My contemplations of mortality and those of Roger Cohen have been subjects of previous posts. Additional contemplations are prompted by an article by two philosophy professors, John Kaag and Clancy Martin.
Their starting point is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet, “Ozymandias,” in which an anonymous traveler discovers a bust and pedestal, half-buried in windswept sands, with the inscription, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
This poem, they say, delivers a perennial message: “All of this will be over soon, faster than you think. Fame has a shadow — inevitable decline.” Our existential fragility “is overlooked in most of our waking hours” and “must be faced even by the greatest among us.”
We, however, “tend to defer the question of living or dying well until it’s too late to answer. This might be the scariest thing about death: coming to die only to discover, in Thoreau’s words, that we haven’t lived.” We “pretend that dying is something that is going to happen in some distant future, at some other point in time, to some other person. But not to us. At least not right now. Not today, not tomorrow, not next week, not even next decade. A lifetime from now.”
“As surely as time passes, [however,] we human beings are dying for something. The trick to dying for something is picking the right something, day after week after precious year. And this is incredibly hard and decidedly not inevitable.” But “we have a remarkable degree of choice about what to do, think and become in the meantime, about how we go about living, which means we have a remarkable degree of choice over how we go about our dying. The choice, like the end itself, is ultimately ours and ours alone.”
If we succeed in liberating ourselves from the delusion of immortality, “we may find that confronting the fact of our own impermanence can do something unexpected and remarkable — transform the very nature of how we live.”
All of this makes sense to me, but this article does not provide guidance on how one should decide what to do “day after week after precious year.” For me, this triggers the Christian notion of vocation and the words of Frederick Buechner, an author and an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He said “the word ‘vocation’ . . . means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
A prior post provided a positive review of Roger Cohen’s comments about life and death in his New York Times columns. While reaffirming that assessment, his selected comments in that review do not directly express a sense of vocation. Perhaps there are other columns that do just that. If so, I would appreciate someone pointing them out.
Vocation is at least a Christian concept that may not be familiar to Cohen, who is Jewish. Here then are my thoughts on vocation from prior posts.
Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church in a recent sermon presented the challenge of vocation or calling this way: “When Jesus calls we get up and go, stepping forward in the direction of the one calling us. Being a follower of Jesus is not a destination . . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”
Vocation also has been discussed by, an author and an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He said the word ‘vocation’ “comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
For me, vocation implies a dedication to a certain kind of work or service over a period of time. A one-time effort probably does not count. On the other hand, in my opinion, vocation does not necessarily require a lifetime commitment to doing a certain thing. Indeed, an individual’s circumstances change over time, and what was a vocation for one period may not be appropriate for another period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous. This at least has been true for me.
Some people may decide that they shall start engaging in a particular vocation. They know from the start that a certain course of action shall be their vocation, perhaps inspired by what they believe to be the word of God. Others discover after the fact that what they have been doing for a period of time has been and is their vocation. I am a member of the latter group. Moreover, some people discover a vocation when they respond affirmatively to someone else’s invitation or request to do something. Others embark on a vocation that they choose by themselves. I have experience with both of these.
Deciding on what shall be or is a vocation should be, in my opinion, a matter of reflection, meditation and prayer and in some cases discussion with others to assist in discerning a true vocation.
The concept of vocation often seems like doing something for others without any personal rewards other than feeling good about helping others. I, therefore, am amazed by the many ways I have been enriched by these endeavors.
My latest vocation is researching and writing posts for this blog to promote U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, to share my knowledge of international human rights law and other subjects and to attempt to articulate an intelligent exposition and exploration of important issues of Christian faith. It is my way of doing evangelism.
I imagine that Roger Cohen must have a similar sense of vocation about his writing columns for the New York Times regarding international and domestic political topics and living and dying even if he does not articulate this personal endeavor as a vocation. His new column, The Rage of 2016, is certainly a passionate and despondent reflection on what is happening in our world these days. It ends with the following:
“The liberal elites’ arrogance and ignorance has been astounding. It is time to listen to the people who voted for change, be humble and think again. That, of course, does not mean succumbing to the hatemongers and racists among them: They must be fought every inch of the way. Nor does it mean succumbing to a post-truth society: Facts are the linchpins of progress. But so brutal a comeuppance cannot be met by more of the same. I fear for my children’s world, more than I ever imagined possible.”
Roger Cohen movingly has reflected on life and death in his New York Times column, “Do Not Go Gentle.” Although I had read many of his earlier columns, this one stopped me to ponder its thoughts and to explore some of his other columns and biography and then to share the results of that investigation in this blog post.
