Death: We Only See What We Want To

by Philosophy


Tomorrow I’m going to die. I could be hit by a car or knocked in front of the train or get into an auto accident. Any number of biological issues of which I am currently unaware could strike and lay me out. Falling debris from space could in a fluke of chance strike me or any number of potential people with borderline homicidal rages could see me as a target. The list of potential deaths is as long as my imagination can churn in the land of the macabre.

I am not going to die tomorrow. At least, not likely. I don’t know. Neither do you. No amount of planning or training can hope to possibly address every conceivable possibility and even then there remain those events of which we cannot conceive but remain possible. The sheer magnitude of the potential frailty of my life is enough to short-circuit my frontal lobe and send me spiraling into a morass of despair and nerve-stopping terror.

However, I don’t have to sit there contemplating such things. I can, just as so many of us do moment to moment, day to day, year after year, think of other things and live a life of varying importance. The enormity of our frailty is eclipsed, wonderfully, by the even greater degree of life that flows in, as and between every nuanced instantiation of nature’s laboratory. I have stood in the midst of masses of people at airports and concerts and had the humbling though exhilarating notion occur that I will likely never see a single one of these people again no matter how well-traveled I could become and each day they are replaced by untold others going about their lives blindingly oblivious to the seething potential they brush across at every intersection of narratives.

Watching “Stranger Than Fiction” again last night, I was struck again by the author’s poignant question that if a man truly sees their death coming and goes out to meet it anyway, is that not a man you’d want to stay alive? It is the quintessential existential question, one that much of technological and entertainment-based society is contrived to help us never ponder.

The notion of death is a fear-laden cognitive device, one that is for many halts us in our mental steps at its shocking finality. And yet, we are faced with it every day, it rests underneath every future plan, personal quest, building project, and start of a journey. If only we plan and keep planning ahead death will never reach us, and yet it does every day, as inexorable as any other physical force. For every device thrown up in its path another one from before plummets in futility. We look forever forward afraid that if we look back we will be caught.

We are already caught, already held. We do not ignore death’s door by opening up others in the same hallway, that one will always be there, never forgotten however much we attempt to ignore it. There has been much said, primarily in religious-philosophical circles, that without death there would be no morality, it serves as a stop-gap for ethical peril. Others posit that it serves as the primary force behind the scurrying lives we all live. Both undoubtedly have some truth, but it is a truth contingent upon accepting death from the assumed perspective each position takes. Death does not have to be a punishment any more than it has to be a separate and distinct force. In every change of life, there is a death of sorts, from one form shifting to another. Even in our own lives, we are not the people we were a year ago, five years ago, yesterday, believing we are simply a by-product of a biological narrative stringing together separate events into a whole. The impetus behind our actions, once divorced from death, can be found within life itself, death as merely one facet of life, not the cessation of it.

Certainly, this thinking is not easy to hold onto. I for one still shudder at times thinking of the cold nothingness that awaits, my imagination providing sensations that rationally I know would be impossible without a body and yet still struck by the power of the image. However, like the character in “Stranger…” I attempt on occasion to look in the face of my inevitable end and, despite its inevitability, strive forward anyway. The result is not that I become precisely a man worthy to continue living, but that I find a life worthy of calling such.

Frank Herbert in “Dune” through his character Paul declares “If I am to die, I must pass along a transcendental lesson.  I must leave with serenity.” I can only hope to embody this lesson, though if not achieved completely, the reaching for it creates a life embracing both what comes before and what lies ahead. On this day on the Eve of a new year, holding both seems quite an important thing to do.

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