Embracing the ultimate unknown.

Last month, I had an existential crisis. I underwent a very benign medical procedure, for which I was told that the probability of death was very low. I remember wanting to respond, “You mean not zero? You mean there’s a chance I could die?” The procedure went according to plan, but I was left with a sudden awareness of my mortality. For some strange reason, I’ve gone nearly 28 years of my life without the deliberate conscious awareness that this life, at least in this body, won’t last forever. And quite frankly, the thought terrified me.

Irrespective of which response you favor when you hear the word ‘death’, there remains a question of how we should relate to the prospects of our own. What reason do we have to care about the fact that we are going to die?

Many people believe that we cease to exist when we die. This belief usually means that the story of our lives ends with our death. This pessimistic thought may lead us to think that, when we die, we lose everything. We lose our friends, our family, memories, our past, our future, and we lose the world in which we find ourselves, for all eternity. In addition, the world loses us. Giving rise to thoughts of existential terror.

God, this rambling is getting a bit morbid…

What would a world without death look like? Since we have no experience of immortality we can only imagine it. To begin with, if there were births but no deaths, the world would quickly become unlivable. People would need to stop having children and the world would become a stale, static place.

Then what would we do with an extended or even immortal life? We could have several careers, have multiple spouses, and develop more interests, in short, more of everything. But more time is not the same as endless time. Is there any activity that we can imagine doing, not for a long time, but forever? Would we lose all interest in life if we lived forever?

With unlimited time there would be no urgency to do anything. The idea of wasting time becomes nonsensical if we have time without end. That our time is limited, that our days are numbered, is the ultimate incentive to act. It is the old story of a person given six months to live suddenly trying to cram a life time of living in what time he has left. Death creates urgency.

So what should we do about it in the most non-cliché way as possible?

Sometimes life will seem like it’s long, tough, tiring or boring. Sometimes you’ll be happy and sometimes you’ll be sad. And when that time comes, one day you’ll be dead. There is only one sensible thing to do with such an empty existence and that is to fill it. Learn as much as you can, take pride, share compassion, be enthusiastic, run, jump, find love, fall out of love, have more than one piece of cake.

Because at the end of the day the best way to have a good death is just to live a good life.

 

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