Apocalypse Now! begins with Jim Morrison singing “This is the end.”  The 19th Century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel begins his Science of Logic with an essay called “What What Must the Science Begin?” and there, similarly, it seems to me that, in some ways, his answer is that it is only with the end that the beginning can be made.  I have myself been thinking a lot about aging lately, and here, too, I have been toying with the idea that it is only with the end–in this case, death–that our life properly begins.  Let me explain my idea.

When we are growing up, we take the world for granted.  Certainly as children, but also as adolescents and as young adults,we rely upon the surrounding world–and especially other people in that world–to ensure that there is a “place” for us, to ensure that routes and resources are available to us to move forward.  As we grow, we work at making our way in the world: we struggle to define ourselves, to learn how to cope with things, to get ourselves into a satisfactory living situations, (sometimes at a comfortable pace, if others do in fact make a secure setting for us, and sometimes at an overwhelming and crippling pace, if we find ourselves unsupported materially or psychologically and we have to “fend for ourselves” prematurely).  Even as we work in and with the world, however, we are not questioning the world, that is, we are accepting as “given”–“taking for granted”–the fact that the world is there and that we are there in it.  It is precisely this “taking for granted,” I think, that our aging can bring us to challenge.

In youth, the world is a world of possibility, and our own life similarly appears to us in terms of possibility: What will I become? Who will I be?  As we age, we develop ourselves, and, over time, we establish an identity.  While it always remains true that we can change, our developed adulthood marks nonetheless our having become someone specific: I have shown myself to be someone through my history, my actions, my accomplishments, and, though I can still go through important transformations, I cannot in good faith disavow this “who” that I have become.  It seems to me that this establishing of a developed, specific identity can bring with it a particular, important recognition: this life is mine to live only once, and, though as a free being I am fundamentally a being of possibilities, I am also, most basically, this one and only actuality that can never be effaced, never be repeated, never be revised.  This recognition of the irremovable uniqueness of my life is essentially the recognition of death: it is the recognition that this is my only chance to be me: it is happening now, never to be repeated.

This recognition of our mortal uniqueness, it seems to me, can be a life-transforming recognition, for it is the recognition that puts one, for the first time, into the position of seeing her or his situation in its true terms.  Up until this time, one has taken many aspects of one’s existence for granted, living as if it were simply a permanent truth that “there is a world” and “I am there in it.”  In recognizing my mortality, however, I recognize that the world will not always be “there” for there will be no me for whom there will “be” anything at all, and I thus come to appreciate the intrinsically finite terms of my own reality for the first time.  For that reason, it is only with this recognition that one really begins, we could say, to live one’s own life.

Such a recognition can be psychologically terrifying; indeed, it is probably some version of this recognition that lies behind the common experience of a “mid-life crisis.”  This recognition need not be something bad, though.  On the contrary, such a recognition can be our first real opportunity to appreciate our existence, and to appropriate courageously our own freedom.  In our culture, we are often led to think that it is in youth that life is rich and full, and that aging is simply deterioration.  This reflection on death and beginning perhaps suggests instead that we should think of life as only beginning in our later adulthood, only beginning, that is, when we have come to see ourselves as defined by the end.

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  1. Kirsten
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    I have just begun reading _The Tibetan Book of the Dead_–an entire practice, as far as I can tell so far, of reading and reflecting and meditating on death (and also identity) and its relation to our living and ending of life. I am curious.

  2. Kym
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just spent a couple of days with some juvenile lifers–that is, people who are serving a life sentence and have been doing so since they were juveniles. It strikes me that your analysis of the new beginning that takes place once one is experientially defined by the end might help make sense of who they have become. They are folks who have quite powerfully been defined by their end–an end that they have every reason to expect will take place in prison–and they have had to struggle with the sense that their identities have been fixed once and for all–as criminals. Perhaps this helps to understand why they stood out as some of the most mature, responsible, thoughtful, socially committed, and alive people I’ve met–even though some of them are still only in their twenties.

    • JohnR
      Posted September 3, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

      We have a great many forces in our lives that work to deny our limitations. Telephone, television, and especially the internet conceal the distance that inherently poses a restriction to our bodies, which must always occupy a specific place. Compulsory schooling habituates us to a sense that everything is known, encouraging us to believe that if we adopt an appropriately passive and obedient attitude, everything will eventually be revealed to us, (and, indeed, that we will naturally find our way into a satisfying, pre-established career). In fact, though, the world is a difficult, resistant place, inherently obscure, and unforgiving in its demand that we conform ourselves to its hard surface. I was suggesting in the post that the experience of aging can be what breaks through our insulated self-conception and lets the reality of our situation reveal itself. Other situations, too, can have this impact, though, and I think that the situation of imprisonment you describe can be one. The point you make reminds me very much of things my father said, over the many years he spent working as a psychiatrist for penitentiary inmates. I think there are many other cultural situations–past and present–that offer fewer of the illusions I mentioned, precisely because they are more difficult and threatening, and we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that our own highly “buffered” existence is more desirable.

  3. Anton
    Posted September 21, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Marginalization, like accumulated life experience, might excuse a person from a rote, intersubjective phenomenology developed socially, prompting a more independent reassessment and reconstruction. Someone who suffers disillusion mindfully may indeed, given the potential to do so, become very powerful spiritually.

    • JohnR
      Posted September 21, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      I think that’s true. I mention Hegel in this post, and there is another thing he wrote about that I think connects to your point very well. He looked at the experience of being a slave and showed that, while this is an unjust and unfair situation to be in, it is also a situation that can give the oppressed person or the marginalized person the possibility of learning something (perhaps about self-reliance, perhaps about discipline) that is not easily available to the oppressor or the member of the “mainstream” group. I think there are lots of comparable situations where people can learn–often about independence–from the burdens and exclusions they’ve had to deal with.

      • Anton
        Posted September 21, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

        A prisoner or a slave forced into a pattern of philosophical self-reliance is perhaps granted, in that respect, an ironic sort of freedom.

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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).