Death is a complex event, an event foreign to life and yet an event that defines it. All life must come to an end yet most forms of life are not as acutely aware of this inevitable stoppage as humans are. It is this awareness that causes us angst and frustration. In order to cope with our forthcoming oblivion we create endless defence mechanisms that allow us to live as though we never will die. Living as though we are immortal means we convince ourselves of an inauthentic survival of death, something we will go into later on.
What is fascinating is the option that we might be able to treat this problem differently. Not to “survive” death, but to accept it. Could acceptance of a finite end to our very “self” lead to a more meaningful life? Could it free us in some paradoxical manner? Perhaps, instead of denying the nature of death, we could explore it, acknowledge it, even appreciate it and then move on to lead a more full and confident life.
A complex truth outweighs a simple lie. We often lie to ourselves (subconsciously no doubt) to allow ourselves the bliss of ignorance. In the spirit of the 'truth will set you free' let us delve into the writings of philosophers and psychologists, poets and writers, who tell of acceptance of mortality as a starting point for a more effective and meaningful life. How can an authentic acceptance of death, as a fact of life, effect life itself?
Death as the Other
Many have given their thoughts on the definition of “The Other”; so here’s mine: Death is the other. Everything that we experience in life serves to educate us further on the nature of life. We are alive; our lives continuously teach us more and more about life. There are no events or occurrences, no thoughts or actions that escape life. None, that is, except the event of death.
Death, in its very definition, relates to life - death can be understood as non – life or post-life. Physically death is a fact of any living organism, but it can of course describe an abstract event; the death of an idea, a belief and or a hope. Here we will explore the phenomenological aspects of human death.
When discussing the event of death, we can be referring to the event of our own death or the event of the death of another person. Martin Heidegger sees death as the “possibility of impossibility” and “(...) in the widest sense, [death] is a phenomenon of life”1. His view of death is a view of my own death, of my own impossibility, oblivion, non-existence. Other people’s death are day-to-day occurrences, and while they may bring us pain and dismay, we have not experienced death, we have merely witnessed it. Witnessing death can never be the same as dying, just as witnessing pain or joy can never be the same as experiencing them first hand. Other people’s death may cause us to suffer and experiencing loss. It may remind us that we too are mortal, causing us to experience fear, despair or discomfort. But we never experience death until we die and according to some, we will not feel it then either. It is this fact that makes death so totally other to us - outside the realm of our experience or our understanding. We have, not the tools neither the capacity to predict, control or encompass death within our lives. It is outside of us, yet it defines us.
Hiedegger sees the death of the “self” or the “presence” as more inherent to the concept of death than any of its other elements- such as physical death or death in the memories of loved ones. In Aporias, Jacques Derrida points out that Heidegger “distinguishes the death of Dasein [Heidegger chose this term as a synonym for “human entity”] from any other end, from any other limit. This crucial distinction, which Heidegger considers indispensable, allows him to situate his existential analysis of death before any `metaphysics of death’ and before all biology.” 2
Emmanuel Levinas, on the other hand, claims that we witness death primarily and, in fact,only, through the other person3. He claims that our human experience and knowledge is significantly limited by death and by the other person. The event of death in the other person is the event which faces us with death at it’s most defining. Even then, he claims, death escapes our understanding of it as an absolute limit. Levinas equates our perception of death with our perception of another person- both are totally foreign to me, outside of my experience. He qualifies death as a radical alterity (otherness), similarly to that alterity that another human being represents to each of us. In this sense Levinas answers that death is in fact the “impossibility of all our possibilities”4. It is an event that, like the other person, I can neither predict nor control.
In “Memoires: for Paul de Man”, which was written almost immediately following de Man’s death in 1983, Derrida reflects upon the pain of losing his friend. Derrida’s argument about mourning has a paradoxical logic which is characteristic of his writings. His suggestion is that in order to mourn another’s death ‘successfully’ the other person becomes a part of us; as soon as they are “internalised” as a part of us their genuine alterity is no longer respected. Paradoxically - we cannot truly mourn another person and allow them to maintain their exteriority to us5. If we fail to mourn the other person, their exteriority is prolonged and the mourning “succeeds”. In other words- failing to mourn is a paradoxical success. Success fails, failure succeeds6. As Derrida writes:
“An aborted interiorisation is at the same time a respect for the other as other”7.
