“If you regard your last day not as a punishment but as a law of nature, the breast from which you have banished the dread of death no fear will dare to enter.”
There is no dialogue thorough enough to cover the topic of death in its entirety. Certainly, history’s greatest sages have been exploring the subject for millennia. With that, just as the great philosophical minds have attempted to reconcile their thoughts on the matter for several thousand years, the conversation will likely continue on until the end of human existence. In these passages, I try to settle my thoughts on the topic, in a way that brings me a sense of peace. This is likely just the first entry, of many, on the issue of impermanence.
On my best days, when I carry on without a concern for the yolk that father time has cast around my neck, I feel as if a weight has been lifted from atop my shoulders. On other days, when death’s imminent touch is present in my mind, I’m reminded of the myth of Sisyphus. His punishment—to roll an unforgiving boulder up a relentless hill, on and on again, until the end of time. A thought follows; is this all there is? What life is this that I must go on about my days, believing that the existence that I’ve come to know as “I” will cease, at some point in the near or distant future. Does anybody else find themselves in a similar predicament? Do you share the same sentiments? If you can relate, then of course, we must consider the fact that death is not always at the forefront of people’s minds. For those who walk this earth, impervious to the impending end to it all, I rest in awe, as it seems like a wonderful dream that I will never come to experience. “Ignorance is bliss,” as they say. Some get to carry on with their everyday lives, paying virtually no attention to the fact that their time on Earth will one day come to an end. For those of us who proceed with the constant awareness that we will eventually perish, the ability to stay focused and present in carrying out the tasks of a given day is often marred by this dark reality. Which manner of living leaves one feeling more content? To be free of thoughts of dying or to live knowing that “this too shall pass?” Clearly, some of us expend more psychic energy pondering the notion more deeply than others. Why is it so much more present in some, and not in others?
Some of the most influential minds in history have boldly chosen to attack the subject head on. To what end? Through the annals of history, the number of wise men and women who spoke their mind on this subject is far too great to count. Seneca, arguably one of the most notable, had much to say on the matter of death, as he discusses in his profound work—On the Shortness of Life. Seneca stated: “No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favour. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.” Indeed, we cannot cheat death, though certain eccentric tycoons might relentlessly keep up the pursuit, with their endless resources which accompany their visionary minds. If, in fact, we cannot prolong our time on this earth, what then do we do, in the meantime? Michel de Montaigne shared some choice words with us; he wrote of wanting to spend his time reading literature that educated him on how to live fruitfully and to die with dignity. Irvin Yalom urges us to explore the subject deeply, so as to work-through our gravest concerns, such that we can proceed through life with more resilience, and free from strain. Irvin Yalom was one of a handful of esteemed clinicians who made existential theory, which includes a deep conversation about death and dying, a prime focus in their therapeutic efforts with clients. In his seminal work Existential Psychotherapy, Yalom cites John Fowles, in a discussion of death: “Death’s rather like a certain kind of lecturer…you don’t really hear what is being said until you’re in the front row.” The closer one is to death, through thoughts or experience, the more we tend to pay attention and not a moment sooner. How do we come to terms with the finality of life? What sets us apart from other species is the capability of our minds, but what angst is created by our ability to comprehend the fact that our time here is limited!? How do we make sense of the world, knowing that we will lose pets, friends, loved ones, even ourselves one day? God forbid any parent should have to face the grave circumstances of laying a child to rest, long before their own time has come. What heartbreak!? Philosophy is sometimes referred to as a love of wisdom, a perpetual search for truth of sorts. With our current understanding of our notion of human existence, one of the only, and certainly the most profound, uncontestable truths in life is that: one day, we are all going to pass on from this world. What does each free thinking and acting individual do with this information? How does one choose to carry forward, given this hard and fast rule of life?
So, again I ask: where do we go from here? Let’s, again, look at it from the perspective of some of the great thinkers of the last few centuries. Existential thought is something that I hold near and dear to my heart. One of the chief tenets of Existential Philosophical thought and Existential psychological theory revolves around this very notion of death, specifically how we make sense of the concept. Irvin Yalom, the estimable psychiatrist, along with other influential minds in the field of psychology, and the great existential philosophers followed in Montaigne’s footsteps, seeking to aid individuals in gaining a greater understanding of their lives and guiding individuals hoping to cope with the idea of impermanence. On this note, Yalom speaks of studies done with a series of cancer patients, who were given a terminal prognosis, and found that these individuals often found themselves filled with more purpose than ever before, once they had been given a definite end date, so to speak. This is profound!
So, whether you go on about your days conscious of your own mortality or not, it’s important to consider how each moment of every day is spent. For those of us who dwell incessantly on the morbid, what do we do with this information? How do we cope? How do we gain clarity and peace of mind? It may seem hopeful, for some, to believe that the end of corporeal existence may not be the end to the essence of what we are. The soul, the spirit, may continue on, indefinitely, but we may never come to know, for sure. We are limited in our ability to comprehend being in the world, based on the rules and confines of language. Science can only prove circumstances so far as our current understanding allows us to. A scientist might argue that, since all matter is comprised of sub-atomic particles, then even as this body “dies,” our essence is reincorporated back into the universe. So, in effect, it never actually leaves, nor does it ever go anywhere. It is always right here, just not in the way that I am able to fully comprehend. What then is the soul? Where is it? Does it, in fact, continue after the corporeal cage expires? This is certainly a conversation for another time. For now, eastern philosophical gurus seem to have settled on a fairly reasonable interim solution. They aim to guide individuals not to wonder what we are, but rather that we are. They urge us not to try to pick things apart and analyze the pieces, which is so often typical of western culture. They stress the importance of choosing simply to live in the present moment. This task is easier said than done, of course, for in the back of our minds will always be the idea that we will one day part ways with our friends and loved ones, with our materials and our accomplishments, with our memories and dreams. I close with the following reflective thoughts by Viktor Frankl. In Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the great metaphysical discourses, Dr. Frankl poses the following question: “Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?” He ties up his exploration with some concluding thoughts, of them, this critical moral particularly stands out: “…is not this transitoriness a reminder that challenges us to make the best possible use of each moment of our lives? It certainly is, and hence my imperative: live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” With that being said, at what point do we stop attempting to grasp the meaning of all things, put the book down and make a conscious choice to begin living life true to our unique nature, regardless of the impermanence of life? Death represents the end of life, as we can understand it now, but when and where does life, or more specifically living, truly begin?