in the West (e.g., it’s implicated in the Socratic dialogues); the current form developed in the 18th Century, in the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the emotionalism (not emotivism, a meta-ethic) of the Romantics. It assumes that ethics must be derived by the Unique Individual reasoning properly or feeling strongly. Neither of these can be correct, because the only accounting for education becomes a rather mundane disciplinarianism or a wild sewing-of-oats rites of passage, and neither makes sense when we consider the developing child as a developing sophisticated social animal.(And yes, even the dullest, most mundane child is quite a sophisticated animal.) Even the emotivist view, deriving from the Humean- Darwinian belief that ethics begins in sympathy, fails to explain how the needy infant somehow develops sympathy for elders and peers.

      Ethical education begins at the mother’s breast, and it is socialization all the way to the end.

  2. Consciousness and proximity to death are topics where both philosophy and religion will fail you in the real world. It was to be something of an object of pride for me that I had studied metaphysics in college and that I had taken such things seriously. And then my father had an aneurysm rupture in his aorta, a situation where only 10% survive the trip to the hospital, another 10% survive the surgery, and another 10% survive the recovery. He did survive the entire mess, but only after spending about a month in a coma. And every day after 72 hours, the hospital staff spent telling us that he was a “vegetable” and trying to convince us to take him off of life support so they could make the bed in the ICU available for someone with better statistical chances for survival. Almost four weeks later, after much bickering between our family and hospital staff and threats of lawyers on both sides, my father “miraculously” “woke up,” and emerged from the experience having heard and understood most of our conversations and following the news stories that played in an endless loop on the television in his hospital room. This is after weeks of doctors showing us brain scans with “no activity” and citing statistics that his existence as a bona fide human being was over. My legacy from that experience was how profound the denial of death is in our society now, and honestly, I feel like the issue of community works in the reverse of what you describe here. We do not deny death as individuals and forget the implications of that for our community. We deny death as a community and forget the implications that has for individuals. Nihilists take an interest in art for the pleasurable unconsciousness that it brings. And sadly, that sort of behavior really does scale and it is incredibly destructive.

    • saucysandpiper,
      “My legacy from that experience was how profound the denial of death is in our society now, and honestly, I feel like the issue of community works in the reverse of what you describe here. We do not deny death as individuals and forget the implications of that for our community. We deny death as a community and forget the implications that has for individuals.”

      I think you’re right about how things have shaken out in the West, and so much of my essay includes criticism of how this happens. However, I don’t think this is the way it has to be, and so I try to see matters in a different light.

    • I should also remark, given your own story, that the genesis of this essay was in meditation over having to pull the plugs on my sister, who was already quite and truly brain dead. In my situation, what annoyed me was that the medical staff refused to tell me this up front, I had to push for the information. Keeping that body alive was unfair to the memory of my sister, as well as to my mother and myself.

      • I am terribly sorry for your loss and for the way you were forced to come to terms with it. That’s absolutely horrible and cruel. We grow up using neurologists and neurosurgeons as examples of highly intelligent people (“it’s not brain surgery”), but the reality is the scientific community knows very little about consciousness and recovering from brain injury. And worse, they don’t want to tell you that they know so little, which can make them do some highly unethical stuff. As a family member, all anyone wants is an answer to the question “is she still in there?” But they have no means to measure the quality of brain activity or to gauge the possibility of the brain to recover at microscopic levels, form new connections, and shut off behavior that the brain uses to protect itself and its functionality. Unless the brain injury is so severe that an area of the brain has been structurally devastated, they are essentially guessing. But no one wants to pay them the big bucks for guessing, so they talk about emerging from consciousness as a statistical matter with arbitrary thresholds or they don’t talk about what they know and do not know at all. They are also trained not to trust or accept input from family members on whether a patient is capable or showing signs of recovering.

