Regard the End

But if all else fails, give in and die

Though most of the time I'm as stupid and fearful of death as the next guy, I've had moments like those ever since. And then I know that the fact of death makes life beautiful. This is what Wallace Stevens meant when he wrote in a poem called "Sunday Morning" that "Death is the mother of beauty." The problem is that the epiphanic light that can flare so radiantly when you feel death's presence always goes away pretty quickly. It goes because it can't stay.

I don't think we're wired to "regard the end" with any kind of permanent gaze. I suspect death is a much bigger monster, psychologically, than the single-syllabled word we casually throw around suggests it is. Like other animals, we have a physiological aversion to it, so we systematically avoid it in consciousness except for those times when we have no choice. But if Stevens is right, death is why we have poetry; it's why we have art. The fear of death is the thing that activates our desire, the thing that makes it vital that we really see and appreciate a beautiful face before it ages or taste a ripe fruit before it rots. By this reckoning, art is death redeemed.

I don't know myself. Most of the time, I can't hold on to the concepts. Most of the time, I will myself to forget that death matters. And then something will happen: I'll catch my wife staring out a window, looking troubled and wistful and alone, or I'll look at my two vibrant sons, aged 4 and 2, and suddenly see them not as the immortals they see themselves as, but as all-too-mortal, and then that light will glow around them, and I'll know as deeply as I've ever known anything and will know until the light fades, which it always does, that, as Galway Kinnell puts it, "the wages of dying is love."

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