Samuel Johnson, that great English expert on words, once wrote:
“Hope is itself a species of happiness, and perhaps the chief happiness which this word affords.”
Sherwin B. Nuland highlights that quote in his 1994 book How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter. He highlights the idea of hope in a book about the inevitability of death.
But how can human beings be hopeful — how can they be happy — when they know that, sooner or later, they will die?
That’s the beautiful paradox of Nuland’s great book. Death helps us be hopeful. Death helps us be happy.
Without death, we would be bored.
We’re not eternal
Think of it: If you had an eternal existence, what difference would it make if today is sunny? Or if the tree outside your window is blooming? Or if you took a trip to Paris this year? Or if children were playing on the sidewalk outside your home?
A sunny day would be just another of an infinite series of sunny days to come, and the tree would be just one of an infinite series of trees that will bloom. Paris will always be there, anytime. And the children? Youth is only a first step in an everlasting series of steps.
But as Nuland makes clear in exquisitely detailed and clear-eyed prose, we’re not eternal.
“The unmistakable gray-white pallor”
There are myriad ways in which, over the course of time, our bodies will decay, deteriorate, corrode and fall apart. And we die. He writes:
The appearance of a newly lifeless face cannot be mistaken for unconsciousness. Within a minute after the heart stops beating, the face begins to take on the unmistakable gray-white pallor of death; in an uncanny way, the features very soon appear corpse-like, even to those who have never before seen a dead body. A man’s corpse looks as though his essence has left him, and it has.
So, is this a book to scare the dickens out of you? Not at all.
It’s one of the most life-affirming books I’ve ever read.
The bottom-line message is that life is a great gift, but the clock is ticking. Don’t trick yourself into believing that eternal youth is possible. If it’s a beautiful day, remember you have only so many beautiful days to enjoy. If you see kids playing on the sidewalk, remember that, for all their innocence and fun, they will grow up and age and die. As they’re playing, they’re living out a message: Enjoy life. Let yourself love and be loved. Live.
The dignity of our lives
And, when you do think of death, don’t plan on “a good death.” For most of us, death is not going to be like in the movies. For some, it will be sudden, with no chance of saying good-bye. For many others, it will be a lingering, messy, painful process.
It’s possible, if you think ahead, to reduce a little of the messiness and pain, to die as dignified a death as possible. But, even more important, Nuland writes:
The dignity that we seek in dying must be found in the dignity with which we have lived our lives.
“When my time comes:
That’s where the hope comes in.
Hope, as Nuland describes it, has to do with seeing what’s possible in the miracle of each day and in the miracle of every person.
That’s where happiness is found — in seeing the possible and reaching for it. And, in doing so, to have a positive impact on the world and the people in that world. Nuland writes:
When my time comes, I will seek hope…in the certainty that I will not be abandoned to die alone; I am seeking it now, in the way I try to live my life, so that those who value what I am will have profited by my time on earth and be left with comforting recollections of what we have meant to one another.
Nuland died a few years ago at the age of 83. Anyone who reads this book will profit from his time on earth.
Patrick T. Reardon
Also, see my review of the second book of this grouping: Advice for Future Corpses by Sallie Tisdale.