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Dying Before We Die by Johann Christoph Hampe

In the Midst of Life

It happens at some time or other to everyone who is wide-awake and aware. We are overwhelmed by it on a particularly fine spring day perhaps, and at the latest when we reach middle age. We always knew, but now it’s gunpowder: there in front of us is the big black pit into which all life is ultimately going to disappear. It’s not only all the other people—the people in the ‘deaths’ column. I am going to have to die myself. Who knows when? But because I don’t know, death is already part of the present.

The idea spreads inside me. I can’t think of anything else. The life that I pursued so painstakingly and so pleasurably—rain and sunshine, getting up and going to bed, all the successes and defeats which are my very own private affair—everything is going to be broken off. And one day what belongs together won’t be allowed to be together any longer. Of every two people, one always has to be the first to set out: mothers leaving their children, a husband leaving his wife.

Some force takes us away. The moment flees. The hour never returns. People die on every side. But the time approaches, nearer and nearer, indifferently, moment by moment. The time will come when time will be without me. I find the idea an impossible one. Which of us ever stops for a moment to consider all the eyes that are just closing and the things that are sinking inexorably into the earth?

In this way the happiness we seek so passionately is related to death. For we call it happiness when the time that hunts us forward suddenly surrenders to us, seeming to stand still like a dragonfly that hovers, quivering, over a woodland pool. Then, for an infinitesimal second, uncounted by any clock, the thing present is suddenly everything; and for the space of a sigh we are whole and complete, a translucent sphere. We believed that in the light filtering through the birch trees and under the gold of the larches we could read the promise of permanence or, after all, of return. But it was always a deception.

Death is already present in my own life: this experience is the first point that I want to introduce into the reflections which we are preparing to share with one another. I am not talking about something in the distance, where everything is blurred, the end of life, which we think is a long way off. We do not want to satisfy our hunger for knowledge simply in order to have filled a few pigeonholes in our brains with data—pigeon-holes into which we shall seldom or never look again. I am talking about dying because I want to live in a different way from before.

According to the popular view, when we die body and soul are separated. Popular opinion uses a simple vocabulary, not approved by the scientific psychology of our day; but after all there is some truth in its view. When I think about dying and experience it in the present, something in me is divided. I suddenly see myself as a stranger. Will what I am going to be, be no more than what I am now? What does the self in me have to say to this self?

Middle age is a crisis of being, just like dying. It is middle age that determines whether what remains is a withering or a ripening. At the peak of its vitality, in the years which are so often described today as the testing time for the person caught up in our meritocracy, I either succeed or fail in uniting life’s double span, to use the language of Johannes Tauler, the mystic.

Tauler distinguished between the pneumatic, or the mind-soul, lifespan and the somatic, or body-soul, life-span. The one he conceived of in the image of a garland open at the top; the other as an arch open at the bottom. Both images of our present life, both arcs, he thought, touched each other at the tangent of middle age. Coming from above—or so the German mystic saw it—man is born into the physical world. But he is still called to return and sets out on this return in the transformation experience that comes in the middle of life.

I see this book as a call to return of this kind. It aims to free us from the modem viewpoint, which I believe to be wrong. For we moderns always think that man’s spiritual development is merely the reflection of his physical one. That is why we stare fascinated at dying as a biological phenomenon, if we think of death at all. That is why we need to prolong life at all costs, without enquiring whether the prolongation has any point.

For us modems who belong to the western world, the mystic’s two life-spans are opposed to one another. They have reversed their positions. The spiritual and the physical only touch twice, at birth and at death. In the decisive phase, middle age, they do not find a relation to one another at the tangent; they are at their furthest remove from one another. The person who is active in the world loses sight of his soul. Now the two arcs close and form a shell, a self-sufficient clam. Now the garland points downwards and the arch upwards, contrary to its true meaning. Man is no longer borne up from below and open towards what is above him; he is warped within himself. And he no longer knows that at a single point, the intersection of the tangents, the arches preserve the balance of the whole wonderful unity of human nature.

We see from this image that the unity of man is always in danger. Our right to dominate the material and our duty to serve the spirit strive in different directions. Dying is separation and separation is dying. The older we get, the more this fact will make us suffer.

Something tears apart within me. Separation does not only cut me off from another person. It separates me from myself. The body begins to break down here and there. Strength diminishes, illnesses crop up. Friends and relations die before me. The expectations I had had of them are disappointed. Successes which I meant to share with them dwindle away. The point of living is called in question. I anticipate dying by experiencing what it is to be alone. I am alienated from myself.

More and more people round about me die, and death comes nearer to me too. Will this one day be the ultimate act of dying, when I experience utter loneliness? When his nearest and dearest has been tom from him, the mourner feels as if he had died himself. The muffled blow we feel when we hear the news of a death strips us of ourselves, as it were. One day dying must be just as bad as that. Was the beloved not my very soul? When body and soul are one day tom apart in death I shall suffer the same torment.

But mustn’t a person acquire more knowledge of himself, i.e., live his conscious life more profoundly, when he is thrown back entirely on himself? The positive value of loneliness has often been described. But it is only experienced by people who are free enough to anticipate even dying as having a positive value. We shall be considering whether this is possible. We shall be hearing accounts which tell us that it is possible indeed.

The Fear of Dying and the Dread of Death

I am afraid because in imagination I can anticipate the future. Through this fear I die in the very midst of life.

The moment a person dies, the immediate impulse of primitive man is to leave him lying where he is and to flee…. The flight from the corpse is evidence that the man’s fears are primarily for himself. To tarry in the presence of a dead person exposes the living man to the danger of being himself overtaken by death.

