Monday, March 10, 2008

we shall all someday part the veil

Some disconnected thoughts:


By Emily Dickinson:

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

Rodin's "The Fallen Caryatid"


I went for a walk today at the Catholic cemetery down the road. It's interesting to see the stories we tell, or fail to tell, about our dead. There's not a whole lot of room on a gravestone, even the extravagantly large ones, and most of the graves I saw today included name, dates, and one other piece of information, usually a family relationship: mother, daughter, wife. Some had military ranks, units and wars in which the deceased served, and a fair number had Masonic symbols. The most common, of course, was religious symbols: crosses, the gates of heaven, angels, references to passages in the Bible.

I don't really feel like I understand the attraction of most stories about death. Fear of death I get; every successful living creature must fear death, and humans are no exception. Intellectually, I understand that a way of coping with fear is inventing reasons to explain why the fear is unfounded, but emotionally it just doesn't connect with me. Once you admit that beliefs about an afterlife are impossible to verify in any way, that we have zero information about what death is like, it seems to me that the stories lose their comfort. I have this problem with religious faith as well, obviously: I am aware that choosing to believe would mean adopting an idea that I don't think is true in order to make myself feel better, and that very awareness means that adopting it wouldn't even make me feel better, because I know that I don't actually believe.

When I feel like flattering myself, I pretend that I think this way because I am unusually un-susceptible to doublethink, but perhaps that isn't true. Maybe it's just that I have an abnormally large amount of time to sit and examine the things I believe in, entire mornings that I can take to walk around a cemetery by myself.

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