It is with the dying of the evening’s light, – that the qualities, the possibilities of light are revealed. Similarly, it is in pondering our own dying that the qualities, wealth and possibilities of our living are also revealed. Three authors here write on the change that meditation upon death has on their characters. (Dostoevski’s  and Wilde’s characters are presented in the postscript).  Tolstoy’s Ivan Illyich   realises his true priorities and philosophy, when he is on his death bed.

“In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it. …But here it is. How is this? How is one to understand it?”

Ivan looks over his life: “‘What if my whole life has been wrong? It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend. But if that is so,’ he said to himself, and I am leaving this life with the consciousness that I have lost all that was given me and it is impossible to rectify it — what then?’”

As he was dying he asked himself, “What is the right thing?” and grew still, listening. “Yes, I am making them (His family) wretched,” he thought. “They are sorry, but it will be better for them when I die.” … He was sorry for them, he must act so as not to hurt them: release them and free himself from these sufferings. “How good and how simple!” he thought. Finally he had found his goal, his philosophy in life. .

For Ivan Illyich,  it was a lesson too late for the learning (Tom Paxton’s lyrics). But we can still look at life through the prism of our death to sound  if our goals are true for us?


Striving for aequanimitas,

John  Mary Meagher

Ps Here are two more accounts (Dostoevski and Wilde) of how one can change when death looms.

Dostoevski relates awaiting his execution through Prince Myshkin in The Idiot.

“This man had once been lead out with the others to the scaffold and a sentence of death was read over him… Twenty minutes later a reprieve was read to them, and they were condemned to another punishment instead. Yet the interval between those two sentences, he passed in the fullest conviction that he would die in a few minutes…. The priest went to each in turn with a cross. He had only five minutes to live. He told me that those five minutes seemed to him an infinite time, a vast wealth… But he said that nothing was so dreadful at that time as the continual thought, ‘What if I were not to die! What if I could go back to life-what eternity! And it would all be mine! I would turn every minute into an age; I would lose nothing. I would count every minute as it passed, I would not waste one.’ He said that this idea turned to such a fury as last that he longed to be shot quickly.”


Oscar Wilde observed a  prisoner in Reading Gaol who was sentenced to hang This prisoner soaked in being alive, echoing Prince Myshkin’s revelation to not waste a minute:

“I never saw sad men who looked

With such a wistful eye

Upon that little tent of blue

We prisoners called the sky,

And at every careless cloud that passed

In happy freedom by.”….

“He did not wring his hands nor weep,

Nor did he peek or pine,

But he drank the air as though it held

Some healthful anodyne;

With open mouth he drank the sun

As though it had been wine!








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