The only truly universal human community is the community of all of us who die alone together.
The first time the expression “being alone together” caught my ear, or at least my attention, was when I heard it used to characterize the experience of sharing silence with others as part of a meditation group. By that time, I had a few years of my own group meditation practice behind me. The characterization stuck me then, and has continued to strike me ever since, as richly apt and illuminating. There is, in fact, nothing like the sharing of such charged silence as that of intent, wordless meditation or silent prayer to bring people together, including most especially people who, in the ordinary sense, know nothing whatever about one another, even one another’s names–and perhaps never will. The practice of being alone together builds genuine community.
In fact, it is only in being alone together that we can build any genuine community at all, whether of meditators or of anyone else—assuming, at least, that genuine community is a matter of sharing things with one another, and not just a matter of having some common feature, such as skin pigmentation, say, or national allegiance. Only what is not reducible to being a part of some whole, but is, instead, something by itself alone, apart from any such appertaining (literally, any “belonging to,” that is, any “being a part of”), can share with other apart non-parts, as it were, rather than just being shares of some one thing, like the market shares of a corporation.
In turn, genuine community is what first and foremost lets each one of its “members” truly be oneself, all alone, apart from any being-a-part-of something else. Indeed, we might well define community, in the richest sense of the term, as just that: the being together that lets each and every one of us be all by ourselves alone.
Community is what lets us all be “alone” in the most etymologically original sense of the word, which is a condensation from “all one.” The deeper the community, the deeper the all-one-ness, the alone-ness, the solitude (from Latin solus, “alone”)—and, indeed, the deeper the solipsism (Latin solus, “alone,” and ipse, “itself”) in an unexpected, entirely positive sense of that term: “being itself alone,” as “it” is, apart from whatever “it” may be a part of.
In that sense, the only genuine community is the community of pure solipsists.
If we are not allowed to die alone, we are not allowed to live together, no matter how tightly we may be packed. Robbed of mortality, we are robbed of community. The capacity for the one is the capacity for the other.
In the 1970s the American anthropologist Ernest Becker and the French historian Philippe Ariès each wrote texts addressing “the denial of death,” to borrow the title of Becker’s book, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, shortly after his own early death to colon cancer. However it may stand with observation (originally made by Goya) that “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters,” it is certain that the denial of death does, as Becker extensively documents. The greater the effort to ward off death, in the sense of our very mortality as such, the worse grow the resulting horrors.
In the 20th century, that century of unparalleled mass carnage that is arguably not yet over, the name Auschwitz became emblematic of the abyss of such horrors. As Becker saw, Auschwitz was not built on death; it was built on its denial.
It is no accident that there was no community at Auschwitz. How could there be community, where—strange as it may sound to say it of that particular place–death itself was not permitted?
Let me try to explain.
It is incumbent upon us to let one another die. We are called upon to permit death to one another.
Almost twenty years ago now, my own father died. I was at his bedside—at the head of his bed, actually, since my mother was sitting at his side. He was dying in the part of our shared house where he and my mother lived for their last few years, with my wife and me and our daughter (our son was already grown) occupying the rest of the place. Though he appeared unconscious, the hospice worker who was also there at the moment of his death assured my mother than at some level he was aware of what was going on; and she told my mother that she needed to give my father permission to let go, and to die. She did, and he did, just like that.
Even without my mother’s permission, my father could not have held on much longer than he did. Yet in the full, rich sense of the expression we so often use more thoughtlessly, without my mother’s permission he would not have been able to “pass on.” Even without that permission he would have been passed on, we might put it, but he would not himself have done the passing. Despite himself and his still strong endeavor to cling to life in order not to abandon my mother, he would have been killed by the processes at work in and upon him. But he would not himself have died, which required his act, even if “only” the act of acquiescence in the running to their end of those same processes—the prayerful act of giving his consent—his “amen,” his “so be it”–to what was to be. My mother’s permission was required, to free my father to die.
