“And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk;
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.” — William Stafford, A Ritual to Read to Each Other
When Michel Montaigne (1533-1592), Renaissance statesman and the father of the modern essay, was thirty-six, he had a near-death experience. He was riding in the forest with three or four companions, servants in his household, musing over something intriguing to him, when suddenly he took a tremendous blow to his back, was flung from his horse, and landed ten yards away, unconscious. It seems that one of his men, a burly fellow, had spurred his horse to full gallop to impress his friends, and had misjudged the distance between himself and his master, inadvertently knocking Montaigne and his little horse off the path.
Sara Bakewell tells the story in her book, How to Live or A Life of Montaigne. At the time, Montaigne felt himself to be drifting peacefully toward eternal sleep, although he was actually retching up blood and tearing at his belly as though to claw it open for release. For days he lay in bed recovering, full of aches and grievous pains, marveling at the experience he’d had and trying to recall every moment of it. It changed his life, which, until then, had been dedicated to learning how to die with equanimity and grace.
In an essay on death, written some years after the incident, Montaigne rather offhandedly sums up the lesson, “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry. Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”
Bakewell notes that this became Montaigne’s answer to the question of how to live. In fact, not worrying about death made it possible to really live. In an era in which a man of thirty-six could, by the limits of those times, see himself on the verge of getting old, the contemplation of death had been refined to a high art. Montaigne picked this up from his voluminous study of the Greek and Roman classics, his admiration for the Stoics, like Seneca, and the Roman orator, statesman and philosopher, Cicero, who famously wrote, “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”
Death was an obsession for Montaigne when he was in his twenties and early thirties. In succession, his best friend died of the plague in 1563, his father died in 1568, and in 1569 his younger brother died in a freak sporting accident. In that same year Montaigne got married; his first child, born that same year lived only two months. Montaigne lost four more children, only one of six living to adulthood. Yet, in spite of all that early sorrowful practice, he had grown no easier with death.
It wasn’t until his near-fatal accident that he began to understand how little our own death need affect us. His experience of it was one of peaceful release; he had almost kissed Death on the lips. From that experience he gradually migrated out of fear of dying to being engaged in living and learning how to live.
Some of this came to mind today while I was immersed in thought at the funeral of a friend, a man well-respected in my community, who was Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian, author of over 125 scientific articles and books, and once voted by the Washington Post and Washingtonian Magazine as one of the 25 smartest people in Washington, DC.
He had balanced a life as a scientist in constant discovery-mode with being a husband, a father, a member of a church, and chairman of the local school board. In his sudden death, we mourned the loss of a man who made life look effortless, achievement and highest honors a matter of diligence, whose passing left a body of work and a legacy to be admired.
I remembered him as being kind, forthright, clear-eyed, and honest, a man who generously took the time to ask one questions of himself and to probe for answers together.
Our friend understood, said the minister in his homily, that we do not travel this life alone. As a scientist, he worked with others, as a member of a faith community he struggled with matters of conviction and truth, as a man he knew that we do not grieve alone. Not a sentimentalist nor given to emotional displays, he made honesty and integrity his benchmarks for a life with others.
So little time in life. . . so much to live into! Montaigne turns from preparing for death to living a conscious life in a way that remarks upon itself. In the lens of his self-reflection he gives us a mirror for ourselves. In his boundless curiosity about life our friend, Don Ortner, rendered Death almost an afterthought. Be honest, live simply, trust fully, do good work: it’s essential, these men said, to stand for life in the midst of death.
Just so, William Stafford, from the poem quoted above ends with this stanza:
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.