An acquaintance of mine recently told me how depressing he thought it was that so many famous people passed away in 2014 — Robin Williams … Joe Cocker … Tony Gwynn … James Garner … Mickey Rooney … Shirley Temple … Joan Rivers … to name but a few. No question about it, when someone famous dies, it’s a harsh reminder of the swiftness and finality of death. And that, in turn, causes you to think seriously about your own mortality.
Death is not only an integral part of life, it’s the one absolute aspect of life that everyone can count on. In all of human history, no one — no matter how rich or famous — has managed to escape death. And since we cannot escape it, I try to look at it philosophically through a positive lens.
For example, without death, to what would we have to compare life? Death, after all, is what gives life its value. Just as we could not fully appreciate light without darkness, neither could we fully appreciate life without death.
Further, even though death appears to be the antithesis of life, is it possible that death has a meaning? No one can say with certainty, because the only thing certain about death is that it will make its appearance in everyone’s life. Attempting to understand death is not only frustrating, but distressing. So much so that Sigmund Freud believed death to be the chief source of anxiety.
Paradoxically, death, which is antilife, causes us to actually wonder about the meaning of life. Could there be such a thing as life after death? And, if so, what form does such life take? Or is death nothing more than a soulless, meaningless black hole of nothingness? Many claim to have seen the other side, and perhaps some have. But the reality is that such claims cannot be substantiated.
Another thought: Even if one’s accomplishments in life have had a major impact on the world he leaves behind, from his perspective after death, his earthly deeds become like the tree that falls in the forest. True, the rest of the human race is left behind to see and hear the fallen tree of the deceased, but he himself cannot. Or can he? The jury is still out on that one.
Finally, death is a reminder that no one escapes the inevitable, and that, no matter how positive we may be, we are powerless to alter certain events. We can, of course, stack the longevity odds in our favor by making good decisions, but longevity is not a replacement for immortality. Mortality is the default setting for all living things.
Now for the good news. We are the most remarkable collection of atoms in the world (and possibly the universe!), because we have the ability to reflect on our own existence. We also have the ability to make choices; i.e., we are not restricted to instinctive actions.
This includes choosing how to prepare for, and react to, the inevitable. In a world filled with more tragedy and uncertainty than ever before in human history, it is one of life’s great challenges to master this preparation.
From time to time, a harsh reality will, without warning, collide with our desires and our best-laid plans, and that is where a positive attitude can play a major role. By positive attitude, I’m not talking about trying to convince yourself that nothing bad will ever happen to you or your family, but to work on developing the strength and wisdom to handle bad things when they occur.
I said that mastering preparation for the inevitable is one of life’s great challenges, but it would probably be more accurate to say it is the ultimate challenge. I personally choose to look at death not as preparing to die, but preparing to live. How so? Because the best way to prepare for death is to put it out of your mind and become totally engrossed in living. If you can’t change something, why think about it, let alone being stressed over it? Why let it rob you of valuable time you could be investing in the joys of life?
A better idea is to focus your thoughts on how to live a full and meaningful life. You will find out soon enough what’s on the other side. An old Scottish proverb sums it up perfectly: Be happy while you are living, for you are a long time dead.