Book Club: To Philosophize Is To Learn How To Die

A reader adds to the other near-death experiences sparked by Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live:

I am 65 years old. In 1958, when I was 9, I suffered a ruptured appendix that was misdiagnosed as flu, so I lay in my bed for a week getting sicker and sicker until I was taken to Lankenau Hospital outside Philadelphia. They treated me with drugs for three days and then operated.

I have a number of memories from the three weeks I spent in the hospital but my near-death experience is still very close to me 55 years later. I, too, have a vivid memory of looking down on myself from up high, the minister at my right hand, and my already grieving parents on my left. I remember seeing a bright light and feeling a great sensation of peace and comfort surrounding me. Then my father kept shaking me. He kept saying “Wake up! Don’t go to sleep!” He pulled me back from that gate or passage I was about to enter.

I also have another vivid memory which I have kept from that time. While I was passing in and out of consciousness I had a dream that has stuck with me.

My heritage is Latvian, and my Latvian forebears are Nordic looking. In my dream I was wrapped in a blanket in the back seat of a big, black limousine like a Packard. I was taken to the ferryboat landing at the foot of Flower St. in Chester PA where we used to cross the Delaware to New Jersey on the way to the shore, before the bridges were built. It was night and cold (I got sick in January.) Very blond men wearing cashmere coats and black Homburg hats took me out of the car and onto the ferryboat. They laid me on one of the wooden benches polished from decades of use. The engines started and the ship began to vibrate. I felt cold and was shivering. Then, one of the men came back for me and picked me up in my blanket. He took me back to the Packard. He said “it’s not time yet. We made a mistake.”

Now I have bladder cancer and have been in the OR 12 times in the past four years. I am able to control my fear and make the most of it now largely on the basis of my early brush with death. To tell you the truth, in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. I don’t want to die just yet but, you know, it really isn’t that big a deal.

Montaigne would be chuffed. Another reader:

One thing I took away from this excellent biography is something you touched on a bit in your very good kickoff to the discussion. Montaigne‘s essays are the antidote to today’s happiness-obsessed culture. Parents raise their children instilling happiness as the most important, above even having good morals. Our social climate today believes that if you’re not happy all the time, there’s something wrong with you.

It hasn’t always been that way. When my father told his father he was divorcing my mother because they were no longer happy, my grandfather, dismayed, replied, “Who told you you were supposed to be happy?” But now, if you live in NYC or Los Angeles, it’s unusual to not have a therapist. Campus counseling services cannot keep up with influx of demand. So the title of this book is sublime irony.

Hope this is valuable. So glad you’ve started these monthly discussions. I have read all three books so far.

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