from “Adventures and Confessions”
by William Lyon Phelps
first published in 1926
I was six years old when my sister died. It was just at dawn, and I remember my mother rushing into the room where I was, and screaming frantically, “My God! My God! “ I could not understand this, and turning to my father, I asked, “Papa, what makes Mama swear so?” and he told me she was not swearing, but praying in agony because she had lost her only daughter. My sister was nearly seventeen years older than I, and had taken care of me very often, so that she seemed more like a second mother than a sister. She had typhoid fever; it was a long illness; I had been taken to her bedroom, so that she might say Good-bye. But her death was a mystery to my childish mind; I saw her in the coffin; I went to her funeral in a state of excitement. It seemed to me incredible that she had disappeared from our home and family life, had become inaccessible. This was the first time I was brought face to face with the mystery of death. For death is as complete a mystery as life.
No one can enter or pass a graveyard without serious reflexions. To some it causes a momentary feeling of dismay, akin to physical discomfort; to others a whole train of thought is set in motion. To me the graveyard is not my own tragedy, nor the tragedy of those who lie there, not even of those who died young; the tragedy comes in the thought of the racking suffering represented by each grave, the all but intolerable agony in the minds of every little family group who were forced to stand and see the remains of some one inexpressibly dear committed to the ground. Thus every grave represents the grief and anguish of the living. It is not the thought of death—which is as natural as life—but the cruel thought of separation that makes the churchyard an accumulation of tragedies.
The difference between past physical and mental suffering is the difference between an enemy who has been conquered and an enemy who is in ambush. Physical suffering can be so acute as to dominate for a time both body and mind; it is absurd to say that physical suffering is good for us, when in reality it acts on the kingdom of the mind like a usurping tyrant, destroying both pleasure and activity. But when physical suffering departs, it is over and done with. A healed scar will not ache. About mental anguish there is something insidious; it may return at any moment, at unexpected times and in strange places. One may be resting placidly in fancied security, one may be sitting in agreeable conversation with friends, one may be laughing at a comedy in the theatre, and suddenly, without warning, the torture returns. All suffering is the enemy to happiness; but mental grief is an alert foe, who at any moment may make a surprise attack.
Yet, even so, the agony of separation is reduced and softened by time. I have seen persons nearly insane with grief, in a state of frenzy. To look upon them at such a moment, one would not believe it possible that they could ever laugh again, or in any conceivable manner, enjoy existence; yet, meeting them after the lapse of time, one finds them in pleasurable activities, working, eating, laughing with their friends. The most difficult thing to imagine, when looking on a face disordered by grief, is to imagine that same face expressively interested in external affairs, news of the world, politics, athletics, and what not; yet in the course of time, the eyes and the mind return to normal things, and he who had no room in his thoughts except for the obsession of sorrow, is once more mentally active.
One of the most impressive things in Barrie’s drama, Mary Rose,is the representation of the return to normality, of the domination of grief by interest in mundane affairs. In Shakespeare’s play, King John,Constance cries:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.
Yet eventually the things that give us the most anguish are turned by the strange alchemy of time into golden reminiscence. At first one cannot bear to see anything that reminds one acutely of a friend who has died; but after the passage of healing time, one loves to dwell on those very details. I have seen members of a family, speaking of one long dead, smiling and saying, “Do you remember how she liked this? “ that is to say, recalling with a feeling akin to pleasure the very details that in the early days of bereavement are unbearable.
We do not forget those we have loved, and we do not wish to forget them. It is astonishing how clearly we can recall them by the miracle of memory. They have absolutely and totally disappeared; they are as entirely beyond our physical reach as though they had never existed; but by a simple effort of memory, we see their faces, animated as they were in life by individual expression.
And it is interesting to remember that the formative influence of friends upon us is often much greater after their death than before. This is particularly true of parents. The young man thinks his father and mother are mistaken about life, he does not take their advice seriously, he says and does the things that shock and distress their minds. Years after he has lost them, he finds himself “coming around to their way of thinking,” acting as they acted. They seem to reach out from the grave hands more potent than physical hands, and guide him in a manner impossible in life. In Brand Whitlock’s novel, J. Hardin and Son, during the lifetime of the father, there was civil war between him and his son; the latter enraged his stern father by continuous, active rebellion. Years after the old man had departed, his son found, much to his surprise, that he was behaving like his father, taking his father’s viewpoint, looking at life through his father’s eyes.
