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The Specter of Death By Bolton Hall, M.A. 1917
Often we are anxious and sleepless only because we are afraid of what is not in itself frightful. Like the little child in the picture who mounts the dark stairs in deadly terror of an imaginary bear, we are afraid lest we should see a vague something that might terrify us still more.
But perhaps there is a real specter in our path? Let us attack the most terrible foe; having overcome him, we shall find that the lesser ones have no power over us.
A man was once walking alone a lonely road on a dark, misty night, fearing every sound and looking for danger. He had been told that the road was haunted and this was the terror that possessed him. As he neared the haunted spot, he saw a white form rise from the earth. It was barely discernible through the mist as it waved thin arms and made soft moaning sighs. His hair rose on his head, but his going forward was imperative, so he took heart of grace, and determined to face his adversary.
"Spirit or human," said he, "I shall settle you before I leave this place to-night." With this he dashed forward, and found that it was merely a slender birch with white under-leaves upturned in the wind, as the breeze sighed through its branches.
The rest of the road held no terrors for him. The specter he had most dreaded proved to be nothing at all. In conquering his first emotion of fear he had vanquished all terror.
Maybe we fear the possible death either of ourselves or of some other dearer than ourselves. Are we afraid of that? Let us look calmly at it. Changes have taken place, and are even now in progress in our bodies, yet we do not fear them. For the most part we are even unconscious of them: a change is not terrible in itself, no matter how great it is. Death is but another change, one that has not yet come.
A pious man once appealed in distress to the late Rev. Dr. John Hall: he said he knew his soul was saved, but he was afraid of dying. Dr. Hall asked him, "But you are not dying now, are you?"
"No," he said, "but I know that I must die some day."
"Ah, well!" replied the doctor, "we hardly need dying grace until our dying day."
"As our day so shall our strength be"—the bravest soldier may be nervous contemplating the battle, but in the action he finds not only courage but exhilaration. So, if we learn to live from day to day, we may well put off fear of death or dying until our dying day has come, and then we may find that there is nothing to fear. For the present, what we have to consider is life, and what it may mean.
We accept this series of physical changes as physical life, for we know that, if the changes stopped, life would stop also; but we must also recognize them as death, for the beginning of each new stage is the death of the previous stage. Thus death is steadily going on in ourselves, at the same time that life continues, and we not only have no fear of it, but are unconscious of the process: our body is constantly passing from death to life, as well as from life to death, and we are not afraid of that; in fact, we never give a thought to it.
Even from the physical standpoint man need not spend his best years fearing death. When we live so that death shall round out a long life, we shall have lost all fear of it. When we say that a person did not die a "natural death," we usually mean that he died suddenly and violently. But death from disease is not "natural" either, and in as far as we learn how to live aright, harmonizing the physical, mental, and spiritual natures, realizing that the perishing body is not all of us, we can avoid most of the fruitful sources of disease. As we learn what true life is, and how natural the eventual dissolution of the body is, we shall cease to tremble at it.
Metchnikoff, the eminent philosopher and student who has devoted years of study and research to the life and death of man, says: "When diseases are suppressed, and the course of life regulated by scientific hygiene, it is probable that death will come only at extreme old age. When death comes in its natural place at the end of the normal cycle of the physical life, it will be robbed of its terrors, and be accepted gratefully as any other part of the cycle of life."
He thinks, in fact, that the instinct of life may be replaced by an instinct of death. "It is even possible," he says, "that the approach of natural death is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world." Perhaps the most striking evidence of the truth of this so far recorded is the case of Brillat-Savarin's aunt -—who, at ninety-three, said to her famous nephew, "If you ever reach my age you will find that one wants to die just as one wants to sleep."
All of us know of cases where the very aged, having lived their lives to the best of their perceptions, awaited death willingly and almost joyfully. As Browning says, "Thou waitedst age; wait death, nor be afraid."
Fear of the approach of death disturbs us because we feel further possibilities of life. We do not want to be cut off in the flower of our existence; we think of death, not as a change of existence, but as the end of it, and we think there is no sure way of avoiding that. All of us have felt the truth of Dickens' idea of the bells which toll almost gladly for the aged, but seem to weep when the young die. We are sure we should not fear death, nor be unwilling to die if we had the privilege of living to a "ripe old age." For time is not measured by the clock or by the calendar; those measure only the revolutions of the earth and of the sun. Time is measured by thought and act, and, more than all, by feeling. And we can ordinarily prolong our own lives to the time when we shall willingly and gladly lay them down.
This willingness is by no means the same feeling that prompts the useless and unmeaning exclamation, "Oh, I wish I were dead!" The average person gets into such an unreasoning state over every little happening that he cannot see any connection between the events in his daily life. He becomes discouraged, and thinks for the moment that he would like to quit it all. No matter how many years such an one has lived, he has not attained a "ripe old age." Ripeness has no part in petty impatience; it implies mellowness, soundness, and general wholesomeness of character.
As man is learning more and more about his life, he is finding that sickness, premature old age, and untimely death are, in a large measure, due to his own misunderstanding of the purposes of life. It is this misunderstanding that gives the mysterious air to life. We fear the mysterious, for our ingrained habit of regarding things that we do not yet understand as insoluble mysteries is a relic of the days when savage man found mystery and danger in everything.
So, if we are making ourselves unhappy, losing sleep, and suffering physical and mental distress because of the possible approach of death, we may dismiss that cause of worry. As soon as we begin to consider the purposes of life and our relation to them, we shall naturally avoid excesses in eating; live as hygienically as possible; harbor cleanly, uplifting thoughts, helpful to others and to ourselves, and so reach out spiritually for a fuller understanding of the purposes of all life. And what we cease to fear for ourselves, we soon cease to fear for our other selves.
Living thus, we shall not fear death, but shall move toward it without thinking of it, knowing that it is natural, merely the long sleep of the objective consciousness.
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