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Saturday, May 19 2001

Thanatopsis

In high school I came across the poem by William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis, which word I found defined in some dictionary as a morbid fascination or fear of death. (I don't find it defined in the Merriam-Webster site linked to our Home Page now; "thanatology, the study of death" being its closest approximation.) By the time I discovered the poem, I had gotten over my own thanatopsis, but I remember it clearly still.

It seemed to be the mark of my twelfth year; after I turned 11 I suddenly became aware of my own mortality and had a dread of it every time it came to mind, and it seemed I couldn't keep it from coming to mind. I've heard of studies, in fact, that find that thoughts of death are a constant part of our conscious life, flying in and out of more focused thinking, much like the awareness of our sexual/sensual nature is part of "every waking thought," at least in males of certain ages (perhaps from six to 96).

It was, at 11, as though I self-consciously thought about the fact that I was going to die some day, and until then I'd never entertained the thought. It was earth-shaking. Until then, I'd feared the loss of my parents more than anything else. I knew of one or two schoolmates who'd been orphaned, and couldn't imagine so hard a loss, and there were movies and stories that drilled that possiblity into our childish minds, too, not to mention my Mom's sometimes singing "The Letter Edged in Black" about the narrator's loss of her mother (as described in an earlier Jonal entry). I also remember seeing as one of the first movies in my life (at about age 4), The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, in which a small boy dies as a result of a steam shovel accident. So I knew children could die...but it hadn't tranferred into my own categories. Until age 11, I guess I considered myself immortal.

The awareness, fascination, and dread were not that I would die young...it didn't matter. Even if I lived another 70 years or more, that was nothing in the scope of the eons. I was at 11 a dead man walking. The awareness was accompanied by something I now identify as grief, actual grief at such a young age, and yet a grief I couldn't share with anyone. How could I bring it up with my parents, who were so much older and who had already often considered their own eventual demise?

I still remember, on a visit to my Aunt Buelah's near Painesville, Ohio, that twelfth year, my Dad, in a rare jovial mood, reciting the morbid "poem," "Do you ever think, when a hearse goes by, that some day you are going to die?..." It described my misery to a T, but also compounded it. I already felt that way every time I saw a hearse, but now I had rhyming words describing it all to fight against in my mind as well. There was some sense, too, in which that poem fit my "discovery"...I could now imagine my own death, but I couldn't imagine loss of self-consciousness. I pictured death as paralysis of everything but the mind, but knew of course that wasn't a reasonable definition of death.

And you may be wondering, what about church and Sunday school and eternal life, faith in God? I knew all that, too, and didn't believe it less than ever, but the "what if?" questions I now had of death seemed to be eclipsing the certitudes of faith.

What are the lessons learned, the point of all this? I'm not sure. We become self-aware and that includes awareness of our motality. We accept death as part of life and learn to cope with our own motality. Learning to really comprehend our own mortality makes us less horrified by the knowledge of the mortality of others, especially dear or even felt unexpendable ones, to us.

Does every child go through this? I've never read that they do, never saw signs of it in my own children's lives. But then my parents had no idea what I was going through for that year.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy

Meet the fiance

After Leslie brought home her fiance to meet her parents, her father invited the young man into his study to find out more about him. "What are your plans?" he asked Joseph.

"I'm a scholar of the Torah," Joseph replied.

"Well, that's admirable," Leslie's father replied. "But what will you do to provide a nice house for my daughter?"

"I will study, and God will surely provide for us," Joseph explained.

"And how will you buy her a nice engagement ring?"

"I will study hard, and God will provide for us."

"And children?" asked the father. "How will you support children?"

"Don't worry, sir, God will provide," replied the fiance. The conversation continued in much the same fashion.

After Joseph and Leslie had left, her mother asked her father what he found out. The father answered, "Well, he has no job and no plans, but the good news is that he thinks I'm God."

Sent by Mike Harrison

More great words of wisdom. . .modern proverbs

To forgive is to set the prisoner free, and then discover the prisoner was you.

You have to wonder about humans, they think God is dead and Elvis is alive!

It's all right to sit on your pity pot every now and again. Just be sure to flush when you are done.

Sent by Zan
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