Even those of us who are surest of immortality, whose religious faith is most serene, cannot escape the pain of separation. If one goes to a pier on the departure of an ocean steamer, one will see many affecting scenes. As the ship moves away, there are those on shore who are crying and smiling at the same moment, waving their handkerchiefs and calling out good wishes. They would not bring their friends back if they could, but they cannot help feeling lonely. Now if we really had the faith that moves mountains, we should mentally say to dying friends, “Happy Journey! “ as we do to those who travel abroad. But human beings simply cannot rise to such a level, and it is vain to make such demands on human capacity.
“No work begun shall ever pause for death,” said Browning; and sometimes the influence of those who died young is greater than if they had lived long and successful lives. Consider Nathan Hale. He was sent into the British lines by Washington, in order that he might obtain information useful to the Continental Army. But he totally and ignominiously failed. I do not know of a more complete failure in history than Nathan Hale. Instead of getting information, the British got him; and I have no doubt that when the rope was around his neck, his last and most bitter thought was not that he had to die so young, or that he would never see his sweetheart again, or that his own career was closed—the bitterest thought undoubtedly was that he was a failure. What would Washington say? He would say, “I wish I had sent an abler man, a man who could have accomplished something, not this incompetent bungler.” Now imagine what might have happened. Suppose Nathan Hale had succeeded, had returned in safety, with a mass of valuable information. Suppose as a result of his expedition, the American army had won a decisive battle; suppose Nathan Hale had eventually become a major-general, and after the war President of the United States, and had died at the age of eighty, full of years and honours. His direct influence on successive generations of Americans as a general officer, president, and statesman would not have compared in magnitude with his actual influence as a failure. Since the day of his ignominious death in the orchard, his personal influence on every American has been enormously stimulating and will continue to be so for centuries to come. He died a failure, but he died with glorious courage. So true it is that not length of years, or an accumulation of deeds, but personal character is what counts. “No work begun shall ever pause for death.”
Speculation on the future state is as old as human history. No one can help asking, is death the end? Shall we live again? Is matter less destructible than spirit? If there is a future state, what will it be, and what part shall we play therein?
There has been an advance in the dignity of speculative thought.. The Indians buried their warriors with bow and arrows, because their conception of heaven was one eternal happy hunting-ground. Some of the Northern races imagined that heaven was a place where men fought all day, and drank all night; because their chief earthly pleasures were fighting and drinking. There seems to have been no place for women in this Paradise. The Mohammedans imagined that heaven was a place of unlimited sensuality. Some of our Puritan forefathers seemed to believe that after death they would spend millions of years standing in white robes, holding palms in their hands, and singing “Worthy the Lamb!”
Now whatever the future state may be, it seems that it ought never to be static, but rather a place of continuous and infinite development. For the most striking difference between human beings and animals is the tremendous fact that all human beings have the capacity for development, something denied to mere animals. There is no reason a dog or a horse should live forever, because they reach the limit of fulfillment in this earthly existence. My dog, who is now nine years old, is clever in his canicular way; but if he lived to be seventy or seven thousand, he would be the same dog, no further advanced mentally than he is now. On the other hand, every child, no matter how elementary in intelligence, has in his infant mind possibilities of development so vast that literally eternity is not long enough to exhaust them. Not only does it seem a calamity that scholars, scientists, and inventors should die, and their steady advance come to an annihilating conclusion; the death of every individual—if it be the end—is a waste so appalling that the universe, from the human point of view, is turned into a farce. Life would then really be what Mark Twain said it was, the worst practical joke ever played.
Every human being has in his mind an infinite capacity for development. I want to live forever, because I know, that granted the one blessing of health, I should never find eternity tiresome. Even at this moment I have enough plans, desires, and interests to keep me steadily and cheerfully busy for several trillion years; and by that time I should certainly have accumulated enough new ideas to wish to continue. It is even more generally true of intellectual interests than it is of food that the appetite grows by what it feeds on. If the man who amasses money cannot stop, but is ever eager to acquire more wealth, the scholar, the student, the man of an enquiring mind, is even more eager to learn indefinitely, to obtain new experiences. Is it possible to imagine Shakespeare losing interest in human nature? Can one imagine Edison ceasing to wish to make new inventions? Is it possible for one who~ has spent his earthly life in the pursuit of some form of knowledge, gladly to acquiesce in cessation? “The highest good is the growth of the soul.”
