Just lately from the forest and after a short time on the savannah, humanity acquired a sense of self. We awakened one morning, so it seems, and if we did not know who we were we at least knew we were not like the animals. We knew we died and the animals did not.
We possessed an interior consciousness that permitted self-aware choices, decisions, and mistakes that brought regret. Hovering within and around those choices, there was death and we knew it. The animals were not burdened in that way.
Animal cognition is a touchy subject, but for the most part they seem to live in an eternal now, their lives almost certainly determined by what is going on around them in the present moment. Yesterday is today is tomorrow. Their decisions, such as they are, are guiltlessly unencumbered. Ours are not.
Fueled largely by the acquisition of language—the ability to talk to, with, and for our interior self with words—we communicate subjective thoughts aloud. With language we pass along things learned in the past and project ourselves into an imagined future. We invent symbols and representations; we describe reality around us and make pictures of it. This is a great and creative capacity we were given, but it comes with a price.
Our consciousness extends so far as to tell us we are mortal like animals. We do not like to think of our own end. A good deal of our mental life is spent avoiding it. Freud, I am told, had the opinion that lurking within each of us is the smug self-assurance that of all humanity around us, we think we alone will escape the fate that befalls all others.
All things collapse around us and even the far future our science projects for the cosmos ends in a cold cinder-ridden universe. All things relentlessly change, running down to nothing until nothing is left of us.
We wear out and life uses us up. Gilbert Meilander’s Meditations on Christ’s Words from the Cross relates the death of his grandfather and his father as they lay “‘laboring’ just to draw a breath near the end of life”:
That labor also seems to go on and on—and then, suddenly it too is finished. [His father] died in fact, rather as his own father had, whose last words at the age of ninety-one were, “Ich kann nicht mehr.” “I can’t any longer.” Both of them just wore out; they were finished.
With some luck, one may avoid cancer, disease, stroke, or other debilitation and silently slip away from exhaustion, owing to nothing special. A quiet death, I’d guess, has been a hope of humanity for tens of thousands of years, a quiet end and peace at the last. I have rarely found death half so calm.
Early in my parish life as a Lutheran pastor I was asked to visit a woman only marginally connected to the parish. She was eighty-six, and a major stroke some few years before partially paralyzed her throat and vocal cords. She couldn’t speak except for low moaning sighs, a lamentation of a sort, I thought, and she couldn’t walk at all. She wrote her questions and her answers blind on a note pad; her eyesight had failed along with everything else.
I gave her communion awkwardly; a tiny sip of wine mixed with a shaved bit of bread was all of the Body of Christ she could manage. Done, she reached for her pad and in a huge, childish scrawl with wild loops she wrote, “I want to die. God won’t let me. Why?”
She once was fair and young, a college professor. Now her life had come to this, begging death and pestering God. I was disarmed by the question, without a ready answer. The years since have not provided any response I might have given, not one that makes any sense to me.
Yet that is the very thing many of us sought yesterday: death on Ash Wednesday, a plea that our awareness of death, the entropy encroaching upon us, will become part of God’s awareness of our life. We pray that He remembers us, even as in dying we may not remember Him.
Job is asked:
Can a man be of benefit to God?
Can even a wise man benefit Him? (22:2)
We would like to think so but yesterday is our true story, an imposition of ashes: “Remember, O man, you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Still, there is another word—truer, I think:
For He has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one;
He has not hidden His face from him; but has listened to his cry for help. (Ps. 22:24)
Russell E. Saltzman, who writes from Kansas City, Missouri, is also a contributor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His previous First Things contributions are here.Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.