Jordan Peterson challenges us to have strength at funerals

This evening I finished reading Jordan Peterson’s latest book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life.

In the last chapter, Rule XII: Be grateful in spite of your suffering, Peterson mentions that he has repeatedly suggested to his various audiences “that strength at the funeral of someone dear and close is a worthy goal” and he notes that “people have indicated to me that they took heart in desperate times as a consequence.”

After a worldwide book tour and many other public appearances, Peterson has had the opportunity to test and play with his ideas with many audiences. And it is interesting to read his thoughtful reflections based on his careful observation of the reactions of persons in the audience.

Earlier in the book, he mentions, as he has said elsewhere, that he sees people’s faces light up whenever he speaks about responsibility. Peterson is keenly aware that people have been raised with a greater emphasis on rights and the corresponding sense of entitlement that ensues with this focus. Yet, a sense of responsibility is what ennobles and fills persons with a sense of their proper dignity and capacity.

Accordingly, this challenge to have strength at funerals is an extension of his usual exhortation to responsibility.

He writes:

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The loss of a whole world

In a collection of letters by Henri Nouwen, I came upon this one that he wrote following the death of his mother:

OCTOBER 25, 1978

Dear Jim,

A few days ago I returned from Holland, where I buried my mother. Only five weeks ago she was with me in New Haven. She returned four days afterwards with my Father after the internist had discovered a tumor which caused the jaundice. Two weeks later she was operated on, a week after that she died. I am still in a daze. Everything seems different to me and I am slowly rediscovering the world which she loved so much. She has been so much part of my life that I have to do some real relearning. I am spending a still week at a retreat center trying to let my mother’s death reform me and lead me to new fields. It is all very intimate and very deep, very sad and very joyful, very beautiful and very painful. I am trying to write a little bit about these last few weeks, but I am still too close to all that has happened to do it well and with the necessary peace of mind. But I keep trying. It seems at this moment my way of letting her spirit come to me. I am still somewhere between Easter and Pentecost not knowing what really has happened. Keep me in your prayers and pray for her. Nobody has ever been as close to me as she was and never did I lose anyone whom I loved so deeply. Somewhere life needs to be rediscovered. But I am sure that her death will mean many new births for me.

Best wishes,
Love,
Henri

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Having something at stake

This weekend I read Sohrab Ahmari’s new book The Unbroken Thread. While there is much upon which I could comment and that I plan to discuss with friends, for the purpose of this post I refer ever so briefly to his final chapter on death.

In this concluding chapter, Ahmari raises his twelfth question of the book: What’s Good About Death? (The other day an excerpt of this chapter was published, here.)

Throughout this section, Ahmari largely discusses Seneca, a Stoic philosopher who said, “Whoever doesn’t want to die, doesn’t want to live.”

In considering why this is, Ahmari explains:

Here is why: The state of being alive—fully alive—is possible only in relation to an endpoint, death. It is the certainty of an end to life that allows us to appreciate sacrifice, heroism, love, beauty, the kind of virtuous life a man like Seneca lived of the self-sacrificing death of a Maximilian Kolbe. As any decent novelist or screenwriter knows, if there is nothing at stake in the story, the story is boring. If there is no final terminus to life, life loses its vitality, its zest, its drama.

What is good about death is that its inevitability means that there is always something at stake in life.

The vulnerability of life increases its preciousness; the risk in life increases the adventure.

This “goodness” of death does not diminish grief or sorrow, though. Instead, it makes the drama of human responses to death intelligible, meaningful, and even capable of pointing beyond themselves to realities transcending this-worldly concerns.



Making space for marking loss

Eleven years ago today, I was in Berlin embarking on the 10-day March of Remembrance and Hope Holocaust study trip with sixty Canadian students and two survivors.

It is not an exaggeration to say that there has not been a day of my life since that trip that I have not recalled it in some way.

Contending with morality and mortality as a young adult through this trip remains among the most formative and orienting experiences of my life.

One of the first sites we visited is pictured below. As we stood there, we weren’t quite sure what we were meant to see. But gradually, with the help of our guide, this memorial came to life for us.

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Parting Words

If you died today, what are the last words of yours that your loved ones might find in your bag, on your computer, in a text message, or on your desk?

One of the victims of the recent tragedy in Meron reportedly gave his friend an envelope and told him not to open it until Sunday.

Rabbi Shimon Matlon could never have imagined that he would die that very night and that his note would be opened not only to his friend but to the world.

According to this source, the letter said:

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What You Are Doing Is Important

What a remarkable photo it is taken by Ariel Schalit for the Associated Press. The caption in this Globe and Mail story says, “Mourners gather around the body of Shraga Gestetner, a Canadian singer who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron, in northern Israel, on April 30, 2021.”

Shraga Gestetner was among those accidentally trampled and killed in the midst of a big celebration in Israel. Many commentators are reflecting on the heightened fervour and enthusiasm among those who were finally able to gather for the annual event, partly in celebration of the luminousness of Judaism’s mystical teachings.

The Montreal-born victim had been in Israel without any of his family members and he was buried immediately in accordance with Jewish law.

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“Dying People Are Not Afraid of Dying”

Yesterday, I was flipping through a new book by Rabbi Steve Leder titled, The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift. The book emerged from a popular sermon the rabbi delivered about death on Yom Kippur, from the rabbi’s extensive experience accompanying the dying and their grieving families and, importantly, from the fruit of his own experience suffering the loss of his father.

I read the initial chapters and this paragraph in particular really struck me:

Whoever wrote the third chapter of Ecclesiastes (later made famous by the Byrds) was right. There really is a time for everything. Most people are ready for death the way we are all ready for sleep after a long and exhausting day. We just want to pull the covers up around our aching heads and settle in for the peace of it all. We are not anxious about sleeping. We are not depressed about it. We are not afraid of it. Disease, age, and life itself prepare us for death. There is a time for everything, and when it is our time to die, death is as natural a thing as life itself. Consider this very good news for those of us who fear death. Dying people are not afraid of dying. If you are afraid of dying, it is not your day. Anxiety is for the living. So if you are worried and anxious about dying, you’re not dying. Which means you have time to let death teach you about living and loving your life. 

Do you have any reason to dispute Rabbi Leder on this?

If not, does this explanation change your understanding of death?

Lastly, does hearing of the peace that comes with rest alter the anxiety of living at all?

Creating a Legacy for the Baby We Loved

When my brother Brandon was born prematurely, my mother met at lot of other parents in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) who were all living on pins and needles with uncertainty over the future of their respective children.

One woman was continually writing letters to her child about what she was feeling and about what he was going through each day. Together, she and my mom went shopping for clothes at Build-A-Bear because the clothing for teddy bears was the right size for their premature children who were too small to fit any of the baby clothing they could find.

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Yazidis in Canada Need a Cemetery

It took far too long in our globalized, hyperconnected, twenty-first century for the world to become alarmed about the genocide committed against Yazidis and other minorities. 

In 2016, the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion recognizing the genocide and pledging to provide asylum to Yazidis. An ancient people indigenous to Upper Mesopotamia compose a fledging new minority here in Canada.

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What We Gain From Loss

The remarkable poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote more than fourteen thousand letters over the course of his life. A few years ago, an editor published a compilation of selected letters entitled, The Dark Interval: Letters on Loss, Grief, and Transformation.

Here is an excerpt from one of the letters that particularly struck me:

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