The parable of the talents was directed against those who are content to make no advance; who receive the gift of mind without improving it. The greatest sin one can commit against one’s own personality is the lack of ambition to enrich and improve it. For the aim of life is not merely to secure physical comfort, delightful as that is; the aim of life is to grow,and thus to fulfill to the uttermost possibilities.
Furthermore there is hope for immortality in the miracle of individuality, of personal identity. It is a cheering thought that although all human beings are alike in their bodily and mental sensations, enjoy the same pleasures, suffer from the same causes, — every individual person is a unit, who has never been matched in past ages, and whose replica will never appear on earth again. There is no wider gulf imaginable than the gulf which separates one man from another. Even in cases where Sons resemble their fathers so noticeably that they have the same facial expression, the same trick of the voice, the same arm-gesture and bodily attitude in excitement or repose, the difference between such a son and such a father is wider than the space between East and West. They resemble each other in many ways, but they are not even imaginably the same.
There is some comfort, I say, in this miracle of individuality. You may be poor, stupid, unsuccessful, unhappy; but there is one form of wealth that cannot be taken away from you—your own personality. The story of Peter Schlemihl was a tragic story, because when he sold his shadow, he sold a part of himself. Of all the billions of men or women that have walked the ways of earth, and of all the billions that will inhabit our planet to the end of time, you, you who read these words, are unique. You have a separate and inimitable personality.
Thus the waste of war cannot be reckoned in the loss of wealth or material things which can eventually be successfully duplicated; the untold waste of war consists in the removal from earth of an enormous number of irreplaceable personalities.
The evidences in Nature for the persistence of individual life after death are not sufficiently numerous or weighty to be convincing. The fact that man wants to live, that he can hardly imagine himself not living, that the whole scheme of the world becomes farcical without immortality are evidences of the willto live, of the instinct for existence, rather than of the fact itself. Of course there are plenty of happy analogies thrust upon our minds by Nature. The dying, rotting grain springing into life, which cannot indeed live at all unless it first dies; the apparently dead trees in Winter springing into a glory of new life in the Spring. As we grow older, the Spring, which made little impression upon us in childhood, becomes a glorious and inspiring drama. Sometimes after a long winter and a cold March and April, the trees seem to burst out some May morning like an explosion; I have trembled in ecstasy in beholding them.
But to offset this, there is the most pessimistic thought which can ever visit a serious and contemplative mind; it is the appalling waste of Nature, the apparent indifference of Nature to the life and welfare of the individual. Through the passion for existence and the passion for reproduction Nature has abundantly provided for the continuation of the race, of the type; but for the welfare of the individual there is apparently no provision. It is ridiculous to talk about the survival of the fittest; for the truly fit-to-live have no more chance in a general epidemic, calamity, railway accident, earthquake, fire or cyclone, than those who are apparently not fit to live at all.
Let us not deceive ourselves with sentimentality or with cant. There is a vast amount of cant talked about death by those who have no belief in religion. I saw a book once called The Eternal Lifeand took it up with some hope. But all the author had to say was, that although the individual ceases to exist at death, we should be comforted by the thought that the Human Race goes on.
That the Human Race goes on is not necessarily a cause for joy. Chekhov said that we comfort ourselves with the thought that we are sacrificing ourselves for posterity, that the next generations will be much happier and better; and then when the future generations arrive, they will say, “How unhappy we are! how much better it was in the good old times.
But there is in reality no such thing as a Race, even when spelled with a capital. There is no such thing as racial happiness, any more than there is such a thing as national happiness. Happiness is exclusively concerned with the individual. The Human Race in itself is not a reality; it is simply a collection of individuals. There can be no individual happiness in racial immortality.
Either we live individually after death or we do not. If we really die, we are then as nonexistent as we were in the year 1768. A doctor and nurse stood by a dying man, and when he breathed his last, the nurse said, “Well, he knows all about it now.” But if consciousness ceased with bodily death, he really knew less about it than before; for at any rate men who are alive can guess and speculate.
There is no room for immortality in this world. Death is a necessity in the economic order;’ and taking humanity as a whole, death is a fortunate necessity. The absolute certainty of death—for there is nothing more certain—casts a dark shadow over every human being, and exerts a profound influence on every life and character. From its dark roots springs the bright flower of humility. How absolutely intolerable most persons would be if they knew they were not to die!
Death is the sharpest check to egotism, the heavy brake on passion, the chill on lust, the restraint on avarice, the eternal No to selfishness. What would become of the average run of men and women if a man like Napoleon were immortal? There have been many persons in history marked by a combination of towering ambition and colossal selfishness; the average man is never safe until such persons are dead.
