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.
This is a really short post to direct you to this excellent commencement address delivered by Ryan T. Anderson.
He titled it, “‘He Knows What He Is About’: Living a Life That Matters”, which is derived from one of the most splendid quotations of John Henry Newman that Dr. Anderson quotes at the outset and on which my friends and I have been reflecting a lot in recent days.
Particularly of relevance to the theme of this blog, I was struck by how Dr. Anderson exhorted the high schoolers on multiple occasions throughout the address to contemplate the thoughts they might have on their deathbeds as a key to discerning how to live a life that matters.
I love Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writing so much.
It has that confident aphoristic quality to it that elicits attention.
Such is the case with his short essay entitled, “Death as Homecoming.”
Right at the beginning, Rabbi Heschel proposes that “in a way death is the test of the meaning of life. If death is devoid of meaning, then life is absurd. Life’s ultimate meaning remains obscure unless it is reflected upon in the face of death.”
Still, Heschel is keen to note that the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition do not stress “the problem of dying” so much as they stress “how to sanctify life.”
Today a Facebook memory came up from three years ago when I happened upon the Church of St. Robert Bellarmine in Rome.
I recognized the patron of the church as the author of a book that I had very much enjoyed reading a few months earlier entitled The Art of Dying Well.
As I stood outside the church, I recalled St. Bellarmine’s remark, “Now every one will admit, that the ‘Art of dying Well’ is the most important of all sciences; at least every one who seriously reflects…”
The most important of all sciences!
Well, if you have not until now considered it a science, here is a excerpt from his preface to introduce you to the tenor of his argument:
Among my hobbies these days is attending a bioethics book club every two weeks on O. Carter Snead’s new book What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics. The book is about how the dominant view in our time of persons as expressive individualists contradicts the lived experience of our embodied reality. Snead analyzes why we go astray in our public bioethics when we do not account for the realities of vulnerability and mutual dependence in and throughout our lives.
Most recently the study group finished reading the chapter on Death and Dying. In it, Snead notes: “By far the most common rationales cited for seeking assisted suicide were concerns about ‘losing autonomy’ (92 percent) and being ‘less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable’ (91 percent).”
Since there are many reasons why we can lose autonomy and the ability to engage in activities that make life enjoyable, it is worth scrutinizing these ideas of “freedom” – the loss of which risks rendering life seemingly not worth living.
I am reminded of Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky’s reflections. In Sculpting in Time, he says: “And the longer I lived in the West the more curious and equivocal freedom seems to me. Freedom to take drugs? To kill? To commit suicide?”
This evening a friend of mine shared with me about how she had led what she described as “a pretty death-free life” until the death of her grandmother.
Since my friend was a already adult when her grandmother passed away, this experience led her to make a few observations.
First, she noted that this grandmother, who had been a quiet, trusted presence in the family until the end of her life, was somewhat taken for granted by the other family members who presumed that this matriarch would somehow always be there.
Then, when she passed away, my friend said, “She became her whole life. Suddenly, everyone was pulling out family photos and trying to piece together the narrative of her early life. She became 5-year-old her, and 20-year-old her, and wedding day her, etc. seemingly all at once.”
The other realization my friend had was about all of the things that she didn’t know about her grandmother; her grandmother’s death became a reckoning for what my friend had and hadn’t taken the time to learn about her.
After losing a loved one, many people wish that they had taken the time to interview the person, to ask certain probing questions that never seemed urgent before, and to really capture a person’s story in their own words.
Accordingly, think of those you love the most and set out to encounter them in their depth and to record this encounter through writing, audio, or video. In the future, you may be very grateful for having done so, but the activity will also present the occasion for an encounter of depth during the relationship while you are both alive.
Photo: Screenshot from an hourlong video interview of my Zaida telling the story of how he came to Canada from Poland in 1937.
Writing meant a great deal to Anne. It was her way to vent.
The nicest part is being able to write down all my thoughts and feelings; otherwise, I’d absolutely suffocate. – Anne Frank, 16 March 1944
She hoped one day to become a famous writer or journalist. Although she doubted from time to time whether she was talented enough, Anne wanted to write anyway.
That last sentence is so key! She hoped to become a famous writer and, in fact, she did but not in a way she could have ever expected. Anne Frank perished in the Holocaust at age 15, and her diary went on to be published after her death. Since then, more than 30 million copies of the diary have sold in more than 70 languages.
One site I love to visit in Israel is David and Paula Ben Gurion’s tombs in the Negev.
Sitting with a group along some stone steps as we looked toward the tombs, our guide said, “The inscription on David Ben-Gurion’s tombstone has three dates on it – the date he was born, the date he died, and the date he made aliyah [immigrated to Israel]. Why does it have the date he made aliyah?”
Our guide was serious about prompting our reflection and gave many members of our group the chance to surmise. After everyone had had the opportunity to offer their interpretations, our guide offered his own:
“Aliyah was the first step. It was the decisive turning point in the drama of his life. It was the decision he made that significantly impacted and made possible all the others. What will your first step be?” he asked, as we sat for a few moments of quiet reflection in that desert shade.
And so, I’ll now ask you: What might the extra date be on your tombstone?
In 1993, John Paul II inaugurated the World Day of the Sick to be celebrated each year on February 11th. He wanted the annual day to serve as “a special occasion for growth, with an attitude of listening, reflection, and effective commitment in the face of the great mystery of pain and illness” and he specifically addressed all those who are sick, calling them “the main actors of this World Day.”