The other day, despite my better judgment, I got a new book by author David Shields with a title that was clearly a warning to readers: The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (Knopf). Not so much a forewarning that mortality looms around the corner, but a warning that if you elect to delve into this subject, you’d best be prepared to wrestle with some considerable existential panic.
Each time I brought the book up in conversation, or simply picked it up to begin where I had left off, my wife would accuse me of being a masochist, and insist that I would be far better off reading about our floundering economy. Truth be told, the book is exactly what the title advertises, a work about the generation and maturation of life and its inevitable demise. Now for me, the notion of my impending death is not really something that gives me a palpable sense of panic, but the explicit nature of my decline (leading up to my demise) along with a precise exposition of how time ravages our physical being (which this book generously offers) is enough for me to launch a hasty retreat into the dark recesses of my mind.
“When you arrive in the world as a baby, your hands are clenched, as though to say, ‘Everything is mine. I will inherit it all.’ When you depart from the world, your hands are open, as though to say, ‘I have acquired nothing from the world.’” (Quoting the Hebrew Midrash, from The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.)
So, back to the original question: Why read something so definitely morose and defeatist? Well, to David Shields’ credit, this book is more than the sum of its parts and is as well written as it is overflowing with facts, insight, philosophy, and personal reflection. A Buddhist inspirational tome it is not, but it does approach mortality with a moderately sentimental gloves off approach that might make you, in a dark mire of emotional despair, look at your life and children with a little more wonder and compassion.
All of this leads to a few nagging questions about how we speak to the subject of human frailty and mortality with our children. A subject that I have recently introduced to my toddler son is that of healing, as in, “you get a boo-boo, and your body heals it.” But what happens when we don’t heal? When physical the ascension and maturation of our mind and bodies reaches its zenith and slowly (or in some cases quickly) starts the bumpy decent downhill? How do we instill in our children a sense of human strength and resilience, while faithfully acknowledging the atrophy and tenderness of human existence?
My own father, in a moment of ham-fisted encouragement, once told me that I would indeed grow tall (I was a late bloomer), but that once I stopped growing, at about age 17 or 18, my body would slowly begin to die. Factually, he was right, but in regards to parenting, well, let’s just say he could have been a bit more tactful.
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.