The thought that every one of us must die creates in our hearts a healthy modesty, which is not only necessary for the proper development of our own personality and character, but which makes us tolerable to others. If we did not know that we must leave the earth and every earthly possession, we should all become insufferable; there would be no community on earth where it would be possible to live in peace.
In the Old Testament there is not much emphasis laid on the future life; it is in the religion of the Lord Jesus Christ where individual immortality, in some sphere of free and untrammelled development, is most greatly stressed. Christianity lays all its emphasis on the individual life—no religion has ever placed such a value on human beings. Not a sparrow falleth to the ground without your Father’s notice—every hair of your heads is numbered. Jesus believed and taught that God was really our Father—that every one of His children was to Him inexpressibly precious. “Your Heavenly Father Knoweth.”
No one ever understood the human heart so profoundly as Jesus. Wherever we can test his ideas, so far as they relate to earthly activities and behaviour, he was always right. He spoke the truth. It is reassuring to remember that one who is accurate when his ideas can be subjected to verification, has a good chance of being right in his predictions.
Now Jesus was certain of personal immortality, of the persistence of the individual soul after death. About this matter he spoke with confidence. He was sure of the future—can we not follow where he leads? If we find all of his practical teaching wise, reasonable, and true, does it not help us to believe that he was not mistaken in other things?
I confess that my own hope of the future life is based on the personality of Jesus, on the Incarnation, on my belief that he revealed the Divine Idea to helpless and suffering and ignorant humanity.
There is no reason we should not entertain our minds with speculations about the nature of future mental activities after we have got rid of the body. It is my own individual hope, that as it is now possible to travel everywhere about this earth, after death it will be possible to travel all over the universe. Light travels two hundred thousand miles a second; but there is something that travels infinitely faster than Light—it is Thought. When I speak to another man, and say the word Sirius,we both instantaneously travel from the earth to that particular star. Hence it is possible that after death, when the checks and hindrances to activity are removed, our individual spirits may actually travel as fast as thought. Such journeys would be interesting.
There is an innate pessimism in humanity shown in many ways and shown especially in this. There is no doubt that the chief reason why so many do not believe in immortality is not because the idea of immortality is foolish, but simply because “it is too good to be true.” But if the revelation of God in Jesus Christ was a true revelation, nothing is too good to be true. Even as it is, his mere appearance on earth is the best thing that ever happened.
There is one result that should rise from the thought of death—it should make us more sympathetic, more kindly, more considerate, more warmhearted.’ A ship’s company become more easily and more informally acquainted than mere street crowds; and if there be danger, the artificial walls that separate human beings from one another vanish immediately. Now we ought to regard all humanity as a ship’s company, for we are all travelling some-whither. Furthermore, we are all in danger. No one can tell what calamity or disaster may happen tomorrow.
When I was a young man, I had an accident, and was forced to walk on crutches for a month. I could not help noticing an obvious fact. Strangers in the street looked at me with a peculiar expression. There was a look of pity, sympathy, a desire to help on nearly every face I saw. That was because I was on crutches.
Let us remember that although only a very few show their wounds as I was forced to do1 every man and woman has griefs and sorrows that are as real as if they were plain to see. Every man’s soul is bleeding internally. Even the happiest people have troubles. Now as it is impossible to imagine any one kicking or striking me when I was on crutches—if any one had done so, he would have been called a monster—so we ought to be equally careful not to strike others in what may be their most sensitive spot. But there is an enormous amount of such cruelty happening every day.
I suppose no one has ever heard of a friend’s death without acute remorse, without the bitter recollection either of injuries done to that friend or of opportunities for help that were missed. We always say, “If I had known he was going to die, 1 should have acted so differently.” Well, why should we always be accumulating material for remorse and regret? We do know. We know that all our friends, acquaintances, and strangers are mortal. They will die. It is not necessary to bespatter them with officious sympathy, but it is the part of wisdom to treat every human being with delicate care. The soul is more sensitive than the skin. If we cannot be of much use to those with whom we come in daily contact, we can at least try to avoid hurting them.
It is astonishing how grateful people are for a little sympathy and consideration. I can remember, after the lapse of fifty years, certain words and acts of kindness, and I shall cherish the memory of those people so long as I live.
In the midst of life we are in death.This is not only a chastening and sobering thought for the individual mind, it should have a daily influence on our conduct.