Illness and Mortality

 “Set thy house in order, for thou shalt die, and not live.”[1]


Sponsored by Mary Reames

Pack your bags: it speaks of a journey to another realm.  Illness may bring its sufferers face to face with their own mortality.  During the times when I was in the thick of chemo or going into one of my aggressive surgeries, the stakes during this stage were beyond me.  The force of this beyond melted my attention into each moment before me and all its sights, sounds, smells, and feelings.

Something necessary about life is that it shows up where death is not.  The anticipation of death can be liberating because it illuminates remaining possibilities for life.  Foreboding death concentrates the seemingly endless series of tomorrows into the finite number of todays now in view.  In this way, death shapes life.  Donne portrays the existential clout of mortality extending beyond each particular deceased individual: “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”[2]

This implicit suggestion of mortal vulnerability is a driving force of illness’s gesture to reconfigure how with we approach life.

Again, the poetry of John Donne helps us imagine this metaphor: “I am dead, I was born dead, and from the first laying of these mud walls in my conception, they have moldered away, and the whole course of life is but an active death.”[3] So this is an engagement with death and deterioration as essential to the human condition in two ways. The first sense of “essential” is by way of necessity.  No one escapes his fall: “[t]his is nature’s nest of boxes: the heavens contain the earth; the earth, cities; cities, men.  And all these are concentric, the common center to them all is decay, ruin.”[4]

  The necessity of death conditions the way for the  “night side of life”[5] to guide events into meaning. We see this edifying character in the words of John Donne when he says, “Man hath only misery; there, and only there, he is fixed, and sure to find himself.”[6] Struck by mythic dimensions beyond the grasp of rationality, suffering’s imaginal impression cannot be sidestepped.  

Of course, the meaning of impending death for a particular soul does not fit neatly into the operative logic of biomedical terminologies that demand distinct determinacy. Indeed, death whispers the  pressure calling us to dream forth our story. 

The otherness of death and non-existence is implied as we are swept along with time.  The human condition of being in progress toward our death implicates a sense about this distant dwelling.  An integration of the sense and suffering inherent to the mortal human condition allows a more humanistic conception of health.

[1] Donne, Devotions, devotion 17. Emphasis added.

[2] Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, devotion 17.

[3] Ibid., devotion 18.

[4] Donne, Devotions, devotion 10.

[5] Sontag, Illness as Metaphor.

[6] Donne, Devotions, devotion 21.

Photo by  NeONBRAND  on  Unsplash

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash