One very old way of depicting that shape of our destiny and humanity is to picture life as a banquet, with a succession of courses through which one proceeds — and also, to be sure, having a stopping point beyond which the banquet cannot be prolonged without destroying its pleasure. Both host and guest at such a banquet must be able to acknowledge limits — recognizing that, while these limits may suffuse the end of the banquet or even the whole of it with a touch of fragility and sadness, they cannot destroy its goodness. Consider David H. Smith’s depiction of the good host.
A couple invite friends to dinner. Food and drink are pleasant; the conversation bubbles. The good host is hospitable and courteous to his guest, no matter what his shifts in mood. But there comes a time when the party “winds down” — a time to acknowledge that the evening is over. At that point, not easily determined by clock, conversation, or basal metabolism, the good host does not press his guest to stay but lets him go. Indeed he may have to signal that it is acceptable to leave.
A good host will never be sure of his timing and will never kick out his guest. His jurisdiction over the guest is limited to taldng care and permitting departure.
When we think of life as such a banquet, a death that comes neither too soon nor too late — neither when the banquet is justget- ting- started nor long after all have eaten their fill — may be thought fitting. It is, at least, recognizably human in a way that posthumanist visions may not be. Moreover, this picture of a complete human life, with its acknowledgment and even affirmation of human limits, will have an undeniable nobility that is displayed in patience, humility, and gratitude. Daniel Callahan offers a nice example that captures the beauty in such patience.
I once heard someone’s elderly grandfather described as a man of great energy and activity who, as he aged, had to live, because of illness and aging, within a smaller and smaller physical radius. Yet, even as that radius narrowed, first to the yard he could not leave, then to the house he could not leave, then to the room he could not leave, and finally to the bed he could not leave, he adapted to each smaller world, making of it with good cheer whatever was possible. An imaginative flower arranger I once heard said that the secret lies in learning how to work with the material at hand, not longing for flowers not available. He then demonstrated what he meant by fashioning a wonderful arrangement from roadside weeds.
Thus, patience to run the course of life’s banquet need not be simply resignation. It can, at its best, make possible genuine freedom even within the necessities that constrain us.