December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Mortal man’s dilemma

By |2021-11-14T22:37:28+01:00November 11th, 2021|First Person|
An English chaplain reads from the Bible in a makeshift World War II graveyard,

o you, the readers of this oration of mine, my scrawl, I must immediately confess two truths. My name is not Howie Schless. That name belongs to my dear young friend who died beside me in France when he stepped on a mine in the waning days of the war, a war that is now called World War II, but which was, for us teens, simply the war. The Great War was a title already held by its predecessor, and so we could find no special name for this second horror.

The second truth is that I just turned 96 years old, something that was celebrated only modestly in the small cottage-like place in which I live, a place that my American great granddaughter tells me would be called an assisted living facility in her country.

Where is this facility, you ask, and why do you not state your name? My reply is that I am too old for names and places — for reasons that may become apparent in this little speech of mine.

And that is what it is, a little speech, since it is my great granddaughter, who is taking this dictation.

What is its substance? It is, I am afraid to tell you, in the vein of all too much that is written these days: the pestilence of the last two years. I will not even dignify it with a name because that would seem to me to do what so many others do, and that is to glorify it and revel to some extent in the dread it causes.

Now then, this you should also know. After the war I became a teacher and then a professor and my subject of choice was the history of religion. In the very Catholic country in which I live this was an enormously important subject. No longer, apparently, because the world now is perhaps more governed by secular concerns than any time in the past, a past that was for millennia regulated, too often for the worse, by religious concerns.

I personally professed to no faith but saw and explained spirituality as a means to understand the life process, the birth, growth, maturity, behavior, and ultimately the death of the world’s inhabitants. Faith of various kinds was enormously useful in assuaging concerns about what man was and what he might become after his time on the planet ended. There was, for all, a next step, and this allowed the cruelties of the known world to play themselves out without restraint.

Wars were fought and many, so many died, as they died of disease and natural calamities. Most people felt that death meant passing to another place, perhaps more tranquil, but all of this future existence was contingent on the present life. Death was part of life; to die in a war was a very real possibility that could not be eluded, leaving me to walk through mines with Howie, in fear for our lives. Howie’s ended in a second.

What this pestilence has proved to me — and I say this while admiring the efforts of nations and peoples to defend themselves — is demonstrate that I long ago ran out of time, and should not, with my mentality, still be on this planet.

I say this because the planet I am given to behold, despite all its secular streamlining and its magical technological devices, can no longer find spiritual means, personal means, means removed from constant dread, to deal with the reality of mortality. It chafes at the thought of endings of any kind.

Given medical advances that put wizardry to shame, this world, or at least the developed nations, has allowed itself to place such a premium on life that every other concern has been excised. Are we allowed to raise questions about what it means to prolong life, any and every life, irrespective of the circumstances?

Death was part of life; to die in a war was a very real possibility, leaving me to walk through mines with Howie.

An infant for example will be allowed to live, if that is the word, though the physicians who have delivered it see from the start it is misshapen and damaged, and all signs suggest that if it is allowed to continue to live it will amount to little more than a half-dead amphibian, its parents crippled and burdened by the horror of what has occurred. This can be called life-saving, because all life is sacred.

An ancient man such as myself can be afflicted with a profound malady and be prone half-dead on a table but be saved by various interventions, then moved to a bed where he, she, I had better say “it,” will be inert for weeks, months, perhaps years, or, if he, she, or it is fortunate, be struck dead sooner.

Mortality as a force of nature must bend to science and to the desire of physicians to ply their craft, now often not an exercise in healing but one that merely assures a human being still possesses a pulse.

I must say openly that I have studied this pestilence and much has been read to me. In the world at large, seven-tenths of the dead have been older than age seventy and eight-tenths older than age eighty. Very many of these dead were already ill and their chances of a “full revival” whatever that can possibly mean after eight decades of life, considered by their physicians as slim.

But none of this mattered. Only the pulse did. Of the young, only a small fraction of the population suffered badly, and this malady was, if you will, merely a shot across the bows. It did far less harm to the aggregate population than other illnesses before it, for which we can thank modern medicine.

But no thanks are due to medicine for deleting death, which is inevitable, from intelligent conversation about the fate of human beings. No thanks is due to secular governments for their closure of cities, or for their failure to own up to the reality of death. The reluctance to address mortality is a terrible thing because it suggests that many, having put aside or neutered their faith of old, believe they have nowhere to go when they end, and thus seek solutions from latter-day wizards to prolong their lives for as long as possible. They say this is because they wish to be with the children of their children or to plant a garden, or simply to enjoy small pleasures, but in reality they simply do not know what is ahead and this creates discomfort of a kind that only a few can live with in tolerable peace.

The middle-aged and the elderly often say nothing about this, but their children or the children of their children, chastened by headlines, grow fearful about the death of the likes of, for the sake of argument, me. My Emily would prefer that I continue to talk to her, and this I understand. I am still somewhat fit and lucid. But I have explained what is to come and she understands.

Unfortunately, most old people do not take the time to explain, and so middle aged adults grieve madly when a father of 90 dies. They feel medicine has failed him and that his life has been cut short. In the home I am in, there is a man called Harry whose grandson was arrested for inciting a fight in the hospital where his dying father was being tended to by doctors — the doctors recommended that the father be taken to hospice. They could do nothing more for him. The son rebelled at this and insisted that there must always be something available that could save a human life.

