Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Blessed are those that mourn

Tonight was the Yale Political Union's annual Party Prize Debate, in which all seven parties field two speakers, one in the affirmative and one in the negative (each with a four minute time limit, against which I chafed mightily!). I with my cohort Miss Camila Francisca YaDeau took second place. The following is the text of my speech, more or less as delivered, in the negative on R: Don't fear the Reaper.
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Mr Speaker, it must be strange for this body to see a heavy smoking, hard drinking degenerate such as myself rise to speak in the negative of tonight's resolution-- how can such a reckless, unthinking soul renowned (if anything) for the inability to think beyond the butt of a cigarette stand here urging an all-consuming fear of death?

I stand here, Mr Speaker, because it is to fear that I owe not my life, but my humanity-- because it is fear that begets mourning, mourning that begets gratitude, and gratitude that begets love.

Let me begin by examining what fear is not. Despite what some in the affirmative have said, fear is not ignorance, avoidance, or paralysis, nor must fear inevitably lead to cowardice. In fact, fear is the very foundation of all that makes life worth living-- the foundation, because, to misquote Bob Dylan, fear is not the end.

Ultimately, fear is the thing that grips us when we are confronted with our own insufficiency. We not only fear the unconquerable, we fear because the unconquerable exists-- it may find us as a cocked gun, an unpaid bill, a lover's quarrel-- but however it manifests, fear is what takes hold when we find ourselves not only vulnerable, but suddenly so. Fear is absence of control, wildly and horrifically felt.

Fear of death is unique because death alone is at once completely universal, and completely inevitable. Modern man speaks often of equality yet rejects this, its final, perfect, manifestation.

Contemplation and fear of death confront us with our imperfectability, a confrontation modernity has furiously sought to rationalize away. If man, here, now, is perfectable, why would he approach the inescapable with trepidation? To do so would be nothing less than childish, self-indulgent, and wasteful. Stoicism, ignorance, and even preoccupation with longevity are permitted, but protesting things as they are, and indeed as they must be, is nothing less than a petulant temper tantrum.

I say “protest” because, properly understood, that is what fear is-- protest: a yearning for some circumstance, some reality, other than this. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the fullness of it.

In the words of an anonymous desert father: “A man who keeps death before his eyes at all times will overcome his cowardliness.” Fear and courage before death are above all futile protests, because we can neither rid ourselves of this imperfection, nor ignore it, nor accept it. Fear before death is a doomed protest, but protest we must.

Mere contemplation of death may remind us of all we have left undone, sharpen our regret, and even help us to know a more honest ranking of our priorities, whether we realize we wish we'd had more sex or read more books, but only fear of death can inspire in us the urgency to live in the radical now, and only fear of death, visceral, unconquerable, absurd, binds us to these truths when reason would protect us with the frankly statistical truth that, even for we young smokers, we still have time.

This is what I mean when I say that 'fear is not the end'-- fear of death must be transfigured-- neither ignored nor forgotten, but made into something greater than itself. To misappropriate Father Alexander Schmemann, we must find a “third way” between “the radical yes” of surrender (in this case, unthinking hedonism) and “the radical no” of escape (obsession with longevity).

Death is inevitable, but still must we fear, so that we can know the urgency necessary to accomplish. Still must we mourn, so that we can fully feel and acknowledge the goodness of life. Still must we be grateful for the time we have had and the time we have yet. To do otherwise, to embrace the self as perfectable, complete, radically free, self-created and self-defined, is to limit one's interactions with others either to exploitation or conquest.

Fear of death must lead to mourning and grief before eternal rest, but the final stage, contra Dr Kubler-Ross, cannot be acceptance. We must fear death, we must know urgency, we must embrace finitude, not to find peace, but to know fire, not to die unto the world, but to live within and beyond it, not to reject others, but to love. Ladies and gentlemen, there is no joy without gratitude, no gratitude without loss, no loss without sorrow, and no sorrow without fear. Fear the Reaper, and conquer him with love.
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At least ten pages of tightly written notes musing on everything from the Seven Sorrows to Turgenev's The Living Relic to antinomianism to Svevo's La conscienza di Zeno (and everything between, and much without), went into this speech, so expect further elaboration. If there's a particular place you'd like me to begin, do let me know. I'm very gratified to have been able to give a speech I actually believe (rare for a prize debate), and so despite not taking first place I am grateful (for once) to the YPU for giving me the opportunity to really exercise my philosophical chops.

Many congratulations to the first place winner the Party of the Left, represented by Leah (of Unequally Yoked, who else) and Mr Adam Stempel.


  1. I like it just as much as I remembered (and I do want to hear some of the cut sections fleshed out here). The whole thing was very worthy of Chesterton and I'm going to chuck my copy of Orthodoxy at your head the next time I see you, so you understand how much I mean when I say that. My one criticism is that it kind of suffers from Chesterton's weak point: it paints a beautiful, inspiring picture without giving me much of a practical model as a way in to its teachings.

    I think the reason Chesterton ends up doing this (all the time!) is because he thinks the vision is so compelling that it will take hold of you and just insinuate itself into your life, without you needing to plan too much about implementing it. Pulling that trick works better in print than in speech and it certainly didn't work for Chesterton all the time.

    Now that you've got the chance to expand, I'd love some case studies/illustrations of what it looks like to live this philosophy.

  2. Before I do that-- it was clear that I was talking about mourning the self, right? Mourning others is good too, but I was talking mainly about our relationship to our own mortality.

  3. Great speech, Tristyn, and very beautiful!

    Though you may not have said this directly, you seemed to imply something very deeply true: fear of death goes hand in hand with admitting our imperfection, and that in turn is what enables us to love each other as God loves us - unconditionally and despite our flaws.

    It's also worth remembering that we should fear death because, being the ultimate enemy of Life, it the ultimate enemy of both God and man. If death wasn't bad and scary, Jesus wouldn't have needed to die for us. As Christians we may be said not to fear death, but only because we know we are protected from it.

  4. Lea, thank you very much!

    Addressed to as wide an audience as it was, I tried to make the speech as true as possible without TOO obviously relying on/invoking Christianity (although, even from my perspective, it's obviously grounded in Christian thought, and not just because I quote Father Schmemann!), but your points are certainly well taken.

    I've really been enjoying your blog, by the way, and I encourage anyone reading this to check it out at http://thegroomsfamily.wordpress.com/

  5. Yes, that was absolutely clear.

  6. Oh sure - I didn't mean to imply that you should have said something like that, was just reflecting in the wake of your speech. I was actually quite impressed by the way you wove in patristic thought (not counting Father Schmemann as a Church Father, although allegedly Father Michael at Holy Transfiguration in New Haven has an icon of him in the altar!) without having the whole thing scream "I'm a Christian, hear me preach."

    Incidentally, one of my favorite moments at Yale was winning the prize debate my junior year (never before or since had I even placed) by giving an almost-off-the-cuff speech in the negative on R: Organized Religion is Bad for Society...

  7. Wow, I meant in the affirmative, not the negative - the other way it's not funny! It was post-conversion, too.

  8. very beautiful thesis... keep it up :)

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