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Donald Clegg: Acknowledging reality of death part of life

Sat., Jan. 4, 2014

Happy New Year. This year gets 12 months to show her stuff, and then, forever gone. Question: Are you ready?

I regard both religion and science as subsets of philosophy. That is, they derive from a presumptuous array of assumptions regarding the nature of reality, its origins, future, and our role (if any) in the giant and mysterious panorama. This is the province of the “first philosophy,” metaphysics, and I’m currently watching the apparent collapse of one that is composed of flawed assumptions. Put another way, it’s the demise of an immortality project, an entire belief system.

These days, science is the tail wagging the dog of philosophy, and it’s rare to even see philosophers who seek answers to what I call MOIA, the Meaning Of It All. How can we even approach a reply?

Philosophers used to have a ready one, dealing with what I call “immortality projects,” the collective wall of beliefs that most of us build to shield ourselves from the prospect of, well, death. And ancient philosophy had one chief aim in mind: to prepare one for death.

Philosopher Simon Critchley opens “The Book of Dead Philosophers” by saying, “This book begins from a simple assumption: what defines human life in our corner of the planet at the present time is not just a fear of death, but an overwhelming terror of annihilation.” He then quotes Cicero, who said, “To philosophize is to learn to die.”

Critchley proposes, through relating the deaths of some 170 philosophers, to defend this thesis, saying, “Yet, it is my belief that philosophy can teach a readiness for death without which any conception of contentment, let alone happiness, is illusory.”

Now, to the failing immortality project. First, a very brief background note. My mother abandoned (and a bit later, my father, as well) three very young children, and I didn’t meet her again until after graduating from high school. It did not go well. Then, an absence of almost any family contact, for about 25 years.

I finally renewed a relationship with her (and others) about a dozen years ago, also meeting her partner, a successful businessman on the verge of retirement. I’ve rarely met two people more suited to each other, New Agers to the core, whose attitude upon seeing a fox, for example, is to say, “Marvelous. We’ve been blessed with a fox today.” Happy, happy, and without a care in the world.

But. He had quadruple bypass surgery some six months ago and recovery has been slow. And over the past several months, pretty much out of the blue, my mother is sliding rather rapidly into dementia, with some heart trouble, as well. She still talks, but of late, makes little sense.

When I spoke to them Christmas Day, I’m not sure that she even recognized to whom she was speaking. He simply vented, which has been the usual case of late, a profanity-laden tirade directed toward my mother, me and – I suspect – the unfairness of life. Without a doubt, the fear of his approaching demise, never mind my mother’s, has him scared.

It seems to me that at least a modicum of preparation for death might make our last months or years more acceptable, even a kind of wonder, of sorts. Part of the meaning of life, perhaps its fundamental meaning, is that we must die to make way for new life. I suggest that we spend part of our lives acknowledging, rather than running away from, that reality.

Donald Clegg, a longtime Spokane resident, is an author and professional watercolor artist. Contact him via email at

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