This, at least in part, reflects the kind of zealous thinking that seized and held, and has continued to hold, the pestilence spotlight. No one is satisfied that enough was done to save lives. There were not enough hospital beds or breathing devices. Few say aloud that in fact many of the infirm, struck with an unknown and aggressive new virus, stood no chance. They were, if I might speak in slang, sitting ducks.

Even in war, mortality is being cut out of the script, a paradox greater than I can fathom. There are nations in which the military is trying to figure out how a small war (if there is such a thing) with drones only. One human life, to say nothing of several, is too many.

Mortality is no longer accepted as an immovable feature of the human being’s landscape. Even in war, which is an activity intended to create dread, means must be found to minimize it.

In these secular societies, people have much to be grateful for. They are not forced by a pope or an evangelist to adhere to a creed they do not like, lest they be punished or ostracized. They have welfare states which give them housing, child care benefits, medical care. The states under which they live are no longer of the tyrannical kind, a feature of political life that, until recently, has been common in Europe.

Do not stray too far from your fellow man because of the microbes that might be inside him. The human motor ignites only in contact with others.

Offsetting all this is, I am sorry to say, is a loss of purpose and context, and the willingness to take the arc of life in stride. This missing piece seems to me central in this largely post-religious period, and it is responsible for many kinds of fear and dread that faith did not solve but attempted to address.

A pestilence was the will of God, which those who now swear by science would call a narcotic, referring to the famous Marx phrase, “Religion is the opium of the people.” I understand and to some extent sympathize with this skepticism, but I cannot accept it in full. Just as the great rise of consumer capitalism failed to make all the Western world happy after 1989, so the sidelining of stalwart religious beliefs has not made life more livable for those freed from the shackles of religion. That is because a secular society offers myriad choices but no one choice, and this can drive people mad. They may be buried or cremated, but there is no knowledge about what lies ahead. Those who believe they know usually say, “There is nothing ahead.” This makes mortality all the more troubling.

Science has pried open the long-closed lid, permitting all sorts of intelligence and insight to flourish. But the prying open of that lid and the near-definitive closing of the religious one has opened yet another lid, this one like the lid to Pandora’s Box. This lid has since time immemorial been covered over; inside are all the doubts about the human condition, the frailty of life, the frailty of the planet.

So then, dear Emily, instead of rejoicing at all the medical mastery assembled to control the pestilence there is only doubt and more doubt about what the future holds, and whether indeed there is a future, and what the new normal will be.

The new normal could be much the same as the old normal if only people possessed some spiritual optimism. They cannot do this. They must instead dwell on all the dead. They cannot say Howie died in a mine field, but they must excavate and count all the mines if any might be left and wonder if perhaps Howie had turned left instead of right he would still be alive. And that is what matters, nothing else.

This is the road to constant dread, and to perdition of sorts. It is the road into a life lived without satisfaction because bad things are lurking, just waiting for an opportunity to pounce. It is a life of suspicion buried just beneath the surface of all human contact, if indeed such contact is ever again allowed.

I do not like the looks of that. Not one bit. And I’ll be gone soon, at peace. I have made my peace. It is time for the fretful planet to begin learning a few basic lessons it has apparently forgotten, the first one being that death, whether caused by war, earthquakes, or pestilence, is part of growth. A brilliantly colored leaf becomes brittle and falls apart — the fate of billions of leaves. Look at them please, from time to time, these mortal leaves.

And, in closing, do not stray too far from your fellow man because of the microbes that might be inside him. The human motor, as made by God or by the spirit, ignites only in contact with others. Those who now seek to supplant that spark with fewer encounters and an enhanced relationship to the science of the digital world shall, if they insist, bring upon us all a moral pestilence fraught with estrangement. They will create out of this sickness a second sickness, a sickness which may look like health to some, but do not be deceived. The growing distance between secular souls moves them farther and farther away from the intimacy, intuition, and inspiration that is the watermark of our regular nearness to others. It is this nearness and no other that brings understanding and illumination.

A world of science and brilliant machinery that suggests otherwise, that insists on the potential unhealthiness of human interchange, works unwittingly against the ultimate centerpiece of life.

This reticence I hope is but a passing phase. But do not let the camera become the new opiate of the people. Faith, for all its flaws answered, or attempted to answer, some of man’s deepest questions, and, like it or not, gave those who sought it a message of reassurance. Not even the smartest of telephones does that.

Be mindful, then, that the distances demanded by rulers today cannot be allowed to persist, lest we forget who we are aboard this giant, leaky arc.

Now my nurse has gently told me I have spoken enough. Any more and my brain might take flight, so I stop, and let my darling note-taker get to work until next we meet, she the child, I the man with one foot in a mound of cinders, but without regret, and it bears repeating a final time, at peace.

About the Author:

"Howie Schless" (Leeds, England-born Alfred Jones) died of a stroke in his care facility on Sept. 12, 2021, less than a month after dictating these thoughts to his great-granddaughter. This essay reflects comments made in an hour-long beside speech she recorded, assembled and abridged with his approval.