Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Remember One Dead

Thus death is the briefest summary of life or life reduced to its briefest form.

What is the benefit of pondering the deaths of those you love? Yes it is painful, yes it is sorrowful, yes it is difficult. And yet much wisdom in life can be gleaned from reflecting upon the deaths of those you love.

Yes, once again go out to the dead in order there to get a look at life.

Our family goes out to visit Ben and Matt's grave each year on their deathday. We've been going to Ben's graveside since 1994. It's hard to put into words why we make the trek. Every couple of years we wonder whether we should still head out to Huntington on this evening. But we do. And Kierkegaard teaches me why we ought to continue the tradition.

In truth, if you really want to make sure about love in yourself or in another person, then note how he relates himself to one who is dead.

In our Western civilization, we turn our backs on our ancestors. Maybe it is the Western Christian aversion to pagan and Eastern veneration of our elders. Either way, we have an uneasy relationship with our dead. It causes angst, confusion, rage, despair, helplessness - but love?

How we express love to our dead reflects our ability to love the ones who live. But, you ask, am I to still love the dead? As Kierkegaard writes in Works of Love: But we do have duties towards the dead. If we are to love the men we see, then we are also to love those whom we have seen but no more because death took them away. No, one must remember the dead; weep softly but grieve long.

In this chapter on the work of love in remembering one dead, Kierkegaard asserts three things: the work of love in remembering one who is dead is a work of the most unselfish love, of the freest love, and the most faithful love.

He comments that for the living, our understanding of love is often based on repayment. Love is strengthened when it is rewarded with a thank you, with a gift, with kindness, with devotion, and so on. But the dead cannot repay you for your love. If, therefore, you wish to test for yourself whether or not you love disinterestedly, note sometimes how you relate yourself to one who is dead. Do you weep softly and grieve long over the dead you love because of what it does for you, or for how you continue to express your love to them. That you give the love is more important then that they acknowledge the love.

Not only is the work of love in remembering one dead the most unselfish love, it is the freest love. The stronger the compulsion, the less free is the love. A baby's piercing cry compels you to come care for it. The dead utter not. Your husband complains, a wife nags, a child whines, a neighbor or coworker comments... and so you adjust your works of love. But the dead you do not hear, they can't compel you to give your time, your attention, your devotion. And so if you give love to the dead, it is the most free. If, therefore, you want to test whether you love freely, observe some time how over a period of time you relate yourself to one who is dead.

The work of love in remembering one dead is unselfish, it is free, and it is the most faithful.
When two living persons are joined in love, each holds on to the other and the relationship holds on to both of them. But no holding together is possible with one who is dead. Immediately after death it perhaps can be said that he holds on to one, a consequence of the relationship together, and therefore it is also the more frequent occurrence, the customary thing, that he is remembered during this time. However, in the course of time he does not hold on to the one living, and the relationship is broken if the one living does not hold on to him. But what is faithfulness? Is it faithfulness that the other holds on to me?

Kierkegaard goes on to say: One who is dead does not change; there is not the slightest possibility of excuse by putting the blame on him; he is faithful. Yes, it is true. But he is nothing actual, and therefore he does nothing, nothing at all, to hold on to you, except that he is unchanged. If, then, a change takes place between one living and one dead, it is very clear that it must be the one living who has changed.

In our fast paced, pleasure-obsessed culture, who has time to love the dead? And who has time to love the living? How does one cultivate unselfish, free, faithful love these days? It was difficult in the 1840's, and it still is today. We honor the dead when we remember them, yes. But Kierkegaard presses us to love the one dead. Love is love is love. Love to God, love to the living, love to the dead.

He concludes: The work of love in remembering one who is dead is thus a work of the most disinterested, the freest, the most faithful love. Therefore go out and practice it; remember one dead and learn in just this way to love the living disinterestedly, freely, faithfully.

If you fail to love the dead, you can't blame the dead. And thus you are given the opportunity to consider why you fail to fully love the living around you. Maybe you should quit blaming them for your failure to fully love them.

Remember one who is dead, and in addition to the blessing which is inseparable from this work of love, you will also have the best guidance to rightly understanding life: that it is one's duty to love the men we do not see, but also those we do see.

I'm thankful my family makes the yearly trip to the cemetery. And now I more fully appreciate this work of love. I am more aware of how selfish, unfree, and faithless is my love to God, the living, and the dead. Yet with this confession comes the opportunity to learn to love in a new way. While I am alive, I will always have more to learn about the work of love. And when I am dead and join Ben, and Matt, may those I loved weep softly and mourn long.

[Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, pgs 317-329]


Rebecca said...

What a thought-provoking post, Tim. I don't know why I've been spared so much loss to death thus far in my already long life...

Having come late to your story, I am curious to know the general facts about your brothers' deaths. That's a lot of heartache and grief - to bury two sons; two brothers.

It helps explain why your "rivers" of thought and compassion run deeper than ordinary.

Anonymous said...

It's been 23 years since my father passed away. I love him a lot and still miss him. Although some articles I read online where it says: "The dead are simply dead, they cannot hear you nor call out for you, they do not hate you nor do they love you, they are no more anything to you anymore"....When I read these kind of things my heart shatters, but when I read it, it sounds correct. The dead really are dead...gone :(