“Do Not go Gentle”–Excerpts
“Home, and what constitutes it, is the most potent of memories. It’s not excess of love we regret at death’s door, it’s excess of severity. If we lived every day as the last day of our lives, the only quandary would be how to find the time to shower love on enough people. We live distracted and die with too much knowledge to bear.”
“For me, the menacing political storms of America and Europe have been accompanied by family illness; and I’ve found myself in recent days cocooned in thoughts of those I love, the fragility of life, and its delicate beauty.”
“I confess immortality, whose attainment is a hot theme in Silicon Valley, does not interest me. . . . When I think of it the image that comes to my mind is of a blazing hot day with the noonday sun beating down in perpetuity. The light is blinding. There is no escape from it, no perspective, no release.”
In contrast, “the most beautiful times of day are dawn and dusk when shadows are long, offering contrast, refuge and form. Death is the shadow that gives shape to existence, urgency to love, brilliance to life. Limitless life is tedium without resolution.”
“As Ecclesiastes [3: 1-8] has it, there is a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted. I find it hard to imagine what inner peace can exist without acceptance of this cycle — the bright green of the first spring leaf, the brittle brown leaves of fall skittering down an alley in a gust of wind.”
“None of which is to urge mere acquiescence to death, whether physical or political, in this season when death merchants are on the march. On the contrary, this is a time to rage, a time to heed Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
A “friend, who has battled and vanquished cancer, told me the other day of going to lunch with his 98-year-old father a couple of months before his death. My friend fought back tears as he recalled how his father leaned over to him toward the end of the meal and said: ‘You know, I did not want to die before I knew you were well.’ It is for sons to bury their fathers, not fathers their sons.”
“Ah, fathers, they wait so long before they let down their guard with their sons. When they do the power and poignancy of it is overwhelming.”
“My own father, now 95 and withdrawn, wrote to me on the death 17 years ago of my manic-depressive mother: ‘I know that my spirit will not soon be released from those cruel demons that tore so relentlessly at the entwining fabric of love between Mom and me. I did strive within the feeble limits of my human fallibility to preserve and cherish and sustain her. But alas — for Mama ultimately, death was the only angel that could shield her from despair.’”
“The most vulnerable parts of our nature are often those closest to our greatest gifts. I will always be grateful for the moments I was able to see my gifted father unguarded.”
Many of his columns for the Times are online, and a hunt-and-peck incomplete search of that collection uncovered the following four columns for inclusion in this blog post. I am confident that a more thorough search would produce other thoughtful columns.
In May 2015 Cohen’s spending time at an unnamed airport prompted ruminations about status anxiety, “The Great Unease.” It included the following: “By comparison, having little or less [material possessions] seemed relatively straightforward — and could even spur illogical acts of an entirely different nature, such as going out and working for a couple of hours on repairing somebody’s car and then refusing payment, or giving time in other ways that defy measurement on the scales that hold sway over contemporary lives. There was a great deal to be said for acts of spontaneous generosity, for surprise visits, for being sidetracked, for idle conversation, for the gestures that forge community.”
The column ended with the following: “The Chinese say: ‘If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; a week, kill a pig; a month, get married; for life, be a gardener.’ Cultivate your garden, the inner as the outer. Make it bloom.”
“As we grow older, the past looms larger. There’s more of it. The past is full of possibility. It is ever-changing, an eddying tide, subject to the gusts — and lacunas — of memory.”
“Who, a friend asked me the other day, would ever want to be 90? The answer is somebody aged 89. Old age is not for sissies, my grandmother liked to comment. Nor, however, is the other option. So on we go, accumulating past with reckless abandon, like children guzzling candies.”
“Yet as Faulkner observed, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Or as a disillusioned Yugoslav Communist once put it, ‘The most dangerous thing for a Communist is to predict the past.’”
“Only through a balanced view of the past, conscientious but not obsessive, may we shun victimhood, accept divergent national narratives, embrace decency, meet our daily obligations, and look forward.”
His June 2015 column, “Mow the Lawn,” starts with comments about his youngest child’s graduating from a London school and getting ready to start college in the U.S., but includes these words of wisdom:
“Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane.”
“I’ve grown suspicious of the inspirational. It’s overrated. I suspect duty — that half-forgotten word — may be more related to happiness than we think. Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labor until fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day. Be stoical. Never whine. Think less about the why of what you do than getting it done. Get the column written. Start pondering the next.”