  3. Sure there is still the basic dread of death, but for people of my birth cohort and their parents, a big chunk is still the fear of senility and its slow loss of identity, decrepitude, pain and suffering. And this a a practical problem. The discussion I hear repeatedly is regarding medically assisted euthanasia (like those proud pagans of old), not the possibility of immortality of the soul. This has finally been introduced in the Australian state of Victoria, against much opposition (the Northern Territory had their legislation quashed by the Federal government back in 1997). Curiously, many dying people don’t take advantage of such facilities, but find it comforting to know it is available – the possibility of autonomy is sufficient. Is the extra decade of life we currently experience over that of our grandparents worthless sub specie aeternitatis? Well, it is worth ~$100000 per diability adjusted year at the moment 😉

    As to SSP’s story, I am so glad that things worked out for the best. The poor old intensivists can only prognosticate imperfectly, but they definitely know there are another 2-3 people waiting for any ICU bed who may well do better, again based on imperfect markers like relative youth. I don’t see this as death-denying except in the other meaning of denying,

    • davidlduffy ,
      I think if we had a greater understanding of death and of our own mortality – and a greater understanding and respect ofr the aging – we could probably deal with the issues you raise in a healthier manner

  4. Thought-provoking, but I doubt or resist some of this.

    “There can be no greater responsibility to the community, than to work for the continuance of that community.”

    What if the community we find ourselves in has abandoned the values that the community which formed us instilled in us and which we judge to be good? (I realize that we always have *some* responsibilities to the actual community we find ourselves in.)

    “The end of life is death…” The phrasing here suggests more than (the more straightforward) assertion that we all die, that life doesn’t last for ever.

    “… which means that while we know where we are going, we won’t know anything once we’ve gotten there.”

    You are speaking metaphorically, but I resist the metaphor. There is no “there”. Life will end. Okay. But why the focus on death as some *thing* (death-as-destination?).

    “The great challenge, then, is to forge our learning into a purpose for the journey.”

    I don’t know what this means. The purpose is just to live well, get by, survive, or whatever expression you prefer. The purpose is (or purposes are) given, it seems to me. We don’t need philosophy or whatever to forge it/them.

    “Our lives cannot but be shared…”


    “… and it would seem the broadest and deepest purpose that we can build for ourselves involves always reaching out to others, not to get something from them, but to contribute to their own efforts to create purpose.”

    Again, I tend to see purpose as a given (or set of givens) rather than something that requires effort to create.

    “We do not learn for ourselves, but for others; what we know is always contribution to the shared experience of community.”

    Again, you seem to be asserting more than that we are social beings. What you are saying sounds almost conventionally Christian (self-denial?).

    “The search for meaning finds its goal within itself, as the continuing search for the meaning we share with others.”

    Search for meaning? I think I would see things more in terms of meaningful interactions.

    • I think you’re missing the point. The essay is not presenting an argument. It doesn’t make any difference whether you agree with it. It’s a kind of meditation. And I think quite a profound one. It is a window into EJ’s sensibility, not a persuasive essay.

    • Mark,
      I am treating death, or any possible aftermath, as a destination, because that’s how it has been treated in many different cultures since humans could first give it mythic conceptualization. I am to say, part, something like what David Byrne expresses when he sings “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”

      “I tend to see purpose as a given (or set of givens) rather than something that requires effort to create.” Not only does this not fit with what I learned from either Pragmatism or Buddhism, it doesn’t jive with my personal experience. To be honest, no one who has suffered profound, long-term or chronic depression could fully agree to this. Nor those who have suffered under severely difficult living conditions. For some of us, then, what makes life meaningful at all is the making of meaning; what gives it value is the making of value. (I refer you, for instance to Victor Frankl’s The Meaning of Life. – How precisely does one “live well” in a concentration camp? Yet the effort goes one.)

      ““The great challenge, then, is to forge our learning into a purpose for the journey.” I don’t know what this means.”

