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How Long Have I Got Left?

What does it mean to contemplate death? Does thinking about death help us to live more fully? Can we ever really be prepared for the eventuality of death? What does it mean to live a good life knowing that our days are numbered?

Polis students asked these (and other) questions in our fall courses on Joyce’sThe Dead”, Montaigne’s essays, and Tolstoy’s, “The Death Of Ivan Ilych”.

Unintentionally, each of the  texts in our fall Polis courses has death as a theme.  Who would have thought that it could actually be enjoyable to sit at a seminar table with a group of strangers and dig deeply into questions about mortality? The craft beer selections certainly helped to make the atmosphere a little bit more festive in the midst of these otherwise weighty themes!

Discussing literature and philosophy can serve an important role in our lives. Dialogue about big ideas can be a catalyst for reflection about living  in the face of an acknowledgment of mortality.

Living a Full Life. How Should We Spend Our Time?

This Sunday’s New York Times included a thought-provoking Opinion piece about what it means to live with an acceptance of death. The author, a 36-year-old neurosurgeon at Stanford was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. He contemplates what it means to live his life with the certainty that he is going to die but the continuing uncertainty of when.

The author’s first and most persistent question upon learning his diagnosis is rooted in a deep desire to know, “How long do I have left?”. Somehow, he thought, knowing an answer to this question would give him a rudder about how to live well.

The author considers his choices for how to spend his time:

In a way, though, the certainty of death was easier than this uncertain life. Didn’t those in purgatory prefer to go to hell, and just be done with it? Was I supposed to be making funeral arrangements? Devoting myself to my wife, my parents, my brothers, my friends, my adorable niece? Writing the book I had always wanted to write? Or was I supposed to go back to negotiating my multiyear job offers?

He struggles with and works to elucidate his sense of “acuteness” in knowing that he is going to die.

I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

The author’s courage to publicly grapple with his feelings about his own mortality is commendable. The piece brings readers into contact with so many of the themes about living and dying that arose in our Polis classes last semester.

How Can Literature and Philosophy Guide Us?

In Montaigne’s essay, “To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die”  the author challenges his reader:

Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life. Is it possible you can imagine never to arrive at the place towards which you are continually going? and yet there is no journey but hath its end. And, if company will make it more pleasant or more easy to you, does not all the world go the self-same way? Does not all the world dance the same brawl that you do? Is there anything that does not grow old, as well as you? A thousand men, a thousand animals, a thousand other creatures, die at the same moment that you die.

The group discussion in our Montaigne class was focused primarily on what Montaigne meant by “living long, and yet lived but a little”.

How can we live a full and meaningful life despite it’s length?

In the short story, “The Dead”, James Joyce’s characters present a variety of ways to live in the shadow of the knowledge that we are going to die.

Joyce describes the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy’s, inner battle to accept the realities of his past:

He watched the scene and thought of life; and (as always happened when he thought of life) he became sad. A gentle melancholy took possession of him. He felt how useless it was to struggle against fortune, this being the burden of wisdom which the ages had bequeathed him.

Polis students askedCan we have a meaningful life even if we are “struggling against fortune”?  How much of life is ours to control and how much is beyond our reach?

In the “Death of Ivan Ilych”, Ivan is forced to reckon with his imminent mortality with a recognition that he has not lived the type of life he could have because he was too focused on the “ought’s” and “should’s” of other people’s expectations. Tolstoy writes:

Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,’ it suddenly occurred to him. ‘But how could that be, when I did everything properly?’ he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.”

During the discussion of  Tolstoy’s work, a Polis student asked,I get it–he lived a life according to other’s expectations–but what is it that he would have done differently? What could have made Ivan feel that he had lived a full and good life as he lay on his death bed?”

Diving deeply into literature and philosophy won’t help us to find THE answer to questions about the good life and  an acceptance of death but discussions like those at Polis can help us to stop, briefly, on the treadmill of our daily routine and ask, “Am I living as I want to? Am I living as fully as I could? Am I adding meaning to my life and the lives of others?”

The philosopher Anaïs Nin writes: “There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” – The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934

Our life as an individual novel, a book for each person.