This column about mowing the lawn also quoted from a commencement speech he had given:
“’Everyone has something that makes them tick. The thing is it’s often well hidden. Your psyche builds layers of protection around your most vulnerable traits, which may be very closely linked to your precious essence. Distractions are also external: money, fame, peer pressure, parental expectation. So it may be more difficult than you think to recognize the spark that is your personal sliver of the divine. But do so. Nothing in the end will give you greater satisfaction — not wealth, not passion, not faith, not even love — for if, as Rilke wrote, all companionship is but ‘the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes,’ you have to solve the conundrum of your solitude.’”
“’No success, however glittering, that denies yourself will make you happy in the long run. So listen to the voice from your soul, quiet but insistent, and honor it. Find what you thrill to: if not the perfect sentence, the beautiful cure, the brilliant formula, the lovely chord, the exquisite sauce, the artful reconciliation. Strive not for everything money can buy but for everything money can’t buy.’”
“In the everyday task at hand, for woman or man, happiness lurks.”
The column, “Young Lives Interrupted,” from November 2015 starts with comments on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and ends with these words:
“It seems, as we grow older, that we are haunted less by what we have done than by what we failed to do, whether through lack of courage, or inattention, or insufficient readiness to cast caution to the winds. The impossible love abandoned, the gesture unmade, the heedless voyage untaken, the parting that should not have been — these chimera always beckon.”
“What’s done is done but the undone is another matter.”
“There are too many words today, too much emotion, and too few letters. Truth is more often the fruit of diligence than revelation, of discipline than inebriation, of discarding than accumulation.”
Born in London in 1955, Cohen graduated with honors at Westminster School, a top “public” school in English parlance. He then attended the University of Oxford and graduated with a B.A. (and later M.A.) in History and French in 1977.
That same year he moved to Paris to teach English and to write for Paris Metro, after which he started working for Reuters, which transferred him to Brussels. In 1983 he joined the staff of the Wall Street Journal in Rome and later Beirut. The New York Times was his next and current employer, 1990-present, and he has served as a columnist for the paper since 2009. He also occasionally writes for the New York Review of Books.
Cohen has published these books: (a) In the Eye of the Storm: The Life of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (with Claudio Gatti) (1991); (b) Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo (1998); (c) Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped in the Nazis’ Final Gamble (2005); (d) Danger in the Desert: True Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter (2008); and (e) The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory of a Jewish Family (2015).
Cohen’s father, Sydney Cohen, a doctor, was born in South Africa and emigrated to the United Kingdom in the 1950s. Roger’s mother June also was born in South Africa and accompanied Sydney to the U.K. She died in 1999.
One of Roger Cohen’s columns, “The Battle to Belong,” from January 2015, told a moving account of his parents’ lives with these more general observations: “The strain of burying the past, losing one identity and embracing another, can be overwhelming. Home is an indelible place. It is the landscape of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in the psyche and call out across the years. When home is left behind, or shattered, an immense struggle often ensues to fill the void.” A more expansive exploration of his own family history is found in his book, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory of a Jewish Family.
Thank you, Roger Cohen, for sharing your thoughts with the world. You help us to understand and accept the truths expressed long ago in Ecclesiastes.
Recognize and rejoice in the fragility and beauty of life. Engage in acts of spontaneous generosity, surprise visits and idle conversation. See life as a succession of everyday tasks that should be well performed and that will provide happiness.
As we think about our ever-lengthening pasts, do so with balance and the realization that every one of us is haunted most by what we have failed to do. When you have these realizations, endeavor to remedy those failures.
Also accept the cycle of birth and death and see death as the shadow that gives shape to existence, the urgency to love and the brilliance to life. You too may find that the dead whisper words of encouragement and consolation.
These words are worth pondering by all of us. I look forward to reading his future columns as well as diving into the collection of his columns in the Times.
Mortality was this year’s final Lenten theme at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. This post will discuss the Scriptures and sermon for the theme and conclude with personal reflections.
The Old Testament text was the familiar Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 (New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added):
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.
What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”
Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s sermon reminded us, “We began our walk down the pathways of Lent weeks ago on Ash Wednesday. We marked ourselves with a smudge of mortality and stepped into the season. Now, as we near the cross and the crucifixion, the way inevitably brings us back to where we began. Death is never too distant.”
Yet, a “veil impenetrable by earth-bound vision shrouds . . . [death]. The event itself can be so covered over by the machinery of modern medicine and the whispered denial of our culture that sometimes it takes the power of a poem to carry us down to what the old Celtic folk called ‘the river hard to see.’”
[The poet of Ecclesiastes said it simply and powerfully: ‘For everything there is a season, And a time for every matter under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die….’]
“If we can acknowledge that death happens, that it will come to our loved ones, that it will come to each one of us, then we can see it not as mistake or failure or defeat, but, rather, as part of the rhythm into which we were born, the end of life as we know it.”
