Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why should the spirit of mortal be proud?

"Remember, Man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Such are the familiar words of the ceremony, as the priest or deacon traces the ashes on the faithfuls' foreheads.  Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem revertis. "Remember that you are mortal," the slave used to whisper in the ear of the triumphator even as he was hailed as a god by the Roman crowds for his victories.

The hand of the king that the sceptre hath borne;
The brow of the priest that the mitre hath worn;
The eye of the sage, and the heart of the brave,
Are hidden and lost in the depth of the grave.

Even today, there are those who seek to deny this fundamental truth of human existence.  The alchemists and sorcerers now wear lab coats, the philosopher's stones replaced by centrifuges and smoking draughts replaced by enzymes.  And yet it's the same misdirected imperative — the desire to live longer rather than live better.
So the multitude goes, like the flowers or the weed
That withers away to let others succeed;
So the multitude comes, even those we behold,
To repeat every tale that has often been told.

Had we not been given the tale of Adam and Eve, and the fault of our first parents which deprived us of original justice, doubtless we should look at the circle of life and understand that we weren't designed to live forever as we are, that our mortality was intentional ("Then the LORD God said, 'Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever'" [Gen 3:22]).  There is nothing childish or simplistic about it; no matter how long we live, as long as we can die, we will die, whether we go wilfully or not.  No potion, no genetic transformation will change us so that death has no purchase.

The thoughts we are thinking our fathers would think;
From the death we are shrinking our fathers would shrink;
To the life we are clinging they also would cling;
But it speeds for us all, like a bird on the wing.

We live longer today than at any time in history, with largely better health and more material comforts than man has ever seen.  And yet it's difficult to argue that we live "better" than the medieval peasant at his plow.  For we are surrounded by a host of artificialities, the creations of our nimble fingers and clever brains, yet have not ended poverty, disease or war; humans still suffer daily from the rapacity and cupidity of their fellow humans. Is there much difference between the serf of the manor and the wage slave of the multi-national corporation?

The saint who enjoyed the communion of heaven;
The sinner who dared to remain unforgiven;
The wise and the foolish, the guilty and just,
Have quietly mingled their bones in the dust.

If there's any lesson Man repeatedly fails to learn, it's that it doesn't matter how long we live but rather how well we live, what use we make of our lives.  We are going to die.  When we embrace this fact, instead of spending our lives and fortunes trying to evade it, we can re-prioritize our lives.  Do you really want to spend your lives chasing money, or would you rather spend more time with your family and friends?  Do you really need to spend your nights drinking and chasing tail or can you spend them working at a shelter?  Is your money better spent on status symbols or on charitable gifts ... especially since, wherever you're going after this life, you can't get there by driving a Lexus?

'Tis the wink of an eye, 'tis the draught of a breath,
From the blossom of health to the paleness of death,
From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud,—
Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?

We are not destined or intended to remain a part of this world, so it is foolish to remain attached to it, or to spend much of our time, energy and resources stretching it out like adding water to soup to feed more people.  A life not lived for others is wasted from the beginning; adding more years to it doesn't make it better.  Use well the time you have been given by making the lives of others better.