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HOME > Short Stories > Spiritual Energies In Daily Life > CHAPTER VIII THE LIGHT-FRINGED MYSTERY
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The Greeks had their story of Tithonus, a deeply significant myth of a man who could not die, but who grew ever older and more decrepit until the tragedy became unendurable and he envied those “happy men that have the power to die.” Methuselah’s biography is brief and compact, but it is full of pathos: “He lived nine hundred and sixty-nine years and he died.” There was nothing more to add. Somebody has invented a radium motor which strikes a little bell every second and is warranted to go on doing that for thirty thousand years. The Methuselah monotony and tedium seem much like that thin seriatim row of items. It just goes on with no novelty and no cumulation, and finally the one relieving novelty is introduced—“he died.” What a happy fact it was! The wandering Jew[112] stands out in imaginative fiction as one of the saddest of all men—a being who endlessly goes on. The angel of death seems a gentle, gracious messenger when one thinks of the prospect of unending life, going on in a one-dimensional series, with no new values and no fresh powers of expansion. To many persons the idea of heaven is simply an expanded Methuselah biography.
Biologists have completely reversed the theory that death is an enemy. It has long ago taken its place in the system of teleology, among “the things that are for us.” Death has, beyond question, and has had, “a natural utility.” It has played an important r?le in raising life from the low unicellular type to the rich complex forms of higher organisms, from “the am?ba that never dies of old age” to the new dynasty of beings that have greater range and scope, but which nevertheless do die. Edwin Arnold in his striking essay on Death says: “The lowest living thing, the Protam?ba, has obviously never died! It is a formless film of protoplasm, which multiplies by simple division; and the specimen under any microscope derives, and must derive, in unbroken existence from the am?ba which moved and fed forty ?ons ago. The slime of our nearest puddle lived before the Alps were made!”[113] Methuselah was a mere child in a perambulator compared to an am?ba.
In cases where the continued process of cell-division produced a lowered and weakened type of am?ba a rudimentary form of union of cells took place, which resulted in raising the entire level of life and eventually carried the biological order up to wholly new possibilities. So that the threatened approach of death was met with an increase of life. “It is more probable that death is a consequence of life,” says the famous biologist, Edward Cope, “rather than that the living is a product of the non-living.”[2]
But in any case the testimony of biology can give us little help. Even if death has had a function in the process of evolution, as seems likely, that in no way eases the situation when the staggering blow falls into our precious circle and removes from it an intimate personal life that was indispensable to us. It is poor, cold comfort to be told that death has assisted through the long ?ons in the slow process of heightening the entire scale of life, if there is nothing more to say regarding the future of this dear one whose frail bark has now gone to wreck. We must somehow rise above the level of brute facts and discover[114] some spiritual significance which death has revealed, before we can arrive at any source of comfort. We are all agreed with Shakespeare’s Claudio that “’tis too horrible” to think of death as a sheer terminus:
“ ... to die and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling regions of rock-ribbed ice;
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world.”
Death has undoubtedly brought to consciousness, as has perhaps no other experience, the deeper meaning and significance of personal life. This and not its biological function is what concerns us now. It has been said that “freedom,” so far as it is achieved, “is the main achievement of man in the past.”[3] I should be inclined rather to hold that man’s main achievement on the planet so far has been to discover that personal life reveals within itself an absolute value and possesses unmistakable capacity to transcend the finite and temporal, an experience which makes[115] freedom possible. I believe death has ministered more than any other single fact that confronts us in bringing those truths to clear consciousness. We cannot, of course, dissociate death and separate it from pain, suffering, struggle and danger, which are essentially bound up with it. If the world were to be freed completely from death it would at once ipso facto be freed from the danger of it and by the same altered condition struggle would to a large degree be eliminated, and likewise those other great tests of life—pain and suffering, which culminate in death. These things are all “perilous incidents” of finiteness, but of a finiteness which transcends itself and is allied to something beyond itself. To eliminate these things would be to miss the discovery of this strange finite-infinite nature of ours which makes life such a venture and so full of mystery and wonder. If we had been only naturalistic beings, curious bits of the earth’s crust merely capable of recording the empirical facts as they occurred, death would have taken an unimportant place as one more event in a successive series of phenomena. Built as we are, however, with a beyond within ourselves, the fact of mutability and mortality has occasioned a transformation of our entire estimate of life and has led us by the[116] hand to a Pisgah view which we should never have got if there had been no invasion of death into our world.