It is this interiorisation of death and it’s affect on our life that is the very topic of our debate. Can we internalise death as an intrinsic part of life and yet allow it to maintain it’s alterity? How does living in such a paradox shape our life and the way we live it?
In one of the most seminal books of modern philosophy, Being and Time (1927), Heidegger systematically discusses the question of Being.8 In the Second Division ofBeing and Time, Heidegger opens with the question of what it means for human beings to be mortal. Many of the themes he discusses escape deep thought. They are difficult to accept or even to comprehend. For example, what it means to be no longer. Death is the end of our experience, he says. And although we may logically know this - on a deeper level it is impenetrable.
Next, he says, death is not a goal, it is not an accomplishment, it is a simple end. This may be in answer to our deep need for closure, for a fairy-tale ending. Heidegger reminds us that death presents neither. It is inevitable, but it is also unpredictable. Which means it will definitely occur but we can never know when.
Lastly, the fact that death is the end, a simple, unpredictable, inevitable stoppage of us and our experience, leads us to wonder whether our lives have meaning.
The bottom line here is that death puts our life into a contradiction. How can something be both meaningless and meaningful? How can we understand it being unpredictable yet inevitable.
As Heidegger explored, the fact of Death - as the event of the end of our lives - is inevitable. You may not like it but you most certainly will die and so will I and so will everyone we each know. In fact, within one hundred and thirty years, everyone who is currently alive will be dead. This may seem depressing at first, but upon further consideration it is this very fact that brings meaning to our lives. As the saying goes, ‘All good things must come to an end’9. If life were everlasting there would be little consequence to our choices because there would always be endless opportunity. There would be no urgency to utilise our time and cherish our relationships, no motif to create and expand because time would never be a limitation. Life would eventually become void of meaning. There would be no rush, no thrill, no drive to perform, no seize the day, no Carpe Diem.
Although we might want a longer life, or to know when we would die we probably would never want to be immortal. Immortality, even if on our own terms of everlasting youth and health, brings an inescapable meaningless to life. Life that is everlasting, is, simply put, boring.
It is easy to demonstrate this point. Within human psychology what is scarce is sought after while what comes in abundance is taken for granted. When was the last time someone paid serious money for mud? And yet diamonds, also earthly minerals, are valued highly. It is always a question of supply and demand. So too with life- if life were endless and infinite we would see it as cheap and unworthy. We treat life with respect and savour each moment only when we realise just how limited it is. Although death may not seem like an attractive prospect, it can be said that neither does immortality.
This may bring us more confusion - we do not want to die but we do not want to be immortal. As Todd May so elegantly put it: “It [death] is like a disease whose cure, if it existed, would be worse than the disease itself”10.
In other words, immortality breeds a whole new array of issues- far worse than death. The fact that death is inevitable means that we understand life’s parameters to a certain extent. We can be sure that life will not last forever although when it will end and on what terms is yet to be discovered.
Death may be inevitable but it is also often entirely unpredictable. We may know that it most certainly is going to happen but none of us can ever know exactly when and how, perhaps with the exception of those sentenced to death who know exactly when and how they will die - this might be considered part of their punishment. Some of us may lower the risks of death by eating healthy food, working out and driving slowly. But however cautiously we may live we are always at the mercy of hurricanes, terrorist attacks and slippery roads.
The fact that death is unpredictable may escape our consciousness most of the time - and so it should. Living with a constant and inescapable awareness of our imminent death is excruciating and wasteful. But the fact that it’s unpredictable can be haunting and daunting- like an unwelcome visitor we know will show up, if only we could know when. It could catch us off guard, it probably will. It is lurking in the shadows, behind the next corner, under our beds.
Death is not only unpredictable, but also arbitrary. This means that it is not only unexpected but also inexplicable. Death doesn’t have a theatrical intuition- dropping the curtain in a timely fashion at the end of the last act. Indeed, it mostly comes knocking in the midst of the drama- cutting it short without rhyme or reason. It is most unsatisfactory to think that most of us die with unfinished business, unrealised dreams and little closure, but this is the truth. Death does not make our lives complete, it is not an artistic ending to our story- it is more like someone pulling the plug at a concert, the music abruptly ending in the middle of the symphony. We all knew the concert would eventually end- but how cruel for it to end before it’s “time”. This is what makes death meaningless, it seems to be externally forced onto us without consideration for the content and timing of our lives. Death does not wait for us to profess our love or confess our sins. It simply occurs, bringing a sudden and ill-suited end to our story.
The contradiction death brings to our lives- giving them both meaning and rendering them meaningless leaves us in a heap of despair and confusion. It is this frustration in the face of death that leads us to deny it. That’s not to say that we deny that death occurs per se, rather that we do not live with awareness or acceptance of our own inevitable and unpredictable death; nor do we live with awareness or acceptance of our own meaningful and meaningless life. If living with either of these contradictions is possible, we will try to discover.
Because of the threat that death poses to our lives, placing us in contradiction and confusion, we develop mechanisms that help us to avoid facing such oblivion. We would like to make it less threatening, less “other”. We are symbolic creatures living in a symbolic world. We create systems such as society, economics, and language that are all based on symbolism. Money, for example is a symbol for value, marriage a symbolic commitment and names are symbolic of the objects or beings that they belong to. It is no doubt we find things that lay outside this symbolism difficult to penetrate and even to discuss. What kind of language does one use to discuss oblivion, nothingness, death? How do you convey the event of becoming not, of not being.
Here we return to our first point- that death is the “other” because it occurs outside of life. It might go without saying, then, that it lies outside of symbolic life. This does not mean that society does not relate to the event of death. Indeed people of all anthropological tendencies have developed systems and symbols that relate to death, from the skull and cross bones, to the crematorium, to organic, personalised coffins. When I say that death is outside of symbolic life I mean the occurrence itself, the end of a life, the oblivion, negation, indeed- the non life - for lack of a better “symbolic” word.
There are some things that resist real penetrative thought, our complete negation being one of them. How can I think about not thinking? It is practically impossible and my mind refuses. What I can do, however, is pull a stunt that every aspirant politician knows- I give an answer to a different question. I can trick my mind and think about death not as my negation but as something else, something thinkable, something within my symbolic realm.
To place death within my symbolic realm means to attribute life’s characteristics onto it. In our symbolic realm, one of the attributes we often give life is meaningfulness. Firstly, we like to think of life without meaning as no life at all. Secondly, we attribute consciousness to symbolic life - if we are aware of our actions, of ourselves, that is life. We see people who are in a coma, or senile as “missing out on life”. Thirdly, we look at life as a narrative, as a timeline.
But it is absurd for us to attribute these characteristics to death. Death might be meaningless, oblivious and timeless. Indeed, I don’t know - but neither for that matter does anyone else. Experience of death is exclusive to the dead and therefore all of our earthly scenarios are mere speculation.
Having meaning, consciousness and a narrative - these cannot be attributed to the dead but when they are it is a sign that we are bringing death into our symbolic realm in an inauthentic way. One of the most authentic things we can say about death is that we don’t know what it is, how it manifests itself or how it affects those who die. We cannot credit death or the dead with having meaning, awareness or a narrative. This would be a denial of death and of its potential characteristics.
In order to deny death we must somehow avoid it. We must create a scenario where death poses little real threat to us. Many religions succeed in creating such a scenario and in encouraging faith in it. The vast majority of religions and people accept that death is the event of the end of physical life. The heart stops beating, the blood stops pumping, the brain grinds to a halt and the body begins the process of decay. This physical death is disturbing and upsetting but it is not what evokes the deepest angst that we so often associate with our end. It is the death of the “self” or perhaps the “soul” that brings us despair.
Our end, our not being, nothingness- these are what truly depress and frighten us. We are unable to accept that we, the centre of the universe as far as we’re concerned, will be no longer, in any form. We are happy to concede to being floating souls, looking down over the world with vague interest, but to not be at all is not a concept in which we find charm.
Religions have overcome this angst in various ways. In each variant the central theme remains- one does not really die, or in Todd May’s words one “survives” one’s own death11. The body may crumble and decay but the soul lives on. This is, after all, what we really need to hear. It would be a very hard sell to claim that our bodies do not die. We witness the cycle of life in every other species and so too in our own. But our soul- our character or our mind- these must survive.
For example, in Christianity this survival of one’s death makes this world only a test, an opportunity to be righteous or sinful. Man is put on earth to choose between Good and Evil; he can give love, compassion and perform acts of charity or he can be deceitful, selfish and harmful. Upon his death the time for collecting points is up and he is sent to Judgement, leaving his body behind. According to his actions in the physical world he will be sent either to heaven for eternal bliss and reward or to hell to burn in the furnaces of punishment for all time. Either way he never really dies, in the finite sense of the word. The very thing that defines who he is, his “self”, lives on. This is true of other major religions, and though the details may vary - the message remains the same: one does not come to an end, one’s consciousness continues and remains. In many variations one is united with loved ones in the next life, or the next world or in heaven. This means that one not only continues one’s existence past this world but that one can bring elements of this life along too12.
In this theory we never really die as everything that makes us us – survives, ourmemories, our thoughts, our inner world and sense of self. This approach blunts the blade of a finite death. It is far easier to accept a death that is merely physical - only to go onto another world where we are to live eternally.
On the same side of the coin - on the other side of the world - the Eastern approaches to death vary widely. If we take Buddhism as the largest of the eastern religions as an example, we will find that here too people survive their deaths. Buddhism teaches that souls are finite, appearing in the world as different beings throughout numerous lives until finally reaching nirvana, or oneness with the world. Unlike Christianity, Buddhists believe that one survives ones death not to go onto Judgement but rather to be reborn as another creature. It is this belief that lends Buddhism its utmost respect for all creatures large and small, believing that each of us could have been a worm in a past life and might be a cockroach in the next13.
The players may have changed but the game remains the same - we survive our death with all our precious parts intact. We can still identify the “I” from the “we” - in other words our “self” has been maintained. Whether we are to find ourselves in heaven or reborn as a velvet monkey is just details.
These are just two examples, one from the East and one from the West, but they are typical of the religious approach to death - be it reincarnation, heaven, hell or limbo it is widely preached that death is not the end of life, it is simply the end of this life. What survives death is the most important part of life - our selves. This means that death poses little threat to us; the game is not over, it is simply being taken to the next level. The rules may change slightly, the players may be switched around, but ultimately you haven’t lost and you can keep playing for a long time.
It is, of course, comforting to think that death is not the end of us. But, for the large part, even members of these faiths must face serious doubts. Many of us don’t have faith in a next world or in any form of surviving death. For many of us, although we cannot fathom it or accept it, death is the end of our lives - physical or otherwise.
It would be disrespectful and unnecessary to scorn such claims of an afterlife or reincarnation. But it is vital to ignore these options of survival if we are to truly ask the most frightening questions of all about death.
For the atheist, agnostic or non-religious among us (and, indeed, for the religious too) - there are plenty of ways to deny death. One is through the Causa-Sui project, the attempt to father oneself. In traditional Western theism, God is self caused (Causa-Sui) because God cannot be a creation of any other source. In the psychoanalyses of Sigmond Freud and Ernest Becker, the individual attempts to be self caused, through the Causa-Suiproject, rendering himself immortal. This project is the life long work of an individual to create an imprint on the world that will outlive him. This is a plea for immortality, a way of living on in the world post-mortem. If the problem of death is that our life becomes fleeting and meaningless, and religion tries to solve this through negating death, the Causa-Suiproject tries to solve it through negating the “meaningless”. Life is not meaningless - there is a project, and once you complete it (attain world fame, cure cancer, bring peace to theMiddle East or even father a large family), you will live on in the minds and memories of generations to come14.
