“To Die, Not Dying” from Die Wise
Categories: Excerpt Psychology & Personal Growth Spirituality & Religion
by Stephen Jenkinson
This excerpt from Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul looks at the grammar of death. In poetic language, the book investigates our moral, political, and spiritual obligation to our ancestors and our heirs to die well, and gives readers permission to explore a topic too often considered taboo. You can also watch the book trailer by clicking here.
TO DIE, NOT DYING
I was read to probably in the womb, I’m sure of it. By the time I was born I’d already heard—felt—many stories, and I was born into the epic coming and going that every story worth a damn tells us we are born into. Much as I loved stories from an early age, and as much as I beat the odds and continued loving stories through the formal education of my childhood years, when the time came I suffered grammar. I suffered it badly. I could not see or hear language that way, as a codified rulebook, though I tried. I could not even see the merit of the thing, try as I did. Years later and without much employment, I ended up teaching English as a second language to Latin American kids sent north for finishing by well-off parents who feared that the civil wars that haunted El Salvador, Guatemala, and Chiapas at the time would find their children too. Then I discovered how little of the English grammar had stuck to me. Being the mongrel it is, and claiming for itself a regal pedigree of structure that given its speckled partrilineage cannot be, I found myself having to make up reasons to explain why the language does what it does. The story of why English prepositions aren’t based in Greek or Latin when so much English is, for example, was one of their favorites, and utterly my invention.
But, I bow to it: Grammar, like the mosquito, has its use, and we’ll try to employ it in wondering about dying. You will remember that the English language verbs have tenses (three main ones, a miserly number considering that many indigenous languages have rafts of tenses, and this paltry choice forces us to see life in a strange, progressive, and linear fashion), and they have voices. In another miserable victory for our binary, oppositional way of seeing things, there are only two voices for our English verbs: They are either passive or they are active.
I have a hard-earned twenty-dollar bill in my pocket on this snowbound early spring morning. I take it out and put it on the kitchen table with all the seed trays planted last night, far out of my reach. That twenty-dollar bill is yours for the taking. Please give me—in proper English—an example of the verb “to die,” in the passive voice, in a sentence.
Many times I have taught this idea, and I have learned a lot from it. All the different audiences have tried to solve this riddle in the same way. At first their answers change “to die” into an adverb and use it to describe some kind of dying, or an adjective to describe all kinds of death, none of them alert to the fact that they are not using “to die” as the verb of their sentences. When that doesn’t work, they move on to use other verbs that approximate what they think “to die” means. Finally, the grammatically adroit people start using “to die” correctly as the verb of their sentences, but they are using it actively in the past tense.
This has taught me a great deal, this unexpected use of a past tense to solve the riddle of a passive voice. This isn’t grammar, mainly. This is teleology, epistemology, theology. We think of time as a line irreversible and unbendable. We see everything as hurtling headlong from the present toward the future, from the known to the unknown. We are rational and progressive. At least one foundational religious tradition of this culture takes our dead from us and calls them gone and consigns them to God and to what is lost and no longer and will never be again. Once a thing, a dream, a person is gone, and there is nothing to be done. No wonder the past tense conjures a quiet, relentless passivity—and so it is with us. In trying to answer a grammar riddle we are stalemated by our theology, and the only solution seems to be to get the feel of passivity by losing. Goneness: What might have been or what was, both now lost to us, claimed by the past. “I lost my mother last month,” people say.
Who among you has come to the Rubicon of this riddle? The answer, as best as I can figure with my limited English grammar, is that it can’t be done. You cannot use the verb “to die” in the passive voice in a sentence and obey the rules of grammar and the style manuals. You’d think you should be able to do it, that every verb will allow for an active way of doing and a passive way of being done, but I can’t find it. And so I bow to the language on this epic grammatical detail as a great teacher. The language we use every day wants us to know that dying is not passive, can’t be passive. Dying is active. Dying is not what happens to you. Dying is what you do.
Dying is what you do. It is not what is done to you. While the disease process is doing what it is doing, you are doing what you are doing, so the language teaches. This is good grammar, but can you recognize the phenomenology of dying in it? Dying in the English speaking world is usually an affliction, a malfeasance, an arbitration, certainly something coming from somewhere beyond your plans and abilities to steal your plans and abilities from you. It is an intrusion, a violation, a visitation of Nothingness, a grim reaping. It is almost never spoken of as something you do, or could do, or ought to do, and this is where our confusion spirals into the great fear and loathing of the contemporary death experience. The “disease trajectory,” as it is called in the trade, is somewhat predictable, fairly trustworthy in its unfortunate way, with a ring of the inevitable about it. But what you do in the face of that inevitability—there is nothing inevitable about that. What you do while the disease goes as it goes is entirely up for grabs, just as our grammar says it is. And almost nobody knows this.
This grammatical stalemate is a great teacher also. It whispers that perhaps the only way you can fight the angel of active dying to the ground of passivity and victimization is to change the verb altogether. The answers I get to this riddle all point to one word, very passive, to change things. Either you die, you find out from this riddle, or you are killed. There are your choices: die or be killed. Either the cancer kills you or you battle cancer and win and carry the stain of your vulnerability the rest of your shadowed days as a survivor, or the cancerous broken heart kills you and the obituary they make for you begins this way: “After a long and courageous battle…” Or you die. Those are the choices. We should be able to tell the difference between dying and being killed.Tags: Stephen Jenkinson Philosophy