“Part of our job as people of faith is to demystify death, to help our world deal with it, to help others not be overwhelmed by it. In so doing, we help ourselves.”
“That sums up the proper approach of people of faith to death. We do not deny it. We do not look the other way. We recognize the pain it brings to those left behind. We name the sorrow of our grief. But we do not give it power over us. We are not afraid of the dark.”
“Our culture, on the other hand, is afraid of the darkness of death.”
“We are not afraid of the dark. We may not fully understand death, but we will not let it have the last word.”
“From Paul’s point of view we give up the physical body at death when, ‘in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be changed’ into what Paul calls a spiritual body that dwells with God in the life to come.”
“That may be all we can say about death. It may be enough: as a seed must die and fall to the ground in order to find new life, our lives must end in order to inherit what Paul calls the ‘mystery’ of eternity.”
Ecclesiastes makes death explicit: there is a “time to die.” The rest of the passage also tells us that during our earthly lives there is “a time” for many other experiences, including mourning, and that each of these other experiences will not last. That is both a challenge and a comfort. It challenges us to embrace every moment of the pleasurable ones and comforts us during mourning and other unpleasant experiences.
The passages from First Corinthians help with the “mystery” of the promise of eternal life. The perishable physical body ends with death. At death we will be changed into imperishable spiritual bodies. For me, I do not need to worry about what happens after death.
In a prior post, I described my intimations of mortality from attending memorial services for former law partners and friends, from writing obituaries for deceased Grinnell College classmates and from preparing personal financial statements.
Those reminders of my own mortality continue along with others.
My wife and I have taken steps in recognition of our advancing years, the risks of deteriorating health and the certainty of death. Last year we downsized and moved into a one-level condo that provides many shopping, dining and entertainment options within walking distance. We also have consulted with an attorney to update our wills, trust documents, and health care directives. We have decided for cremation of our remains, instead of embalming. We have shared information about these documents, decisions and our financial situation with our two sons. We want to minimize the trauma they will experience when we die.
I reflect on visiting my parents in 1967 and receiving a desperate telephone call from my father, age 67, to come rescue him at his business. I did so and managed to carry him to a car and drive him to the hospital where on arrival he was pronounced dead of a heart attack. I still lament that the prior day he and I had an argument that was still unresolved when he died.
In 1992 I was with my mother, age 86, as she was dying of congestive heart failure at her nursing home. I was astounded that the moment of death was not instantaneously apparent. A few seconds had passed when I realized she was no longer breathing. It was a blessing to be with her in those final moments.
Recently I visited a college classmate in hospice care. Her eyes were closed, and she was non-communicative. But I said goodbye and conveyed the prayers and concerns of our classmates before she died the next day. There is a ministry of presence.
As is common with many people as they age, I regularly read the obituaries in our local newspaper (StarTribune) to see if anyone I know has died and take note of news of the deaths of famous people. They are constant reminders that fame, wealth and power do not make anyone immune from death.
As I read these obituaries, I notice that some of the deceased are older than I, and I quickly calculate how many more years I have if I live as long as they did. Surprise, that arithmetic exercise keeps producing smaller remainders! For example, if I live to age 85, which now sounds like a very old age, I only have about 10 more years. Yet I know several people in their 90’s who are mentally alert and active.
I have been doing genealogical and historical research and most of the individuals about whom I research and write have DOB (date of birth) and DOD (date of death) data. At some point a DOD statistic will be added to my name.
This research and writing have brought some of my ancestors, who lived long before I was born, closer to me.
This sentiment recently was expressed much more beautifully by Roger Cohen in a New York Timescolumn entitled “From Death Into Life” about the amazing life of his Uncle Bert Cohen, who died last month at the age of 95. The columnist said he has “found my life consumed by his” and “[n]ow he lives in me. The living are the custodians of the souls of the dead, those stealthy migrants. Love bequeaths this responsibility.”
Roger Cohen finishes the column with a story about his uncle’s serving in Italy as a South African soldier in World War II. While his uncle was in Florence, a small bird settled on his shoulder for five days. This “caused Florentines to prostrate themselves, name Bert ‘Captain Uccellino’ (or ‘Little Bird’) and proclaim him a saint. He was far from that but he had about him something magical.”
Roger Cohen then concludes his column with these words: “Of that [his uncle’s magical quality] the days since his death have left no doubt. He is now that bird on my shoulder, reminding me to take care with my spelling and be aware that love alone redeems human affairs.”
I believe that every human being is made in the image of God, including the potential capacity to be a parent with children. The only way this will work is to limit the physical lives of the human beings. Otherwise, the planet would be overrun with people. Yes, there is “a time to die.”