Depth psychology says that the person who does not experience horror in the face of death is inhuman and subhuman, like the boy in the remarkable Grimms’ fairy-tale who ‘went out to learn how to shudder’.

Up to the present day the sagas of the different peoples, with their exhortations to accept dying and death philosophically, have achieved little success against this feeling of dread. In their view it is not death that is degrading, but our fear of death; for after all death belongs to us in just the same way as birth. But how could anyone die willingly unless he despised life? The doctor looks on death as his enemy, because it compels his skill to capitulate. Every one of us who approaches his dying fellow and stays close to his side suffers under the general helplessness. And not many people will be able to cure their fear of dying simply by reaching for the Bible.

For the Bible itself talks too emphatically about the fear of death. Death cannot be viewed more radically than it is in the Old Testament, where it counts as the state where God abandons man. Death, we are told here, has its territory in the cosmos, which is not far off: on earth the depths of the grave, the sea and the desert. Life is surrounded by death on every side. We must not hope for heavenly dwellings in another world, but merely for the new era of salvation, when death will no longer rule on earth.

But we have to distinguish between dread, or awe, and fear. In our dread of death we shun and respect it. We preserve the distance that its majesty enjoins. Dread only turns to fear when we think of ourselves and try to save ourselves from the death that is inevitable. But dread is the tribute which we pay to death’s tabu. Tabu, in the language of the New Zealand Maoris, means what is forbidden according to hallowed custom. The frontier of our existence is hallowed and tabu. Civilisation began with burial rites, and no-one evades this injunction down to the present day. The most enlightened free-thinker, who believes that man leaves nothing behind him after death and that he is simply a corpse, will follow a coffin with a solemn face. The most bitter enemies will see to it that their dead opponents are honourably treated.

We are not so much afraid of death as of dying. Since time immemorial the fear of dying has been based on three questions: when, how, and what comes afterwards? Who knows when it will be my turn? I cannot anticipate death, I can only make up my mind to it. And how easily I lose my equanimity simply by anticipating it! Some people, faced with the mystery of their lives, cannot wait for death and lay hands on themselves. But Artur Reiner has shown that suicide and wanting to die are two different things.

The uncertainty which frightens me lies mainly in the fact that I cannot think of myself as having died. Today that counts as being an established fact of depth psychology. But Arthur Schopenhauer and Franz Rosenzweig (in his Stern der Erlosung) have already said the same thing. To think of myself as having died means being able to command the moment of death. And it is the fact that this is not possible which makes the question so insistent and sudden death so mysterious and demonic. It disappoints the expectation of immortality which our subconscious keeps alive, even though reason and our experience of the deaths of our fellow men all round us confute it daily.

But today, it seems to me, it is the question ‘How?’ which frightens people more than the question ‘When?’ or the other uncertainty, ‘What comes afterwards?’. How is death going to overtake me? is the question I ask about my own death. Since man as individual has an individual death, there are as many different ways of dying as there are people. How am I going to die? asks a person first of all, in his fear today. Quickly and painlessly, as he would like, or in pain, as he fears? Only few people are mature enough to accept pain and not to avoid suffering. But even the person who perhaps manages to do that in his lifetime will say that it is useless to go on burdening a life that is ending in any case with a long period of suffering.

We are frightened, for we shall undoubtedly be alone when we die. Fond of company as we are, used from our earliest childhood to get help from other people, we shall ultimately have to come to terms with this affair all by ourselves. No-one will or can take our place in this hour when life reaches its moment of crisis. The parable of the wealthy Everyman, whom none of his friends were prepared to help in his final hour of need, is valid for all time. Everyman is afraid.

In the end, Everyman in the story does not even beg to be spared death. He pleads for a single day, a single hour, he begs to die at the proper time. He is afraid that this single hour could be missing from his life; this single hour must not be allowed to slip after so many have been missed. The plea to die at the proper time is the expression of our desire for life to acquire a meaning, perhaps even at the very last moment. But is not just this the terrible thing about death, that it makes even the most successful human life meaningless, if it simply puts an end to that life?

Three things, therefore, make dying bitter for us: fear of the pain, fear of the ultimate loneliness, and fear of the futility. That is the way we see dying in anticipation. That is the way we experience it today, before we actually die at all. I accept the fact that I must die. It is the condition of my existence. But how I am going to die worries me. Am I right to be worried?

Is anyone prepared to say that nowadays the medicine chest copes with pain and that we ought to meet the futility of death by making our lives less futile? So that the only thing left is the loneliness? For death is simply the ultimate loneliness. Becoming utterly lonely, we die like a candle flame that has no more air. But even if this is all that is left for our fear to feed on, it is still more than we can endure: loneliness in the face of the power which is one day going to cut short our every word is terrible. We face the anguish that our life is going to be cut short in the pain of this loneliness, before we have done everything that we wanted to do, and had to do; before we have been reconciled with our enemies and have comforted our friends.

When will it be, how will it happen, what comes afterwards? The uncertainty, which we cannot disregard, becomes the source of our fear. Is the fear of dying unavoidable and human, just as, from time immemorial, horror in the face of the death tabu and the dead body has been considered part of human nature? The fear of dying that expresses itself openly, and the fear that consumes us secretly too, must be all the greater, firstly, the more we lose our sense of an order which extends beyond life and which imposes a duty on the living; secondly, the less we are able to have real knowledge about real dying, because we push the dying and the act of dying itself out of our world; and, thirdly, the more difficult we find it to expel from our subconscious the terrifying spectres which earlier periods, in their avidity for death, have passed down to us.

“Dying Before We Die” is an extract from To Die is Gain: Near-Death Experience and the Art of Dying Before We Die by Johann Christoph Hampe, published by Afterworlds Press, an imprint of White Crow Books.

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