It may seem paradoxical, but what more rational way for a Bright to say good-bye to the old year and welcome a new one than to consider the end of everything?
That’s why I’ve compiled some approaches toward death held by various clear thinkers. Philosophers, psychologists, scientists, poets, and novelists have expressed a wide array of attitudes about dying. I find each of the ones below worth pondering. Perhaps one or more will help you make your own peace with mortality.
1. Plan ahead. When it comes to death, many prefer life-long denial, according to Virginia Morris, author of the practical (and entertainingly written) Talking about Death. By giving serious thought to what you want to have happen at your end, you may have a chance at experiencing the kind of dying scenario you’d prefer. The vast majority of us apparently get the opposite of what we hope for, living wills and “do-not-resuscitate orders” notwithstanding.
2. Get used to it. The opposite of denial is to accustom yourself to the reality that everyone, absolutely without exception, regardless of dreams and hopes and faith, has to die, including you. Treat the dread like any other phobia and think about it so much, in a controlled way, that it eventually bores you a little and terrifies you a little less.
3. Don’t gather regrets. Arrive at your deathbed without the added gloom of feeling you’ve made irreparable mistakes. If you’re particularly lucky, you may have some time to tidy up loose ends and various kinds of remorse, but better not to count on that.
4. Connect. Talk about death with someone who shares and thus validates your fears. Reading psychiatrist and novelist Irvin D. Yalom‘s book, Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, feels like sitting in the presence of a wise, earnest, soothing friend. Lacking a loved one or a therapist who “gets it,” make a point, Yalom suggests, of connecting with the larger community, including making use of online support groups.
5. Find your meaning. Existentialists like Yalom and literate thinkers such as Julian Barnes in his Nothing to Be Frightened Of note that fear of dying often brings up fears of not having lived well enough, as well as not long enough. So make time to think about living a fulfilling life. Yalom mentions Nietzsche’s “eternal return” thought experiment, in which you imagine living your identical life “again and again for all eternity.” The idea there is to lead us “away from the preoccupation with trivial concerns to the goal of living vitally.”
The Novelists Speak
6. See the biggest picture. The idea Barnes explores near the end of Nothing to Be Frightened Of is my favorite. It’s also the bleakest and may not work for you (as it doesn’t really work for Barnes). It’s the idea that, sometime in the coming six billion years before the sun burns out, evolution will discard “us,” these current millennia’s humans, as it favors the most adaptable. Art will not defeat death; the far future will not recognize us at all. While that very big idea doesn’t offer license to be selfish, it does suggest (to me) how very inconsequential is the task of sweeping the driveway or the pain of a tennis elbow.
The belief that we somehow moved on to something else — whether still recognizably ourselves, or quite thoroughly changed — might be a tribute to our evolutionary tenacity and our animal thirst for life, but not to our wisdom. That saw a value beyond itself; in intelligence, knowledge and wit as concepts — wherever and by whomever expressed — not just in its own personal manifestation of those qualities, and so could contemplate its own annihilation with equanimity, and suffer it with grace; it was only a sort of sad selfishness that demanded the continuation of the it was only a sort of sad selfishness that demanded the continuation of the individual spirit in the vanity and frivolity of a heaven.
Nothing is real, and nothing is not real. Things just are. That’s why you try to be in the moment. Because you might as well be somewhere. And all evidence seems to point to the fact that being here, now, is where all the good stuff happens.
And another responds:
Like when you’re playing a riff, and you’re not worried about finishing it. You’re just in it.
“As I get older,” Drabble confided, “I do fear my physical world is getting thinner. When I was younger, I led multiple lives. When I’m here in Porlock, everything flows in again. It doesn’t matter if I’m thinning out. . . . The trees are full, the sea is full and I am getting more ghostly. The physical world is taking over and absorbing me and eventually my ashes will be scattered in the churchyard.” And then, taking her aptitude for seeing beyond the glare of self-interest — beyond the moment’s buzz — to its natural extension, she muses unblinkingly on the inevitable void that awaits even those who fill the world with words: “My being the center has ceased to be of importance.”
10. Death is simply part of life. From Christine Falls, the debut crime novel of Benjamin Black (the pen name of John Banville, who won the Man Booker Prize) (the main character is a pathologist who has been beaten up by those who don’t want him snooping into a possible crime):
He had thought he was going to die and was surprised at how little he feared the prospect. It had all been so shabby and shoddy, so ordinary; and that, he now realized, would be the manner of his real death, when it came. In the dissecting room the bodies used to seem to him the remains of sacrificial victims, spent and inert after the frightful, bloody ceremony of their souls’ leaving. But he would never again view a cadaver in that lurid light. Suddenly for him death had lost its terrifying glamour and become just another bit of the mundane business of life, although its last.
- Do you have an insight, suggestion, or personal philosophy to add to the conversation? Please share.
Copyright (2012) by Susan K. Perry
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