When we go about living our lives, we are constantly drawn to actions that will impress our existence onto the world in a lasting way. We look to work on projects - sometimes lifelong - that celebrate our selves, our talents and our interests, our intellect and our style. We want to bear children that will look and behave like us, we want to demonstrate our knowledge and our wisdom. We would like to author famous books, conduct famous research, and appear in famous shows. We want our music heard, our looks admired, our breakthroughs appreciated. Secretly or openly, we would all like to go down in history, but why?
If we do not believe we are to survive our death and live on in an afterlife or return to earth reincarnated, we have to find some other way to escape a meaningless and finite end.
The Causa-Sui offers immortality, not of the physical kind, but of a phenomenological kind. Your phenomenon lives on, the fact of you survives. Your body may decay, indeed you may go into a state of oblivion, but you are not dead- your effect creates ripples that live on throughout the ages and your life is given meaning.
But therein lays the distortion; if the whole point of the project is to regain control over one's destiny, indeed – to father oneself, reality must always pose a very real threat to this accomplishment. In reality we are all vulnerable, mortal and helpless creatures, this is the very fact the Causa-Sui project aims to battle. Our very definition of success can at once be turned on it's head and doomed pathetic and inconsequential. The people we are attempting to impress and to impress upon are just as meaningless, their lives just as passing as ours. The Causa-Sui project, then, as Ernest Becker puts it so aptly, is a lie.
“The ambivalence of the Causa-Sui project is based on the ever present threat of reality that peaks through. One suspects at all times that one is fundamentally helpless and impotent, but one must protest against it...If the Causa-Sui project is a lie that is too hard to admit because it plunges one back to the cradle, it is a lie that must take its toll as one tries to avoid reality.” 15
As we’ve discussed there are many ways to live an immortal life. Let’s be clear - I’m not suggesting that we’ve found an elixir of youth or a wonder drug that actually maintains life forever. The claim is, then, that we live an immortal life - not that we don’t actually die, but that we live as though we didn’t. We may “gain” our immortality by believing in our literal survival of death to go on to the next world, or by surviving death and going on to the next life. Or it could be a survival of our name and fame through a causa - sui project that renders ourselves immortal. Either way, we are denying that death is finite and it willeventually come knocking on our door.
For those of us who wish to live with an awareness of death there is another option- over thinking death to the point where we believe we might control it. It is common for people to obsess over death, which is in itself a form of denial. Obsession is generally a means of control. When I constantly think about the option of death I am trying to prevent it- if I let my guard down, it will get me. So always considering the possibility of death occurring is a means to insure that it won’t.
The inauthentic survival of death can lead to negative effects on the way we live our life. The first, and perhaps the foremost, is (as we said before) that we can never cherish something abundant and everlasting as much as we cherish something scarce and rare. Life is fleeting, it is “scarce”. Clear examples of this can be read in countless accounts of near-death experiences and the changes they make in peoples lives. The classic story is the guy who has a stable, ordinary life until he has a near death experience in the form of an accident or a severe illness, after which he drastically changes his choices to reflect the things he really cares about. In other words, understanding that life is precious scarce and fragile, means that we will live it to the full and make sure that is meaningful to us (that doesn’t reflect a dogmatic or absolute system for giving life meaning but rather a series of personal choices that are important to the individual making them).
It doesn’t take a near death experience to understand that life is fragile, and this is the seminal point. Life is undoubtedly fragile. Living with a genuine appreciation of life and what it has to offer is a very genuine gift. People who value what they have are happier, healthier and even live longer lives. In other words the quality of life is largely increased by the awareness that life is fragile and precious and treating it as such. Living as though life is not precious constitutes wasting time, not fulfilling potentials, taking relationships for granted and mostly boredom.
