Monday, February 14, 2011

Matters of life and death

Sometimes we come upon a quotation which sets us thinking. This is what happened yesterday, when I started reading a lovely book, another one of those books that have opened up my mind to further thoughts. It is a biography of Michel De Montaigne, the 16th century French essayist, and the man who coined the word “essay” (“essai” means “attempt” in French) which every schoolchild now uses. The book is by Sarah Blakewell and is called How to live – a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts, a lovely title in itself.

Apart from stimulating me to plunge back into Montaigne’s Essays, it brought me this quotation from his writings:

“If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry. Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”

And this stirred another memory for me, taking me back to the first time I read Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, a meditation on where we should place death in our lives. The quotation below from the end of the 20th century gives me much the same feeling as Montaigne’s words from the 16th century:

"Dying is no problem. It will happen quite successfully. It's how we die."

What both have in common is an acceptance that the advent of death is a natural event and something we should slot into our lives, rather than as something which is to be viewed as a dislocation, an abrupt, unwelcome ending to be feared. As an acupuncturist I have had to learn to deal with the death of patients of mine, and have had to work out my own approach. It could be thought, as I did at first, that a patient’s death is proof of the failure of my skills, but then I came to understand that I did not hold life and death in my hands; that if it is ordained, by whom and for what purpose we will never know, that a person’s life has run its course, then it was my task to help make that ending as fruitful and serene as possible, rather than to lament the fact of its ending.

I find both the words of both Montaigne and Sogyal Rinpoche comforting, bringing death and life into a kind of companionship, rather than viewing them as enemies.

1 comment:

  1. I have just received this addition to my blog from my friend, Miles. He writes, "I've just recently picked up a copy of Simon Critchley's "The Book of Dead Philosophers" which has a frontispiece quote from the master Montaigne:

    "If I were a maker of books, I would make a register, with comments, of various deaths. He who would teach men to die would teach men to live"

    Critchley has made the attempt. A catalogue of two hundred lives and deaths of famous philosophers. Fascinating."

    No, I don't know this book, Miles. Thanks for pointing me towards it.