Saturday, April 22, 2017

End Game

The Seventh Seal
-- By Tom Phillips

The game is on, and I'm already losing.

The game is chess, in which I have little experience and no aptitude. My opponent is ranked number one in the world, having checkmated every player who ever lived, excepting possibly one.

I didn't make this up. I saw it in a movie, Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," from 1957.  A knight plays chess with the hooded figure of Death. He plays his best, he draws out the match, but Death makes a surprise move, takes his queen -- and soon, checkmate.  I saw it at 19 when it was new, and couldn't comprehend it.  I saw it again at 39, and it scared me, but I held out hope that I could avoid this defeat, by staying out of the game.

At the time I was a Buddhist, sitting on a cushion every day, achieving an equanimity that supposedly went beyond birth and death.  It's true, I'm sure, that the universe is One, and we simply pass from one form of existence to another -- eventually into a many-tiered heaven that rises to Nirvana, the end of suffering, extinction of desire.  I was pretty good at that game. 

Then, I had the misfortune of marrying a Presbyterian minister and losing a chess match with her, in which the loser was bound to adopt the religion of the winner. And I found myself in a new world, where this earthly life mattered, and you had one chance to make yours mean something.  Equanimity was neither the path not the goal -- life was a struggle to bear witness to the truth in a world that didn't want to hear it, to show mercy in a world that lived by conflict. Worst of all, other people mattered. Suffering was not to be contemplated, but fought on every front. Our job is to not to get out of here and into God's Kingdom, but to prepare the way for God's Kingdom on earth.

And where does death fit into that?  I have no ready answer. 

Recently, I made my first move -- a stupid move -- and only then realized the game was underway.  Visiting children and grandchildren on the West Coast, my wife and I went to see an apartment complex designed in part for the elderly and infirm.  No need to climb stairs, the agent assured us. It's a nice place, new and sterile, but comfortable and affordable. I found myself tempted by the prospect of an easy decline, with daughters and sons-in-law nearby to scrape me off the floor when the inevitable fall came. A comfortable death. But something in me screamed NO, that's not what I want.  I want the struggle to continue -- my pride intact, my faculties working, my words read, my music danced to.  

My second move was even worse, and a direct contradiction to the first. Unconsciously I set out to prove I was still young and strong, in no need of Senior Living.  I tried to make myself attractive to a much younger woman -- for no reason, just to see if I could do it.  She seemed to like my stories and jokes, so I set out to impress her further. At that point I immediately became self-conscious and lost my charm, becoming a clanging bell, a nattering nabob. The rest of the evening was painful. Still, at bedtime, I preened in front of the mirror, puffed out my chest and asked my wife, "Do I look young and strong?"

"Sure," was all she said. 

Two moves -- two pawns advanced on opposite sides of the board. That can't be right. Meanwhile Death has moved his ranks into some classic position, the first steps to an invasion that will inevitably destroy me.  I have no more strategy than Donald Trump, sitting in the West Wing in his underwear, watching TV for his next cue to act. 

Come to think of it, I don't really want to play chess!

I'd rather not identify with the hero of the movie --  the knight, a tortured, self-hating intellectual searching for God -- especially when there's another character more to my liking, the knight's squire. He's a cynic, a jester, a fighter, a singer, a ladies' man -- and facing death, his counsel is to savor the incomparable feeling of life, right up to the end.      

Oops! I knocked the pieces off the board.

See you later, Mr. Death.

-- Copyright 2017 by Tom Phillips

Knight and Squire (Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand)