“In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” (Dante, The Divine Comedy [c. 1310–1321]. Inferno, canto I, l. 1, translated by John D. Sinclair.)
For Dante, it was his mid-thirties when he found himself in a dark wood.
For me, it happened a little later. I was in my mid-forties at my house in Philadelphia. I was reading in my study. I paused to take a break, stood up to stretch my legs. I let my eyes roam over the books on my bookshelves. I did not expect anything unusual, but suddenly a twinge of panic seized me. The room seemed akilter. The breath of mortality blew across my neck. It was the first time that I understood I would not read all of my books, that there would not be enough time.
Some years later, I drove from Philadelphia to New York to consult a chasidic rabbi about a problem. His wife opened the door for me and ushered me down a long dimly-lit hallway to a large rectangular room lined from floor to ceiling with books. She brought a pitcher of cold water and some fruit to eat while I waited. Shortly, the rabbi entered, sat down directly across from me, looked at me, and asked how he could help me.
I described my problem to him. He listened patiently, interrupting me from time to time only to ask a question for clarification. When I finished, he told me what actions I should take to solve my problem. I returned to Philadelphia, followed the rabbi’s instructions precisely, and, within a month, my issue was resolved.
A couple of years afterward, the rabbi passed away. I attended his funeral and burial. I stood at the foot of his open grave on a cold winter’s day in New Jersey. The ground was frozen, and patches of snow dotted the cemetery grounds. As men lowered the coffin into the earth, all I could think of was the rabbi’s study full of books in his house in New York. He had garnered a remarkable amount of wisdom from them. Where does that go, I wondered; does it go anywhere?
“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” the Bible tells us. So—what is the purpose of our learning, if dust is the ending of it? Is there any purpose? In Psalms (90:12), the Psalmist asks God to “teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” But why do so, if a person’s wisdom decays along with them in the earth?
In John Williams’ book Stoner, William Stoner, the novel’s protagonist, has an experience like the one I had in my study in Philadelphia. He is just starting graduate school.
Having come to his studies late, he felt the urgency of study. Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.Williams, John. Stoner (Vintage Classics) (p. 25). Random House. Kindle Edition.
For Stoner, the goal was to learn what he had to know; for the rabbi, it was to apply his heart unto wisdom. Both men found something supremely satisfying about learning.
In an essay titled “To philosophize is to learn how to die,” the great French essayist, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), records what he hopes to be doing when death finds him.
I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening. I once saw a man die who, right to the last, kept lamenting that destiny had cut the thread of the history he was writing when he had only got up to our fifteenth or sixteenth king!Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Essays (p. 99). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
I’m not much on growing cabbages, but I do love books. When the time comes, it would be perfect if death found me with a book and, like Montaigne with his cabbages, neither worrying about it nor lamenting my unfinished reading.
All the best,