      I do not speak for or to all human experience. Yet the conjuncture of my experience and reflection leads me to believe that education is the greatest obligation our social nature suggests for us. I can experience all life has to offer; I can read all the books in print; I can engage great experiments in every science. But what have I accomplished if this learning isn’t shared?

      • To be fair,of course those of certain religious faiths have suffered depression and extreme hardship and come out the other side, thanks in part to their faith. But I don’t share such faith, and do not find their experiences sufficiently compelling to adopt such faith. Besides in a secular society the non-religious surely have a right, or privilege if you will, to consider such issues without reference to such faith.

  5. The Last Meeting – Siegfried Sassoon

    Because the night was falling warm and still
    Upon a golden day at April’s end,
    I thought; I will go up the hill once more
    To find the face of him that I have lost,
    And speak with him before his ghost has flown
    Far from the earth that might not keep him long.

    So down the road I went, pausing to see
    How slow the dusk drew on, and how the folk
    Loitered about their doorways, well-content
    With the fine weather and the waxing year.
    The miller’s house, that glimmered with grey walls,
    Turned me aside; and for a while I leaned
    Along the tottering rail beside the bridge
    To watch the dripping mill-wheel green with damp.
    The miller peered at me with shadowed eyes
    And pallid face: I could not hear his voice
    For sound of the weir’s plunging. He was old.
    His days went round with the unhurrying wheel.

    Moving along the street, each side I saw
    The humble, kindly folk in lamp-lit rooms;
    Children at table; simple, homely wives;
    Strong, grizzled men; and soldiers back from war,
    Scaring the gaping elders with loud talk.

    Soon all the jumbled roofs were down the hill,
    And I was turning up the grassy lane
    That goes to the big, empty house that stands
    Above the town, half-hid by towering trees.
    I looked below and saw the glinting lights:
    I heard the treble cries of bustling life,
    And mirth, and scolding; and the grind of wheels.
    An engine whistled, piercing-shrill, and called
    High echoes from the sombre slopes afar;
    Then a long line of trucks began to move.

    It was quite still; the columned chestnuts stood
    Dark in their noble canopies of leaves.
    I thought: ‘A little longer I’ll delay,
    And then he’ll be more glad to hear my feet,
    And with low laughter ask me why I’m late.
    The place will be too dim to show his eyes,
    But he will loom above me like a tree,
    With lifted arms and body tall and strong.’

    There stood the empty house; a ghostly hulk
    Becalmed and huge, massed in the mantling dark,
    As builders left it when quick-shattering war
    Leapt upon France and called her men to fight.
    Lightly along the terraces I trod,
    Crunching the rubble till I found the door
    That gaped in twilight, framing inward gloom.
    An owl flew out from under the high eaves
    To vanish secretly among the firs,
    Where lofty boughs netted the gleam of stars.
    I stumbled in; the dusty floors were strewn
    With cumbering piles of planks and props and beams;
    Tall windows gapped the walls; the place was free
    To every searching gust and jousting gale;
    But now they slept; I was afraid to speak,
    And heavily the shadows crowded in.

    I called him, once; then listened: nothing moved:
    Only my thumping heart beat out the time.
    Whispering his name, I groped from room to room.

    Quite empty was that house; it could not hold
    His human ghost, remembered in the love
    That strove in vain to be companioned still.


    Blindly I sought the woods that I had known
    So beautiful with morning when I came
    Amazed with spring that wove the hazel twigs
    With misty raiment of awakening green.
    I found a holy dimness, and the peace
    Of sanctuary, austerely built of trees,
    And wonder stooping from the tranquil sky.

    Ah! but there was no need to call his name.
    He was beside me now, as swift as light.
    I knew him crushed to earth in scentless flowers,
    And lifted in the rapture of dark pines.
    ‘For now,’ he said, ‘my spirit has more eyes
    Than heaven has stars; and they are lit by love.
    My body is the magic of the world,
    And dawn and sunset flame with my spilt blood.
    My breath is the great wind, and I am filled
    With molten power and surge of the bright waves
    That chant my doom along the ocean’s edge.

    ‘Look in the faces of the flowers and find
    The innocence that shrives me; stoop to the stream
    That you may share the wisdom of my peace.
    For talking water travels undismayed.
    The luminous willows lean to it with tales
    Of the young earth; and swallows dip their wings
    Where showering hawthorn strews the lanes of light.

  6. born in ’57
    now fewer days ahead
    I wonder
    how being gone will be —
    no doubt like ’56

    -Skylark 6:1, Summer 2018

  7. EJ,
    I enjoyed your essay as a meditative account of how you came to terms with issues in your life. I share Mark’s concerns but accept that this is your account which is true for you.

    I do not for a moment accept the veracity of those reports of so-called “near-death experiences,” concerning those who have “died”

    That is how you ‘feel‘, but I have, in a very painful sense, been there.

    Kenneth Grahame(Wind in the Willows), with his marvellous imagery, conveys something of the sense of it.

    Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side, cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

    Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper;

    “Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”

    “Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!”

    Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

    Sudden and magnificent, the sun’s broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.

    CS Lewis, in his discussion of the Numinous, quotes this passage. He uses the sense of the numinous as a supporting argument for the existence of God.

    This strange, intangible sense of the numinous has always present in humanity but not all are sensitive to it. When you do become sensitive to it, this is like a light coming on in your life. It becomes undeniable, though incomprehensible and incommunicable.

    • Peter,
      Given the profound differences between our views on the issues surfaced here, it would be best not to have direct disagreement or debate.

      However, I did want to make a clarification concerning meditative writing. It is not all of a piece, but loosely includes several genres.

      The kind of emotionally responsive meditation of which you write finds its proper expression in the poetical: ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.’ – Wordsworth. And indeed I did write one such meditation on my sister’s death. But this is not that.

      The philosophical meditation is of a different breed. it is an inquiry into implications and connotations. It suggests, rather than reaches, conclusions. It deploys informal reasoning trying to find its way to its ideas, for it must surface implicit premises that the purely rhetorical may assume, and that more formal reasoning must state explicitly.

      I cannot hope to share the talent or insight of essayists of the stature of Montaigne, Pascal, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche (at their best), but I like to think I am writing the present essay in a similar vein (traceable back to at least Marcus Aurelius).

      I love the Wind in the Willows; but confess I have no use for the numinous, seeing no sign of it myself.

  8. EJ,
    but confess I have no use for the numinous, seeing no sign of it myself.

    Yes, it is true that many do not perceive or experience the numinous. But we must be careful not to confuse the absence of experience with none existence. After all the colour blind can hardly deny the existence of colour.

    It(the numinous) is a first person experience that cannot be understood or evaluated other than through examining first person reports, if one has not had that experience oneself. It cannot be subjected to independent verification. But the impossibility of verification does not prove none existence.Those of a cynical nature naturally tend to discount such reports, and given my own history, I am not surprised, indeed I am quite sympathetic. But denialism can impoverish one, as I have discovered.

    I have been a hard, practical engineering person all my life. First as metallurgical engineer, quality engineer, automotive engineer, software engineer and then manager. It was a tough, practical, results oriented life where your first mistake was your last. I believed wholeheartedly in a WYSIWYG world, what you see is what you get, because that is the world I inhabited, and nothing was visible to me outside of that world.

    Imagine then my surprise as the numinous intruded in my life, culminating in a near-death experience. It overturned my life-long convictions in a shocking way. I was the least likely subject for such an experience. But its reality was beyond dispute. What you say about such reports lacking veracity just makes no sense when I know that a careful, thorough, meticulous observer such as myself actually did have such an experience.

    The noted scholar, CS Lewis, wrote the story of his conversion in the book ‘Surprised by Joy’. That is what happened to me, I was surprised by joy. And I am so grateful for it because it has enriched my life in surprising and profound ways.

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