The Poet and The Philosopher on Longevity and Loss
Two remarkable videos portray aging thinkers
The American website Aeon has shared two remarkable videos on aging over the last several weeks. One profiles the 97 year old philosopher Herbert Fingarette, shortly before his death. He begins with an understatement: "Being 97 is an interesting experience." The other profiles Donald Hall, former Poet Laureate of the United States, who also shared thoughts on aging and loss in what turned out to be his final year.
These may be challenging to watch, but both are very worthwhile testaments, remarkably honest, candid and poignant. These are men sharing powerful feelings, each with a remarkable ability to give voice to their inner lives. The videos are striking for other reasons, too. For one, both Hall and Fingarette share very similar stories about the pain of losing a beloved spouse. Few other people feel as comfortable sharing this pain and are as forthright in describing it.
Here's Fingarette's description:
If I had to say something, I would say that loneliness and absence is an absolute part of my life. And that has to do with [the loss of] my wife. We were very close. We were married for around 70 years. That's a dimension of this whole situation that I am preoccupied with, because she’s gone and she has been for several years and I feel that a part of me is gone. We worked together, we traveled together, we were happy together. I know how fortunate I have been to have a happy life but half of me is gone. Her absence has, for a number of years now been a presence to me. Call it emptiness, something missing. She is what’s missing of course, but that's a very lonely thing.
Hall also ruminates on the loss of the love of his life, fellow poet Jane Kenyon, who passed away from cancer in 1995. Even the words he uses to describe her absence are strikingly similar:
I don’t believe that a day has gone by in 22 years when I have not thought of Jane. [At first], I went to the grave about four times a day and talked to her. My companion was her absence. Earlier this year, I grieved for her in a way that I had never grieved before. I was sick and thought I was dying. Every day of her dying I stayed by her side [for] a year and a half. It was miserable that Jane should die so young and it was redemptive that I could be with her every hour of every day. Last January I grieved again, this time that she would not sit beside me as I died.
A frightening thought, a transcendent experience
Fingarette's thoughts on being 97 are notably rare. "It’s very difficult for people who have not reached old age, to understand the psychology of it, what is going on in the person,” he says. Later he makes the candid admission we might expect: "At this age, naturally, I think about death." He wrote about about death in 1996 and his conclusion at that time was atheistic. He now finds his own position too dismissive. "I think it’s important to figure out why it is that people are afraid of death," he says, himself included. "Why am I concerned about it? My sense of realism tells me that — no good reason or not — it’s something that haunts me, the idea of dying soon ... Death is a frightening thought. It’s something I don’t want to happen. Much as I think our life in this world is often a pretty messy affair, I still would like to hang around. I don’t know the basic reason why I should want to, or the basic reason why I should be afraid of it. What does it mean that I’m going to leave?"
Even as he says that, he seems to realize that every instant of life is something to be cherished. "As I sit out now on my deck of the house I look at the trees blowing a little in the breeze. I’ve seen that now, innumerable times, but somehow seeing the trees this time is a transcendent experience. I see how marvelous it is. And I think to myself I’ve had these here all along but have I really appreciated them? And the fact is that I have not until now. And in a way it makes the fact of death even more difficult to accept. It just brings tears to my eyes."
The videos can be watched in their fullness below.
Being 97, with Herbert Fingarette
Quiet Hours, with Donald Hall.