Life coaches now tell us to believe in ourselves, organize our lives better, and remember to breathe. Medieval life coaches would whisper in people's ears, "You're going to die. Remember your mortality." What was up with that?
I just finished reading Ernest Hemingway's famous novel, A Farewell to Arms. An American has gone to Italy in the First World War, to help the Italians fight the Austrians and Germans. This man, the narrator of the story, drives an ambulance and other vehicles near the front. He's badly injured, meets a nurse, falls in love, receives a medal for heroism, and months later returns to the front. So far, the story tracks the life of the author. Then, through a series of unexpected small situations and accidents, our narrator becomes separated from his unit, and is wrongly suspected of desertion. He escapes an imminent execution out in the countryside only by diving into a river under fire. He reunites with his love and, now on the run, they manage with great difficulty to get to safety in Switzerland, where she goes into labor with his baby. Fortunately, they're able to enter a major hospital for the delivery. The story is full of twists and turns, ups and downs for the two of them.
At that point in the narrative Hemingway goes far beyond confronting us with the crazy and sometimes scary vicissitudes of life, as seen in the adventures of the soldier and his great love, and begins to rub our noses in the fickle inescapability of death in this world. The last pages of the book are so bleak in articulating the author's deepest attitudes, the whole thing could have been called, "A Farewell to Meaning and Hope."
This wasn't, of course, the only time Papa H took on the topic of mortality. Many months ago, I quoted here from his other novel, The Sun Also Rises. Just eleven pages into it, there is this brief conversation, worth repeating, that starts with Robert Cohn, Princeton graduate and amateur boxer, speaking to his old friend Jake, the narrator of the novel, in a bar – where, it seems that, interestingly, philosophical reflection about life often takes place:
“Listen, Jake,” he leaned forward on the bar. “Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you're not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you've lived nearly half the time you have to live already?”
“Yes, every once in a while.”
“Do you know that in about thirty-five years more we'll be dead?”
“What the hell, Robert,” I said, “ What the hell?”
“It’s one thing I don’t worry about,” I said.
“You ought to.”
As we all know, but, like Jake, tend not to think about very much, the life adventure we’re on right now is a limited-time offer. This is an interesting point of reflection for all of us who are already in mid-life or - like me - beyond. But it’s an important fact for any of us, however young or old. Are we making the most of our time? Are we using our talents in the best ways, and taking advantage of the opportunities that come to us each day? Are we enjoying the adventure that we have, to the extent that we can? Or are we letting ourselves be held back by habit and worn down by our own inner reactions to things that are outside our control?
The answers to these questions often turn on another one: How well do we handle change in our lives, day to day – the little, unexpected events, and the bigger disruptions; the challenges and the opportunities? Do we resist almost all change and regret it, or are we creative artists with it?
As the bluntly philosophical Robert points out for Jake and all the rest of us, there will come a time when further change in this world is impossible for each of us – maybe thirty-five years from now; maybe longer; and maybe much sooner. We never know. So why not make the most of this incredible journey while we can? Great things are possible for us, with the right approach to work and life.
Hemingway himself may have taken a very negative attitude toward the challenges of life, but he did pretty well for himself in his chosen profession, despite the many ups and downs he couldn't control, until he chose exactly the wrong action on the day that ended his adventure.
We shouldn't follow his negativity of attitude, or many of his choices. But we do benefit from being reminded of the churn and fragility of our situations throughout this life. We don't find ourselves in an easy world, or with endless time. We're clearly in a place of challenge. But that just means we need to develop all our strengths and the most positive attitudes we can in order to flourish and prevail, within the parameters given us. Ultimately, that can provide us with a Farewell to Anxiety, and a Farewell to Fear.