(A few months ago, I received an email from an Australian writer named Tim Hawken who had a few article ideas for Litkicks. I published his Kant on Beauty and Heidegger on Art, and it was only after this that Tim revealed to me that he was writing these pieces under the stress of a family health calamity. For more of the personal story behind today’s article, see this post on Tim’s own blog. The photo of a deconstructed wristwatch is from a photo essay also on Tim’s blog, entitled “Timeless” — Levi)
Two years ago my wife was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. At 29 years old, she was told that she was going to die. The revelation turned our world upside down. Certainties we held previously about our lives were washed away like sandcastles built in the tidal zone. Only small mounds of faith remained, but the idea of a distant, pain-free death in our twilight years, having lived a full and happy existence, had been demolished.
Instantly, the ‘bucket list’ mentality came into play. We began building a catalogue of things to do before eternal darkness swept in. We quit our corporate jobs and traveled the world. After a year on the road, a reassessment of our life goals led us both back to study: philosophy for me, nutrition for her. What I have come to realize in these recent tumultuous years is this: we were always both dying; we just didn’t realise it yet. Death, of course, is life’s only real certainty. So, why did being told something we both should have known already change our perspective so much?
It’s worth noting what I mean by death. Many religions see the breakdown of the human body as a milestone, marking a transition into a different kind of existence. The Abrahamic religions have largely appropriated the Socratic idea of the immortal soul — that after death we go to an ethereal plain of Heaven, Hell or Sheol. Eastern religions speak about a cycle of rebirth and Karma. Despite ongoing debate about the validity of these claims, I say that since there is no empirical proof of life after death, that we should treat the expiration of our earthly bodies as the end. Nothingness. Annihilation. To use the words of Thomas Nagel: “I shall simply use the word ‘death’ as it cognates in this discussion to mean permanent death, unsupplemented by any form of conscious survival.”
I press the point here, because it is so easy to resist this idea. Our hopes of ongoing life encourage us to create illusions of comfort like the idea of immortality. Because of the strong motivation to deceive ourselves about the reality of death, we should confront at least the possibility, if not the high probability, that death is ‘it’. Many would disregard this view as being bleak and offering no redemption, but as I will explain, it is quite the opposite. Acknowledging the truth of death reveals life as being the most precious thing we have. Indeed, it is the only thing.
The existence of death denial is abundant in our culture. You can see it scattered through the actions of people and reflected in great literature. One of my favourite passages about death comes from Leo Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilych:
The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: ‘Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,’ had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius – man in the abstract – was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others.
Here Tolstoy articulates quite well how we intellectually know that all people die, but simply don’t apply that logic to ourselves. In his book The Denial of Death, anthropologist Ernest Becker points out that this narcissism is what keeps a soldier marching into war, not feeling at heart that his life will end, but only feeling sorry for the man next to him. Of course, while this rationale does have merit, the whole truth is not nearly as simple as that. There is great paradox in how we relate with death.
We only need to look at self-preserving behaviour to know that humans acknowledge the possibility of death. We avoid crossing the road when cars are coming, we don’t drink poison, and we eat to sustain ourselves. Yet, other behaviours point the opposite way: People smoke cigarettes, drive dangerously, or, worst of all, live their lives thinking that there is always time ‘later’ to do the things they always wanted to do. The psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg explains this sort of cognitive dissonance as an attempt to repress our deep fear of death, so that we can function normally and not go insane with worry. I think there is some truth there, but in reality we understand from experience that if we’re careful enough, we won’t immediately and violently die for no reason. We therefore push the concept of our own death away.
Because we imagine our life’s end coming at some far off, unspecified date, it becomes difficult to conceive that day ever arriving. This form of death denial can lead us to live complacent lives, to fail to striving for the important things we have time to strive for. Instead, many of us work a daily grind to save money, planning to do the important stuff ‘afterward’. Unfortunately, this afterward might never come. If we actually acknowledge that time is short, we can put into perspective the things that are most precious, and find the courage to use the little life we have to achieve things that give us a sense of joy and meaning now.
You only need to see the success of glittery vampire stories recently to know that the idea of immortality is seductive to most of us. However, there are examples where people acknowledge that living forever might not be such a great thing. In the essay The Makropulos Case collected in the volume Problems of the Self philosopher Bernard Williams reflects on the potential tedium of immortality. He discusses how, given abundant time, our desires would fade and an interest in life would fade away with them. Generally, I find this kind of hypothetical scenario-making unhelpful. The fact remains that no one has ever lived forever, so it’s impossible to imagine how people would truly act and feel, given an eternal life. When there is very little of something, we tend to give it more value. Diamonds are ‘precious’ mostly because they are rare.
Life is much the same. If we think it’s abundant we can lose sight of its value, but if we confront the fact that our lifespan is finite, then our perception changes in how we should spend it: Our desires become more immediate, and our wish to fulfill those desires becomes more pressing. Things like spending time with the ones we love is suddenly given precedence over spending a few extra hours in the office. Making the world a better place for our children becomes paramount. Creating a legacy to leave behind can consume every waking thought.
So why do we ‘all of a sudden’ desire to do certain things over others, when confronted with mortality? The short answer is: because we want our lives to matter. We want to have meaning. By engaging with loved ones we can gather a sense of how much we matter to them, by reflecting on what they mean to us. The more peoples’ lives we touch in a positive way, the better chance we have at making some kind of difference while alive. If we create something that will last — a legacy of art, or thought — then it’s more likely our effect on the world will resonate through the ages.
It’s ironic that these urges can also be seen as a sort of death denial in themselves. The biggest fear I have is not bodily death, but total annihilation — being snuffed out of existence having left no lasting memory of who I was, or having made any kind of mark. In a sense, this is a desire to overcome true death, to defy it, if only to keep a whisper of my self alive.
I have to admit that in some weak (or perhaps strong) moments, I think that truly nothing matters. Most of us will be wiped from the face of the earth without any trace. After the generation following us has gone, there will be no memory of us either. Does this mean that we should descend into despairing nihilism? No! We matter to each other now because we make it so. An existentialist life, where we create meaning for ourselves, is still fulfilling and can lead to immense happiness.
Some might say this means we’re still placing faith in self-created illusions. However, the life we have now is certainly real, and without it we would never experience anything at all. We would never have loved, laughed, tasted, smelt, hurt, cried, or rejoiced. Life is the sweetest thing, and without acknowledging the ultimate truth: that it will end one day, we would never truly cherish the small moments we have, or make the very most of what we have left.
So, make the most of this lifetime. It is all we have, and all that we ever will. After all, it’s not how or when you die that actually matters. It’s how you lived that counts.