When the Life Force Can’t Fight the Death Wish
I was talking to a friend I meet every week for lunch and we were catching up before we ordered. “I had to go to a funeral this weekend,” Tom said. “I told you my neighbor died, didn’t I?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “How did he die?”
He got a funny look on his face, shook his head. “Shot himself.”
It was the story you often hear. The man was 73 years old, retired, apparently well-off, seemed perfectly happy. Tom would see him on the street and they would talk. He’d had him over for dinner a time or two. There was never any suggestion of depression or deep unhappiness. Yet suddenly, out of the blue, he’d done this terrible thing, which shattered his family and friends.
This sad story brought up other things we’d recently talked about. Tom had had a friend who died after a medical procedure, but a doctor—unbeknownst to the man’s wife—had recommended the procedure years before, when it would have been less dangerous, and the man had said no, he wasn’t interested. A very good friend of mine, who died suddenly of a heart attack, had apparently stopped taking his blood pressure—again, without his wife’s knowledge—despite the fact that his uncorrected pressure was quite high. He’d once told me that he thought his high blood pressure was what would kill him.
He’d stopped taking his medicine just the same, and stopped taking care of himself in other ways.
I was reminded of some words of Shozan Jack Haubner in the introduction to his book Single White Monk. I haven’t actually read the book, but would have to say that the introduction, which I read standing up at the bookstore, is worth the whole price. It made me violate my cardinal rule of book buying: never buy a book on the first day you see it.
Haubner was talking about a moment of despair that came over him in the zendo, when he started to cry. “I wasn’t afraid of being dead, I was afraid of the way death slowly takes over your life: in a silent moment when you know you will never fall in love again; when you realize you’ve been faking it at your job for decades and the younger generation is not fooled. Sitting in the zendo that night, I realized I was now headed inexorably toward death. . . .
“This is the great death that awaits all of us in middle age—the death of our illusions, of the fantasy that we can get life completely right, that our team will finally win.”
Haubner is some years younger than I. Hate to mention it, but this feeling just gets worse.
I’ve always thought that people take their lives because they suffer from a dark and incomprehensible condition known as depression, and I still think that’s true. But I remember reading about Hemingway once that he had made various suicide attempts—and finally succeeded at one—because he could no longer do the things he’d loved. He couldn’t go out in his boat and go fishing, couldn’t go to Africa and hunt, he couldn’t—perhaps—make love to women anymore, couldn’t write. (He had severe problems writing in his final years.) The things that had made him who he was, the things that made him Hemingway, were gone. So he killed himself.
I’ve often thought that everything in the universe follows a pattern of expansion and contraction. A day expands and contracts. A year. A human life. The ocean. Our lungs. Our heart. The universe itself, apparently. Expansion, and then contraction. I’m not sure where one ends and the other begins—I think Shozan Jack Haubner may be feeling sad a little early—but I’m quite sure that, at the age of 69, I’m in the contraction phase.
Some people seem unable to face it. I see it everywhere, in people who seem desperate to stay young (and often look all the older for trying). I also hear little hints, in stories like the one about my friend’s neighbor, or the guy who didn’t have the medical procedure when it could have helped him, or my friend who gave up on his blood pressure meds.
I can’t help thinking, though, that there’s something good about the contraction phase, as things gradually fall away. Some old people have a gleam in their eye. The things we once believed in and that gave us energy—Shozan Jack Haubner’s idea that he could get his life right or that his team would finally win (that anyone will finally win, or finally do anything)—are illusions. When you give up illusions you might see the truth.
There’s a way in which the Great Death is something we need to go through. There’s a way in which a death wish is itself an illusion. Death comes soon enough, whether we want it or not. There’s something unseemly about hurrying it.
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