by Clare Goldsberry
Rhinebeck, N.Y.: Monkfish, 2021. xxx + 223 pp., paper, $16.99.
The human family is rich with expressions of diversity: differing languages and alphabets, various forms of art and music, unique scriptures of the world’s religions, iconic architecture, and much more. Yet there are two basic things we share in common without exception: we live and we die.
Clare Goldsberry’s new book asks the reader to ponder what it means to live well as well as to face the reality that today most people do not know how to die with grace and dignity. In olden times, death was seen as a part of life: people died in the home, in the presence of family and loved ones. Today they are more likely to die in the sterile and impersonal environment of a hospital or group home for seniors, often neglected and alone.
In The Illusion of Life and Death, Goldsberry has culled a rich array of insights into life and death from a broad range of philosophers from Plato to Seneca to Martin Heidegger; religious leaders from Shankara to Thomas Aquinas to Thomas Merton; Theosophists from H.P. Blavatsky and G.R.S. Mead to Christmas Humphreys and Joy Mills; and secular sapience from astronomers, scientists, physicists, and medical professionals.
This mosaic of thought is tied into a unified whole by Goldsberry’s ongoing narrative of her soulmate, Brent, “who taught me how to live, and more importantly, how to die.” Brent was a friend with a terminal illness who demonstrated that it is still possible, in this day and age, to die without fear or regrets.
Brent’s touching story grounds the high-minded ideas of deep thinkers into the reality of our day-to-day world. He serves as an exemplar of those insights, persuading the reader that it is indeed possible to put them into action.
Furthermore, the author says, “Dying with grace and dignity means dying knowing that we have lived a life of meaning and purpose, and can accept our death with peace, having lived a life of intention.” The obvious implication is that a life well lived facilitates a graceful exit from this world.
Goldsberry has another interesting observation: “Death is something that we do alone, but to die well is not a passive activity. Death is not something that happens to us; we can participate in it once we know how to die.” She cites the example of Buddhists who meditate on their own eventual death. Equally important is the ability to develop nonattachment, another Buddhist principle. Eventually we must let go of all things. The practice of visualizing that makes the actual process much easier.
The book emphasizes that death is not a terminus; it is a transition from one state of consciousness to another, an idea that has a long pedigree within the wisdom tradition.
David Bruce is national secretary of the Theosophical Society in America.