On the one hand life is fragile, but on the other hand it could be long, healthy and happy. When we realise that death is finite and that we cannot survive it- we may feel depressed because life becomes a sinister game that we will eventually lose. We feel disheartened that death could pick us at any moment in an arbitrary and unpredictable manner, rendering the event meaningless. The fact that life could end at any given moment should surely affect our choices but it should never dominate them. Planning for the future is important as it gives us meaning and accomplishment to fulfil our plans and realise our dreams. It’s true, most of us die with dreams and plans still unrealised. But that doesn’t mean that we should ever stop planning and dreaming16.
It is important for our (mental, emotional) health, then, to realise that death could occur anytime but that it won’t necessarily occur anytime soon, which means that we could have a whole life ahead of us to enjoy. We should not be paralysed by this, in a sense the very acceptance of this nature of death is liberating. But living in denial of death, means always having a shadow over us, an unspoken and unexplored event that will take place at some time in our future. If we do not face this fact of nature we are likely to miss out on part of being a healthy adult - the part where we are fully accountable for the way we live our lives, the part where we are responsible and responsive to our surroundings, the part where we make it our business to be self sufficient and independent - in thought and in action.
Acceptance of Death
Humans are part of the animal kingdom. This is a fact that is little observed by humans - but it’s true. We are mammals. We too rely on food, sleep and shelter to survive; we too are driven to reproduce. In fact, so many human behaviours can be explained through evolutionary psychology, it is quite staggering.
But, at least to us, we are set apart from the rest of the animals. It is not because we communicate, build tools or plan for the future- indeed dolphins have been proven to have a sophisticated language, monkeys form advanced weapons and tools and squirrels collect nuts and food all summer, preparing for the long winter ahead. What might set us apart, however, is our consciousness, or our self awareness - and most particularly the awareness that we die. The fact that we are mortal is not very interesting, all living creatures are- it is the fact that we are aware that we are mortal that puts us into a really paradoxical state.
Animals, as far as we can see, fear death. They have the instinct to protect themselves, to fight or flee danger. But humans, as Heidegger explains it, feel differently about death; we are not so much afraid as we are anxious. The difference may be subtle but it is vital. Fear is a distress aroused by impending danger, evil or pain - whether real or imagined. Anxiety, however is distress or uneasiness caused by the fear of an abstract danger or misfortune or, ultimately, by death17.
If we are to escape this anxiety, perhaps we are to “return” to a more animalistic state. Sex is a good example of this. Sex too is an animalistic act and, as such, can provoke a self consciousness in people. It is hard for us, unique, educated, spiritual individuals that we see ourselves to be, to admit that we too fall into a pre-choreographed act for the sake of pleasure and mating in the same way that every other mammal does. We would like to see it as private, as an expression of emotion- or at least as a choice- but it isn’t. Sex is a fact of reproduction, it is a mating ritual and it is performed roughly the same throughout all human (and even animal) couples with minor variations here and there.
So, if so much of what we do is animalistic, how do we justify it to ourselves? How do we accept that we urinate, defecate, mate, feed and eventually - die?
One way to answer this is to accept, with a touch of humiliation and humour, that we are animals, that we have animal needs that must be met. We can certainly choose whom we have sex with and make sure it’s an expression of love. We can eat politely with a knife and fork. We can bury our dead and hold funerals for them. But this does not alter the fact of these events or needs and it certainly shouldn’t override the organic drives behind them.
If we are to see ourselves as part of nature our death cannot be as meaningful or as meaningless as we described earlier - it is part of a cycle and part of a system much larger than the components of it’s parts, i.e. us.
This can be better described through the thought of Taoism, a variety of related philosophical and religious traditions and concepts that have influenced East Asia for over two millennia. Taoist thought generally focuses on nature, man-cosmos correspondence, health, longevity, wu wei (action through inaction), liberty, and spontaneity. As Todd May describes, this thought of death places each of our deaths into a larger perspective. We are not facing death alone, but rather as part of the natural pattern of living and dying18.
