“There are those who think that life is valueless because it comes to an end. They fail to see that the opposite argument might also be proposed: that if there were no end to life, life would also have no value; that it is in part the ever present danger of losing it which helps to bring home to us the value of life.” – Karl Popper
Is there an ideal approach to mortality and what is it? The simplest answer is the common sense one: “Yes, just ignore it.” With some trepidation, I must admit I have spent a great deal of time trying to defend and refute that viewpoint in personal meditation. My eventual conclusion was that it not the ideal nor even an acceptable position.
I would ask you to remember back to when you first grasped your own mortality; not just that all men die, but that you yourself will actually die. I certainly remember: I was fifteen, walking by myself through my suburban neighborhood on a beautiful spring day. I am not sure where the thought of death came from, perhaps I was thinking about the dead frog I had thrown into a bowl of Chlorox to extract its skeleton for sophomore biology, or the death of an adolescent girl I knew in a motorcycle accident, or maybe it was just the mental incursions of my parents floundering marriage. I do not recall the trigger, but I do remember, as clear as if it was yesterday, the gripping realization that came from nowhere that I would die one day – go to sleep and never wake up – and then everything would be over, not just for a day, or a week, or a year, but forever. Everything that mattered to me would be no more.
I remember my heart beating out of my chest, the breathlessness, the feeling of dread, of terror, of inescapability. I remember stopping cold in my tracks. I had to wait until that awful feeling passed, and then…I resumed my walk and tried not to think about it. “I have plenty of time”, I thought, “Something so far in the future is no threat to me now. Death isn’t real, not like family problems, school, peer pressure. If I don’t think about it, that feeling will stay away.”
For the last 45 years I have gone back and forth, from fleeting periods of this existential anxiety (I hadn’t heard that word when I was 15) – Kierkegaard’s dread – to long lapses into Becker’s ‘denial of death’ sometimes for years at a time. Perhaps you too have experienced this. Only reading the great minds in history and personal meditations revealed to me that this ‘common sense’ approach to facing one’s mortality is a futile dodge, a ruse, a cheat. Life’s ultimate value is interwoven with the realization of one’s mortality. That feeling of existential anxiety is the supreme feeling of life itself. The next three blogs will take us deeper into that absolute truth.