“It is a venerable commonplace,” as Professor Schiller of Oxford has said, “that among the melancholy prerogatives which distinguish man from the other animals and bestow a deeper significance on human life is the fact that man alone is aware of the doom that terminates his earthly existence, and on this account lives a more spiritual life, in the ineffable consciousness of the ‘sword of Damocles’ which overshadows him and weights his lightest action with gigantic import. Nay, more; stimulated by the ineluctable necessity of facing death, and of living so as to face it with fortitude, man has not abandoned himself to nerveless inaction, to pusillanimous despair; he has conceived the thought, he has cherished the hope, he has embraced the belief, of a life beyond the grave, and opened his soul to the religions which baulk the king of terrors of his victims and defraud him of his victory. Thus, the fear of death has been redeemed, and ennobled by the consoling belief in immortality, a belief from which none are base enough to withhold their moral homage, even though the debility[117] of mortal knowledge may debar a few from a full acceptance of its promise.”[4]
The early animistic views of survival, which were the first forecasts of a life beyond, were due not so much to the consciousness of the moral grandeur of life as to actual experiences which gave to primitive man a confident assurance of some form of life after the death of the body. Dreams had an important part in leading man to this na?ve and yet momentous discovery. In a world which had no established criterion of “reality,” the experiences of vivid dreams were taken to be as real as any other experiences, and in these dreams the dreamer often found his dead ancestors and friends and tribesmen once more present with him, active in the chase or the fight and as real as ever they were in life. Trance, hallucination, telepathy, mediumship, possession, are not new phenomena; they are very primitive and ancient. These things are as old as smiling and weeping. These psychic experiences had their part to play also in giving the early races their belief that the dead person still existed though in an altered and attenuated form as an animus or “spirit” or “shade.” This empirical[118] view of survival, built on actual experiences, was more or less incapable of advance. No further knowledge could be acquired and the constructions fashioned by imagination, in reference to “the scenery and circumstance” of the departed soul, could satisfy only an uncritical mind. These constructions were, too, often crude and bizarre, and tended, in the hands of priests, to hamper man’s moral development rather than to further it. But in any case man had made the momentous guess that death did not utterly end him or his career. Poor and thin as this dimly conceived future world of primitive man’s hope may have been, the psychological effect of the hope was by no means negligible. Professor Shaler of Harvard was probably speaking truly when he wrote:
“If we should seek some one mark, which in the intellectual advance from the brutes to man, might denote the passage to the human side, we might well find it in the moment when it dawned upon the nascent man that death was a mystery which he had in his turn to meet. From the time when man began to face death to the present stage of his development there has been a continuous struggle between the motives of personal fear on the one hand, and valor on the[119] other. That of fear has been constantly aided by the work of the imagination. For one fact of danger there have been scores of fancied risks to come from the unseen world. Against this great host of imaginary ills, which tended utterly to bear men down, they had but one helper—their spirit of valiant self-sacrifice for the good of their family, their clan, their state, their race, or, in the climax, for the Infinite above.”[5]
It marked a still greater intellectual advance when primitive man came to the immense conclusion not only that death was a mystery which he in turn must meet, but that he was a being that would survive death.
It is, however, in another field that we must look for the most important spiritual results from the contemplation of death, that is in what we may call the field of spiritual values. I have already contended that man’s greatest discovery was his discovery of the absolute value of moral personality. Of course, it came fairly late in the development of the race and by no means has everybody made it yet! But at any rate there came a time somewhere in the process of history when man did discover a beyond within himself,[120] a greater inclusive self present within his own fragmentary, finite spirit, revealed as a passion for perfection not yet attained or experienced, a prophesying consciousness of eternity within his often baffled and defeated temporal life. No one has expressed the fact of this inner beyond within us better than old Sir Thomas Browne did in the seventeenth century: “We are men and we know not how; there is something in us that can be without us and will be after us, though it is strange that it hath no history of what it was before us, nor can tell how it entered in us.... There is surely a piece of Divinity in us, something that was before the elements and owes not homage unto the Sun.”
The sublimity and grandeur revealed in nature, the majesty of mountains, the might of seas, the mystery of the ocean, the glory of the sun and stars, the awe inspired by the thunderstorm, awakened man’s own spirit and made him dimly conscious of a kindred grandeur in his own answering soul. The greatest step of all was taken when man awoke to the meaning and value of love. In some dim sense love preceded the emergence of man. The evolution of a mother and of a father, as Drummond showed, began far back in forms of life below man. But the[121] type of love which transcends instinct, which is raised above sex-assertion, and is transmuted into an unselfish appreciation of the beauty and worth of personal character—that type of love is one of the most wonderful flowers that has yet blossomed on our Igdrasil tree of life and it was late and slow to come, like flowers on the century-plant.
When death broke in and separated those who loved in this great fashion the whole problem of death at once became an urgent one. In fact death received attention in proportion as the higher values of life began to be realized. Walt Whitman’s fiery outburst reveals clearly his estimate of the worth of personality. “If rats and maggots end us, then alarum! for we are betrayed”—he might have said “if microbes end us.” Emerson’s poignant outcry of soul is found in his greatest poem—“Threnody”:
“There’s not a sparrow or a wren,
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