Join us for a Polis class in February. Meet interesting new people, read something you’ve always meant to, and chew on the big questions of life.

 

Interested in Reading More?

I Do Not Fear Death“, Roger EbertSalon,Sept. 15, 2011

Living Well, According to Some of  the Wisest People Who Ever Lived“,Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post,Aug. 28, 2013

Anais Nin on the Elusive Nature of Joy“,Maria Popova, Brainpickings, Nov. 12, 2013

New Year 2014: Metamorphosis and Preservation

New Year Resolutions: Community and Learning

The new year can be a time for us to reflect on our lives: what do we want to change and what would we like to preserve?

New year’s resolutions can be cliched and fleeting (just look at the spike in new gym memberships that tends to happen each January!) but they don’t have to be. We can take the opportunity that the new year affords us to start something fresh and commit to small and sustainable changes.

If you have been hoping to have a stronger sense of community in your life or if you would like to add a dose of learning for pure enjoyment and challenge, then check out our upcoming classes at Polis.

We thought it would be appropriate to kick of the new year with a classic work on change and renewal: Kafka’s, “Metamorphosis” paired with Czech beers curated by Healthy Spirits (all part of our Drinkers and Great Thinkers monthly series) on January 21st.  Sign up with the promo code “new year” and receive a 20% class discount.

Our 2014 Polis classes are as short as one session (some even include beer samplings!) and as long as four sessions with topics ranging from the question, “What Makes Us Human?” (Dawkins) to “What Is Our Responsibility to Others in This Sometimes Absurd World?” (Camus).  If you have always wanted to read (or you are dying to re-read) works by Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Herman Melville then why not dive into a Polis class in the new year? We will be adding even more classes in the months ahead so be sure to check back regularly.

New Year’s Lists, Lists, and More Lists…

With the new year comes the annual onslaught of “best of” lists from best travel spots around the world to best films of the year.

Of course it is important to take these “best of lists” with a grain of salt (after all, we don’t have to agree with the critics). That said, we thought we would close out the year at Polis with a few of the “best books of the year” lists. And with no further ado…

Best Books of 2013 (A List of Lists)

And, finally while it is not a year in review book list, here is the book list that became the basis for the NYT best seller, The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe.

We hope that these lists will serve as inspiration for future reading. We welcome you to make a resolution to try something new this year and join us in community and discussion at Polis.

The Humanities are Thriving

3 booksThe Decline of the Humanities — and Civilization

By Rosanna Warren

New Republic – July 2013

Homo sapiens has always hungered for story and song. We are narrative and rhythmical creatures. Music and rhythmical language awaken our intelligence, as has been observed since Aristotle. We construe our meanings through plot: Who dunnit? Why? What happened next? And we sift our meanings—often the meanings we can hardly articulate abstractly—through song, poetry, images. Why else would we be glued to our screens, large and small, following the adventures of endless fictional characters, whether in video games or films, and why else would we mosey through the streets with digitized music and delirious rhymes flooding through our earphones? We hunger to make sense of our experience, we hunger to understand right and wrong, we hunger to name and plumb our feelings, whose intensities often blindside and bewilder us. Even generals and senators stumble into passion. We have not stopped being human, so we still need ‘the humanities’.”
 

image courtesy of boykund at freedigitalphotos.net 

The Case For The Humanities

open book

Dehumanized

When math and science rule the school

By Mark Slouka

Harper’s Magazine – September 2009

“The questions are straightforward enough: What do we teach, and why? One might assume that in an aspiring democracy like ours the answers would be equally straightforward: We teach whatever contributes to the development of autonomous human beings; we teach, that is, in order to expand the census of knowledgeable, reasoning, independent-minded individuals both sufficiently familiar with the world outside themselves to lend their judgments compassion and breadth (and thereby contribute to the political life of the nation), and sufficiently skilled to find productive employment. In that order. Our primary function, in other words, is to teach people, not tasks; to participate in the complex and infinitely worthwhile labor of forming citizens, men and women capable of furthering what’s best about us and forestalling what’s worst.”

image courtesy of adamr at freedigitalphotos.net