Each of us is in the world all alone–note the redundancy of that expression: “all all one”–in the face of our ever-pending deaths. However, in that aloneness we are all together, depending on one another to be allowed permission to be all alone. To permit is to send or let go (Latin mittere) through (Latin per), and death is the something we can only go through when we are sent or let so to go. Allow comes from Middle English , where it is has the sense of “commend, sanction.” We must be commended to death, which is to say turned over into its hands (in accord with the etymology of the word commend), and sanctioned to die, in the positive sense whereby to sanction is to authorize or empower someone to do something, if we are not just to perish—not just to be pushed over our border despite ourselves, instead of acquiescing in the passage, which means in our own coming to term, like a baby in the womb. If, instead, we are ourselves to die, to make our own dying truly be our own, as my father was finally able to do, then we must first be permitted or allowed to do so, as my mother gave my father such permission to do, allowing him his own death.
A friend of mine used to like to quote a line that says “the avalanche rumbles despite our prayers.” It does. But there is a sense worth noting in which even the avalanche depends upon us in order truly to rumble, as it were. That is a sense that Heidegger, above all, struggled to illuminate throughout his works. It is the sense in which whatever is awaits the letting-be that comes to it only in language, whose thrall is the human being, itself called forth to be only in such service. In that way, even the avalanche needs our prayer—our “permission,” our “So be it!”—if it is ever fully to come into its own rumble, which it always and only still does altogether “despite us,” which is to say without regard to our desires, wishes, and whims.
But in the case of that which literally delimits the human being—above all, death itself– the need for permission, for being sent or let through, is even greater, assuming that such comparatives even make any sense at all any longer here. What is more, the nature of being human is such that we can never grant ourselves our own permission to be who and what we are delimited (that is, determined by our limits) to be.
Heidegger’s work can cast light upon these connections too, though I will not pursue that here. At any rate, what is at issue is exemplified for me personally in my experience of my own father’s dying, as I have just recounted. My father’s death waited upon his own final prayer of acquiescence, his own “So be it!” to his own passing, to become truly his death. For that in turn, however, my father’s death also waited upon my mother, with whom he shared his life, to set him free to enact that final acquiescence of his own, and thereby actively to die his own death. My father’s dying required two prayers, as it were–one from my mother, clearing the way for the other, from my father.
As in my father’s case, the commendation to death can come through some one person, one close and dear to the one who dies, and who, by very reason of the closeness and dearness, must loose the bonds that bind the dying one to life, letting that one go, to let go of life in turn. Or the sanction may be extended anonymously, perhaps occasioned by no more than the recollection in peace of all those who have preceded one in dying. In any case, permission must be both given and received, if one is to make one’s death one’s own.
This sanctioning of death entails an annulment of all sanctions against it—a cancellation of all debts marked to be paid before release is granted. If such debts remain un-cancelled, those pushed over the border into death have no other option than to go on haunting the living. The visitation will go on until release is finally granted. The dead can be bound to death only by being released from the bonds that bind them from it.
Our life together with one another is always mediated by social institutions–or not so much mediated by as constituted by and consisting of them. The institutions whereby we face, or attempt to surround, death are particularly important on that score. It is how we are with one another in the face of death that first and last decides whether and, if so, how we are together at all—that is, decides whether and, if so, how we are as a community.
Our contemporary institutions for what Becker calls the denial, and what we might more tellingly call the dis-allowal, of death, are as such also institutions that deny or dis-allow community. They are, then, really a sort of anti-institution: they demolish community, rather than institute it.
In The Hour of Our Death Philippe Ariés gives us strikingly contrasting examples throughout, especially, the European Middle Ages of a vary different way of being alone together facing death. A prime example is that of entire families gathered around deathbeds, accompanying solitary dying family members to the very border of their solitude, and then, by and in the very fact of their presence all around the bed, even if no word of permission is uttered, granting the dying opportunity to cross over that border and altogether out of that solitude—and the singularity of themselves defined by it. Such practices find echoes, if not recoveries, in experiences made possible by the modern hospice movement, such as mine at my father’s death.
All the countless dead and still dying who have been denied or disallowed their own deaths continue to haunt us—all of us, each and every one—reminding us that only all together can we all die alone. All the denied dead and still disallowed dying call out to us to grant them peace at last, by sanctioning them to die and commending them to the grave.*
May we heed their call, lest otherwise we only perish ourselves.
* Just what forms granting others permission to die can take towards those already dead—that is, just how the still living can release the already disallowed dead from their haunting—is a difficult matter I may eventually take up in some later post.