“If a human life is a wave in the sea of being, then it would seem that there is nothing left of the self that occupied that life after the wave falls back into the sea...One’s death return’s one to the larger cosmic stuff from which one emerged - and which, really, one never left.”19
The solace here is not that the self survives death but rather that the self never really existed. If we are capable of thinking of ourselves as animals, we can see how this humble approach to our life and to our death is helpful. Like a wave in the sea- from the first hints of it’s formation, through it’s rise and eventually its fall it is distinct, distinguishable and unique. But it came from water and returns to water and is part of something larger. A wave is not really separate from the rest of the sea, so too is a human life part of a larger ecology.
It is interesting at this point to reflect on the biblical verse from Genesis
(ch. IV, v. 19):
“For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
This may be a refreshingly humbling school of thought. But it is one that is too tough a love for most of us to swallow. All the more so if we were properly loved by our mothers and fathers, encouraged by our teachers and admired by our peers. Many of us are taught to think of our lives as something that is special, unique. Not that we are part of nature but that we are creatures of thought and creativity, that our lives count and that ourCausa-Sui project is something to be remembered. This makes it difficult for us to annul our “self”.
Another approach to death is a symmetrical one. As opposed to the ecological approach - where the comforting factor is that our entire existence is immersed in nature and will return to nature - the symmetry approach says that what we experienced before life is what we will experience after life. For most of us, save the Dalai Lama, this means true oblivion. In the ecological approach it is because, like a wave, we are an illusion of differentiation from the cosmic stuff that surrounds us, and in death that illusion is over. The symmetry argument, however, looks at life not as an illusion but as a window in time that is inserted into the universe and ends just as it began. Generally we do not yearn to have been born earlier and to have lived in a time before ours. Therefore - the argument is - we should not feel angst over the life that will continue after ours is over.
I find this argument inadequate. It is true that most of us feel no deep desire to have been born earlier- but we do feel a deep desire to die later. The fact that we are basically numb to all that took place before us doesn’t prove that we should feel the same way about what takes place after us. None illustrate this better than Judith Viorst in the following poem entitled “Mortal Question”20:
I didn’t know I wasn’t there.
I will not know I’m not.
Between these two oblivions
My life unfolds its plot.
I missed the glory that was Greece.
I missed Rome’s rise and fall.
My absence from these grand events
Disturbed me not at all.
Nor did I feel deprived because
They held the Renaissance
Some centuries before my birth.
No pre-existence wants
Imposed themselves upon my peace.
Why does some future spring
Collapse my heart with longing when
I will not feel a thing?
As the poet points out - our life is unfolded between two “oblivions” but we feel differently about each. We don’t feel “deprived” because we missed all that took place before us. But our hearts “collapse” with “longing” for future events that we will not experience.
One comfort can be taken from the symmetry argument- and that is not that we do notdesire to live forever, but that returning to oblivion will be as painless as it was before our lives began. In this sense we will never “be dead” - because we will not be.
The last point is worth lingering on - it may resist thought but it is interesting to think that we will never be dead. We will simply die and then we will not be. This can, counter-intuitively, be strangely comforting. The fact that we will no longer have a consciousness means that we are free to live our lives without concern for how they end or what comes after them.
Perhaps we can stretch this comfort further, to become a true tool for living with the knowledge of death. Can we maintain a true and deep acceptance of a finite, unpredictable but certain death? How will this acceptance effect our lives and how we live them. Success fails, failure succeeds, so Derrida claims21. His aporias is applied in many a philosophical debate - but here it can be applied in a more practical level. When we acknowledge the finitude of death we are free to live our lives without angst about death. It is the inauthentic survival of death, or it’s obsessive denial, that leads us to live lives that are perhaps less meaningful.
When the meaning we give our lives derives from a source outside of our lives- the heaven we will be rewarded with, the project we will leave the world with, the next life we will live- our lives become dependent on a truth that may or may not be. These beliefs and practices may be positive, healthy and productive- but (I believe) only when they are aconscious choice. If we are able to go through an authentic process where we accept death as being unpredictable, certain and finite - and most important, meaningless - we free ourselves and allow ourselves to choose the life we truly want to live and to give it meaning.
