Mortality humanizes — if we face it. This became increasingly clear to me when my grandfather suffered through the final stages of a ten-year descent into the paralyzing and crippling effects of Parkinson’s disease.
Thinking about him brings to mind Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, theologically meditative novel Gilead. The narrator, Reverend John Ames, knows that he will soon die of a faulty heart. He will leave behind a wife and young son in economic hardship, widowed and fatherless. He suffers like my grandfather, knowing he will die and leave his family behind with nothing, knowing he will never see his son grow into a man. He loves the beauty of God’s creation. He revels in its everyday majesty, and he knows that it will soon be gone for him.
Knowing he was dying prepared my grandfather, as it did Ames, for the afterlife. It also made him love this life more. A lifelong Christian, it’s doubtful he ever seriously questioned his belief in God, and while it’s not for me to judge, it’s hard to imagine a man more deserving of eternal life. But in his suffering — perhaps even more than in health — he cherished the seconds of life more than I, then a healthy twenty-four-year-old, possibly could. He savored every breath, no matter how hard they were to take.
Suffering in Its Truest Form
Knowledge of death becomes suffering in its truest form, because while we acknowledge our mortality we can’t help but mourn the impending loss of one form of our existence. We are forced to reconcile life and afterlife. This is the power of suffering. We should not suffer for the sake of suffering; we are not flagellants. Suffering is evil in itself. But out of that evil comes redemption. We nod in agreement when Dostoyevsky says:
I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.
Mortality and suffering reveal to us a higher Truth: Namely, that in life, we must enjoy the beauty of God’s creation, while also remembering to repent for our sins because we will die and be judged in the afterlife. It makes us more deeply human, loving the world we were given to live in and the next world we are being given when we die. This is what the knowledge of death can do for us.
Christopher Fisher is the Executive Director of the Portsmouth Institute for Faith and Culture and a teacher in the Humanities program at Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island. He has published and spoken on topics including Catholic social thought, virtue ethics, and the purpose of education. He lives at Portsmouth Abbey with his wife and two sons. “Mortality Makes Us Human” is a shortened version of his Knowing Death, published by Ethika Politika.