The art of dying

“If an old man has something to learn, it is the art of dying,” wrote the great French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau in one of his personal life accounts. What did he mean? Most of us would rather concern ourselves with the art of living on the belief that a meaningful life assures a meaningful death. One can only suppose that Rousseau meant the ability to face death not just with stoic resignation, but with a detached calm that permits one to observe his own dying as though it were happening to someone else.

Every culture has a way of inculcating in its members the habit of serenity before death.  Where I grew up, the cemetery was part of our playground. We flew our kites atop the apartment tombs of relatives and town mates who had gone ahead. The portal of the cemetery’s gate bore an inscription in Kapampangan that read: “Acu ngeni, ica bucas” (Me today, you tomorrow). Grim as it was, the reminder never frightened us; indeed, my playmates and I always found it amusing.

As a rule, we push the thought of death out of the whirl of daily living almost as a precondition to a reasonable enjoyment of life. In this sense, our attitude toward death is probably more like Jean Paul Sartre’s than Rousseau’s. Sartre famously said: “Death? I don’t think about it. It has no place in my life, it will always be outside. One day my life will end, but I don’t want it to be burdened by death.”

The wondrous thing about death, however, is that you will never know when and in what form it will come. Someone like Rousseau who dealt with big ideas might be forgiven for thinking that his final moments should match the grandeur of his life. But, aware that he could not choose the mode of his death, he thought he could at least choose the manner in which he would take it—not in panic, but in awe.

This great thinker loved to take daily solitary walks. One late afternoon, as he was walking back to his home in Paris, a large Great Dane bounding at a fast pace knocked him unconscious. It was midnight when he woke up.  His jaw had hit the ground first. “He later discovered that his upper lip was split up to the nose and four teeth had been knocked in on his top jaw. His face and head was swollen, his left thumb badly damaged and his left arm and knee severely sprained.” He died two years later from massive cerebral bleeding.

Simon Critchley, who offers this detailed account in his hugely clever and amusing book “The book of dead philosophers,” notes how Rousseau appeared to welcome the sensation of dying almost as if it was the ultimate experience he had been waiting and preparing for. In his memoirs, Rousseau recalled this astonishing episode thus: “This first sensation was a moment of delight. I was conscious of nothing else. In this instant I was being born again, and it seemed as if all I perceived was filled with my frail existence. Entirely taken up by the present, I could remember nothing; I had no distinct notion of myself as a person, nor had I the least idea of what had just happened to me. I did not know who I was, nor where I was. I felt neither pain, fear, nor anxiety. I watched my blood flowing as I might have watched a stream, without even thinking that the blood had anything to do with me.”

What I find remarkable about Rousseau’s account is that it is devoid of any resentment. Instead of feeling diminished by the irony of being tackled and injured by a clumsy dog, he watches his body recoil from the accident and feels no pain. He has no recollection of what had just happened, where he was, and even who he was, and yet he remains calm. I’ve encountered this sensation before as one who rides a motorcycle.

Death on a motorcycle is no longer as abstract to me as it used to be. About two years ago, I saw a fellow rider die instantly from a fatal crash. Although he had ridden with our group only a couple of times, we knew him to be a sober and safe rider. It was a bright Sunday morning and everyone was feeling light and happy after enjoying a full breakfast. I remember him sneaking a smoke just before he mounted his massive Honda Goldwing. But, just half an hour later, there he was lying inert under the steel barrier of the expressway, his open eyes vividly registering the curve that must have loomed suddenly before him after he had passed us. A certain numbness quickly descends upon us as we approach his lifeless body. Later that day, on the ride going home, I go on virtual auto-pilot, barely hearing the sound of vehicles around us, and remembering little of what had just happened.

One of the costs of riding a motorcycle is that you’re occasionally gripped by the thought that a particular ride could be your last. And so you not only put on protective armor, you also check if you’re wearing presentable underwear. You make sure that if anything happens, the one who picks up your phone will have no problem reaching your loved ones. In my case, as I leave our home, I always plant two kisses on my wife’s cheek—one as goodbye and the other as a promise to return safe.

Death confers a privilege, says Nietzsche: “To die no more.” But a friend who gave up riding after falling twice in a single day counters this. “You may not die, that’s the problem, but you could be disabled, confined to a wheelchair the rest of your life.” A thought like this can of course deter anyone from doing just about anything. Thus we continue to ride. But, like superstitious folk, we instinctively look for signs that promise a good day and watch out for omens that signify something dire. We don’t taunt death. If sometimes we fall into a reckless mood, we know we do so not out of contempt for the danger but in the spirit of life-enhancing joy. This is how we tame our fears.

* * *