This means that in order to live a meaningful life one must accept that it will end in a meaningless way. This is paradoxical- the search for meaning in our lives can be reached only through the abandonment of such a search. If we do not search for meaning we are likely to find it on a deeper, more spiritual level. It can’t be our Causa-Sui project, our fellow humans or our heavenly reward. It can come from a deeper sense of acceptance of the world and of the human situation - caught between awareness and animal instinct, between choice and nature.
When we abandon the search for meaning we can take a practical approach to our lives and our situation - which will bring it’s own meaning. Because death is inevitable - life is fragile, because life is fragile we must treat it with respect. Because death is unpredictable - life may be abundant, because life may be abundant we must live it to the full. This means that we must find the balance between living in the present and planning for the future. We cannot live a reckless life - living only for the moment - this will almost ensure a premature end. We also can not live it with no freedom, no spontaneity, no risks- this could lead to a very long and very boring life.
The lessons that we learn about death are really there to teach us more about life. If death is arbitrary and finite - life is fragile and unknown. Living for the moment but also for the future ensures that we will give meaning to our lives, on our terms, within the constraints of the human condition.
Death is still an uneasy topic. Random and pointless loss of life is both inexplicable and depressing. We cannot fathom, predict or control it. Yet there is a certain peace offering to be had in accepting it. Throughout the ages man has provided so many superstitious and religious clarifications that have fallen by the wayside. Of course spirituality and faith play a major role in life and can be comforting in the face of death- but should they replace the acknowledgment of the oblivion that follows life? And do these religious or spiritual theories offer true meaning, or perhaps avert the real question? Is this the religious equivalent of pulling the wool over our eyes, feeding us a story to quiet our curiosity?
The question of meaning was always and remains acute and painful. Are we born simply to die and be forgotten? From the moment we are born we are dying. Derida’s aporias22, as we mentioned earlier, offers a paradoxical solution to our thought process. If what we said earlier is true and when we abandon the search for meaning, it will come - where does this leave us? Can we plausibly abandon such a search?
Indeed, the questions we are left with are abundant. It is my belief that an authentic acceptance of what death is and, more importantly, what it isn’t, will give a fuller and more satisfactory and, ultimately, meaningful life.
Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other, translated by Richard A. Cohen, Duquesne University Press, 1987
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1973
Jacques Derrida, Aporias, translated by. Thomas. Dutoit,Stanford, CA: StanfordUniversity Press, 1993
Judith Viorst, Suddenly Sixty and other shocks of later life, Simon and Schuster, NY 2000
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward
Robinson, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980
Todd May, Death: The Art of Living, Acumen, Stocksfield, 2009
1 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward
2 Jacques Derrida, Aporias, translated by. Thomas. Dutoit,Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993, p27
3 Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other, translated by Richard A. Cohen, Duquesne University Press, 1987, p60
4 Emmanuel Levinas,Totality and Infinity, trans. A. Lingis, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1979, p41
5 Jacques Derrida, Aporias, translated by. Thomas. Dutoit,Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993, pp34-35
8 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E.
9 Geoffrey Chaucer 1374
10 Todd May, Death: The Art of Living, Acumen, Stocksfield, 2009, p80
11 Ibid p12
13 Ibid p17
14 Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1973, pp115-124
16 Todd May, Death: The Art of Living, Acumen, Stocksfield, 2009, pp79-114
17 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and EdwardRobinson,Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980, p295
18 Todd May, Death: The Art of Living, Acumen, Stocksfield, 2009, pp81-83
20 Judith Viorst, Suddenly Sixty and other shocks of later life, Simon and Schuster, NY 2000, Mortal Question: p74
21 Jacques Derrida, Aporias, translated by. Thomas. Dutoit,Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993, pp34-35
Avital Schreiber Levy is currently completing her B.Des in Visual Communications, at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, and works in the field of graphic design.