I don’t know if mine is a common experience, but I can remember vividly the first moment when I emotionally felt the true significance of death.
I was on the brink of puberty, lying down in bed at night. (as those things usually go). As I was thinking about life and existence, the sudden and forceful realization hit me with emotion:
I was going to perish! My consciousness would one day wither away!
It wasn’t like I hadn’t thought about death before that. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know what the word meant. But my knowledge was merely conceptual. It was far removed from the emotional reality of life.
It would be fair to say that this experience changed my life.
Partly as a result, I subsequently became deeply interested in Christianity. Moreover, I also acquired a fascination for the various views on death that people hold or have held throughout history.
As I was enjoying one of my regular walks yesterday, I started thinking about the ways my sense of personal mortality has informed the way I have come to approach my life.
And although our culture tends to avoid discussing the topic, I find articles about it important, fascinating and thought-provoking. So, this is why I sat down and started writing this…
Now, In the west, we don’t like talking much about death.
And honestly, It’s difficult to judge this cultural decision good or bad:
Maybe it is nothing but a foolish denial of the most basic and certain fact about the human condition?
Or, maybe it’s potentially the wisest thing one could do — to keep silence about a thing we don’t really understand.
I don’t truly know.
But the fact is, many cultures and religions have focused their attention on death. From the Roman “memento mori” to various religious ideas, death has played an important role in human history.
As I mentioned above, I was first drawn to Christianity as a way of coping with the feelings caused by a deep contemplation of death.
Ironically, however, Christianity also lead me to an understanding that death might not be so scary after all.
In the end, my animal brain was equally baffled and terrified by both eternal death and eternal life. There is something incredibly mysterious and scary about the prospect of a never-ending existence. (just try to understand what it means that you’ve been born to never die; that there is nothing that will ever be beyond your life because you’ll always be; I don’t know about you, but all of this truly freaks me out!)
Thus, I gradually recognized that death might not be such a bad thing, after all. True, it sucks to die as early as we do now, after less than a hundred years. But compared to living forever, maybe it’s preferable to just leave this world at some point? Maybe in the final analysis death is acceptable, perhaps even desirable?
Fast forward a few years and I was no longer a Christian.
In the meantime, one of my grandmas had passed away. It was my first close experience with the actual way death happens. Maybe I was too young at the time for it, but I didn’t feel an impulse to cry or mourn excessively. To be frank, life just seemed to change and continue ahead pretty much the same, only grandma was missing. (a fact which was not necessarily that painful after you’ve come to see her life descend into a series of strokes leading to an inability to even stand up straight and walk)
I have often reflected why I reacted so indifferently back then. (especially since I am not sure next time would be the same!)
In recent years, one of my theories has been that I might have just been too young to appreciate grandma fully. Maybe I just didn’t have time to grow long enough around her and so I consequently found it hard to miss her?
Of course, it all could have been because I just have a natural inclination to accept death easier than most. To be frank about it, I have never really found the dark and painful side of life expressly unnatural. After all, it is no surprise to anyone that life is not all roses. So, what’s the point in suffering needlessly when we get reminded of that fact?
Perhaps this is why my next stop along the way of exploration of death was buddhism and taoism.
In reading Alan Watts, for example, I came to appreciate the impermanence of everything in life, including life itself. I resonated deeply with many eastern notions. I understood that death didn’t necessarily feel like a tragedy because, well, it had to happen at some point — life just wasn’t going to last forever! Moreover, there was nothing that could really be done about it. Once you were gone, you were gone. Life better move on.
To be frank, having both a Christian and a Buddhist/Taoist interpretation of death is quite the experience. Where one philosophy sees the biggest of tragedies, the other sees just another change along the way, no special and no more tragic than any other. Where one sees the beginning of an eternity for the personal soul, the other sees the end of a temporary illusion of a fake self.
In truth, Buddhist/Taoist views about death can bring great calm. Yet, they also suggest that the whole sense of anxiety is most irrational — there is no self to begin with, so why worry about it ceasing to exist?
At least to my western ears, this was a step too far from my intuitions. I wasn’t ready to believe myself an illusion quite yet.
Fast forward once again, and you suddenly find me an undergraduate at Oxford.
My university years were generally a continuation of my teenager fascination with the life lessons of death.
It was during this period that I discovered Stoicism. I read Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life. I learned and understood phrases like “memento mori”. Crucially, I realized that I was not alone in looking for life lessons at seemingly the unlikeliest of places — death — the only place totally devoid of any life by definition.
It wasn’t just the discovery of stoicism, however, that my university years gifted me with.
I also saw that the lessons of death do not necessarily come after, but before it as well. In other words, I discovered how wise old people can be.
Indeed, up until that point I had been a lot more irreverent in my attitude towards the old. I just didn’t see why age should matter as to how wise an opinion is. I guess what I learned was not that age matters per se, but that life experience does. By the time I got to university, I had had time to pose myself enough big questions (should you marry? should you have kids? should you care about money or lifestyle first? etc.) that the opinion of those on the other side of life started to acquire greater and greater significance for me.
Still, perhaps the most interesting development of my university and post-university years was that for the first time I started to consciously resist the passage of time.
Of course, attempting to do so was futile, non-sensical and certainly impossible. Yet, wanting to push back the seconds and retain my youth forever was definitely a very real internal experience for me…
Granted, even now, one year later, I am still in the beginning of life. Nonetheless, I am slowly finding myself in an unknown, aged world. Many people associate the innocence of youth with a lack of sexuality, but I have to see it in more than just that. There is also the innocence of not having to think about your eating “right”, exercising or arranging regular check-ups for various diseases. In a way, for the first time I am starting to feel that life is not just about living, but about preserving living as well.
And all that is totally new…
Of course, none of the above considerations are ever-present in my mind. Yet, they are starting to visit me more and more frequently.
One of my high school teachers used to say “Every second we are always dying”. I remember finding the phrase too grim years ago. Now, I believe I am starting to understand its meaning.
The fascinating thing about all of this is that I now expect the next revelation about death the future will bring me without much fear. I wonder what my 30, 40, 50, … year-old selfs would have to say on the topic of death. I wonder what revisions they would make to this article..
Until the next revelation, however, I, like many others, will keep entertaining hopes that my generation will finally be the one to beat aging and live to 150, 200, or even more.
Frankly speaking, without the promises of religion and away from the Buddhist whispers that there is no self, it seems that the only remaining hope of saving oneself from death marches under the joint flags and harmonious sounds of science and technology.
Nevertheless, I find myself skeptical. Am I not just discovering late a millennia-old vain desire of immortality? Am I not back where I started — lying in bed, thinking about death and, yet again, finding it terrifying?
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