Sometime after the birth of my first child I read The Good Life: Scott and Ellen Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living. Self-sufficient living is a backward idea overall, but one powerful image of the Nearings’ story has stuck with me. Scott Nearing died by choice. He lived to 100 years of age and on his birthday decided he was ready to die. He stopped eating and weaned himself from water. He sat on the porch of the home he and Ellen built and held her hand. Some hours were quiet, other times they talked about everything. Scott slowed down to stillness and one morning, a few days later, he stayed in bed. By midday he closed his eyes forever. Ellen wrote of his quiet death as a coda to a life of intense peace.
Recently, my eight-year-old son started making witty remarks or jokes trailed by the phrase “and then he [or she] died“. He doesn’t stop to catch anyone’s reaction. He just moves on. I don’t know if he’s thinking about death in any serious sense. But a few evenings ago, my husband finished reading the last book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Halllows, in which various important and well-loved characters die. I think my son is shedding some of the book’s intensity by treating the concept of death whimsically and lightly.
As a young man, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne obsessed about death and reading classical philosophers seemed to feed his morbid thoughts. Historian Sarah Bakewell says,
Death was a topic of which the ancients never tired. Cicero summed up their principle neatly: To philosophize is to learn how to die.
When Montaigne wrote his own, now classic Essays–decades later, death was not so scary anymore. He wrote,
If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry. Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you. Don’t bother your head about it.
Sarah Bakewell author of How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, says,
“Don’t worry about death”, became [Montaigne's] most fundamental, most liberating answer to the question of how to live. It made it possible to do just that: live.
In any case, death of a loved one rocks your soul, regardless of how you have dealt with the concept of death in the past. About a month ago, I wrote about the predominance of death and loss in the lives of highly creative people. As for Montaigne, he came to his sanguinesque conclusion about death more than fifteen years after loosing his father, his wife and five of his six young children within one decade. Other Highly Creative people stay in mourning-mode throughout the Creative process, from beginning to end. The excellent 2009 film Creation–about Charles Darwin, demonstrates this beautifully by highlighting Darwin’s intense inner struggle with the loss of his beloved nine-year old daughter, Annie. Montaigne instead, seems to have gone through a lengthy mourning period–fifteen years, before entering the Creative process. Although Montaigne was one of the Renaissance’s most respected philosophers, he understood the world and analyzed it more like a Scientist– with detached fascination. And Darwin, the father of modern biology–a scientist for sure, finally wrote down and published his theory of Natural Selection: On the Origin of Species to heal–more like a tortured, emotionally labile writer.
As I study the lives of Highly Creative people, I have come to notice creative-types enter the Creative process in either an archetypal Writer’s mindset–as Darwin did or an archetypal Scientist’s mindset, like Michel de Montaigne.