“Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” wrote the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, imploring us to violently resist the encroachment of death. Thomas published this work (“Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night”) in 1951—a year before his father, for whom the poem is written, succumbed to illness and entered into that good night.
A common literary motif is the attempt to outrun death. Thomas rejects this creed, insisting on fight over flight. Yet what does it look like, this fading defiance, this assault on our own mortality? There is a night that comes for us all — we can no sooner stop its arrival than we can stop the Earth from turning. Yet we must burn and rage against it.
It may involve a refusal to surrender joy. All of us have interests, projects, and experiences infused with inner feeling, and to give these up too early is to entomb oneself alive, wrapped in a white flag.
It may come in a decision, against all medical and spiritual counsel, to let an increase in age bring with it an increase in recklessness.
Or it may involve a sense, like for Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” that it’s not too late to go on one final voyage, under the baths of Western stars, before the waves sweep everything away.
The common element in all of these options is a refusal to yield.
Temptation to Yield
Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist best known as one of the architects of Obamacare, says there is a specifiable point by which all of us should yield. He thinks 75 years is enough:
Doubtless, death is a loss. It deprives us of experiences and milestones, of time spent with our spouse and children. In short, it deprives us of all the things we value. But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.
Emanuel’s recommendation—that we establish a ceiling on how old any of us should grow to be—is perhaps alluring to some Christians. We’ve all squirmed a little when asked to explain why we should remain here, on this sin-stained rock, rather than embrace the very death that like a chariot would bring us to the city with foundations. If “to die is gain,” as the apostle Paul put it (Phil. 1:21), then any answer we give for prioritizing Earth has the potential to unwittingly subvert our belief in the surpassing grandeur of the glorified state.
But Paul surely sensed, as we also sense, that to call Jesus Lord is to recognize our lives are ultimately not our own. There is a great temptation—especially in the presence of suffering as intense as it is bewildering—to plan our withdrawal and set a course for the place where will be made whole again. But these ships have another captain. The argument from mercy tells us to help the terminally ill escape their pain. But if we think God has a good handle on the concept of mercy, and if he has not yet indicated it is time, then we should trust we won’t be dispossessed of the mercy promised us.
Catalyze, Not Paralyze
Dylan Thomas died a year after his father, at 39 years old—falling 36 years short of Emanuel’s target number. Might Thomas have agreed with Emanuel?
When Thomas writes, “Wise men at their end know dark is right,” he agrees with Emanuel. Yet it’s only partial agreement, since a sense of life’s completeness doesn’t ultimately validate a welcoming of its end. Thomas understands that a life must end, but until it does, it must be vigorously lived.
The unstoppable march of death can paralyze; Thomas calls us to let it catalyze.
I suppose it’s easy to view the end as thrilling when one’s frame of reference is The Odyssey, as it was for Tennyson. Does ordinary life possess the unrelenting adventurousness of a Homeric poem? It’s hard to see how life in a nursing home provides the same opportunity for glory.
Thomas saw his father, blind and dying, and implored him to resist. But what was Thomas looking for? What would it have looked like, in this context, to see his father raise a clenched fist against death’s coming?
Death Is Not Life’s Goal
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used perhaps the archetypal symbol of our biological fitness — the heartbeat — to describe the unavoidability of death:
Our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
Yet “life is real,” Longfellow wrote, “and the grave is not its goal.”
Is 75 years, or some number close to it, enough?
To me, it’s not enough. One hundred years is not enough. Four hundred years is not enough. Ten thousand years is not enough. Aristotle saw in living things an inner inclination toward immortality. That desire, like a throbbing heartbeat, permeates my being.
In Psalm 23, David flattens the distinction between life and afterlife. Isn’t that just an artificial division, in the end? Our lives carry with them a post-resurrection glow. Apart from Christ’s taming of death’s sting (1 Cor. 15:55–57), the prospect that our earthly lives will one day hollow out retains its terror. Yet now—what is it? A brief interlude. We jump from life to life. There is goodness here and goodness there. And there is nothing that can separate us from that death-destroying goodness.
David speaks for those of us who believe, through no achievement of our own, that the end will bring with it a far better state than the one we currently enjoy:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
But that does not mean we should go gentle.