Why we must live against the backdrop of death
We all go through moments when life itself seems to have lost its flavor, its zest. Whether the moment in question comes when our alarm goes off in the morning and we wake up to the recurring realisation that we hate our jobs, or whether the moment comes at a time of illness, or a bad breakup or divorce, or at a time of financial difficulty, sometimes we think –to steal a phrase from my Arkansan grandmother – that life in its entirety is, and will indefinitely be, “the pits”.
I am not talking about moments of extreme tragedy, but am instead talking about how we feel in the aftermath of minor tragedies or when we find ourselves stuck in ruts of repetition. For most of us, when this feeling of existential drag occurs, we try to find ways of coping that are often ineffective: we shop till we drop, we overeat, we drink too much, or we move to a different place hoping that we won’t follow ourselves to our new destination.
But if you are wanting your life to go from black-and-white to colour again, I would submit that there is an easier, cheaper, and much more effective way to make that happen: Think more about your own death.
That radical piece of advice is probably something you don’t hear everyday, and in fact that advice runs contrary to the positivity-addicted conventional wisdom put forth by self-help books and motivational speakers. But hear me out when I suggest that any moment of transcendence or awe is tied, ultimately, to our own mortality. In short, there is beauty in the finite.
If our lives were infinite, then perennial things would not be beautiful because the permanence that makes them so would then be ordinary. Permanent, or “timeless”, things intrigue and mystify us precisely because we are the opposite. Transcendence is only made possible when, like the Michelangelo painting, our mortal hands reach up in an attempt to feel – if only for a moment – the ‘hand’ of things which transcend our insignificant anxieties. This seems a fairly obvious point, and yet one of the astonishing things about us as human beings when it comes to the subject of death is how much energy we expend avoiding its sting.
We make elaborate funeral arrangements as if we’ll be able to attend, we craft religious doctrines that extend existence beyond the day of our death, we regularly dust off old trophies from more triumphant days, and if all else fails, we may have children that we hope to live vicariously through and who we hope will carry on our name long after we are gone.
The fact that we will die someday not only is something we shouldn’t avoid thinking about, but is a fact that— when dwelt on frequently— adds flavour to our lives. By keeping the temporary nature of our lives always at the forefront of our thoughts, our everyday experiences take on new meaning and importance no matter how mundane. And that’s why I say there is beauty in the finite.
In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes: ‘A little while and you will be nobody and nowhere, nor will anything which you now behold exist, nor one of those who are now alive. Nature’s law is that all things change and turn, and pass away, so that in due order different things may come to be.’ A lot of people, unfortunately, find that passage upsetting. Conventional wisdom tells us that if we want to live happy and fulfilling lives, then we shouldn’t think about death frequently because to do so is dismal and depressing. But Marcus Aurelius understood that it is precisely the inevitability of ceasing to exist that gives the existence we currently are experiencing such tremendous value and importance. He understood that there is beauty in the finite.
In a 1993 interview published by the Review of Contemporary Fiction, the late David Foster Wallace made an interesting observation when he told Larry McCaffery:
“You don’t have to think very hard to realise that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self) has to do with angst about death, the recognition that ‘I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me’. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art-fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.”
So what do we do when, in the words of James A. Lindsay, “The hymns of Heaven stop playing and can no longer drown out the corpse flies’ unendurable buzz”? We rejoice. Because without a definite, absolute, and unavoidable end to existence and experience, we cannot hope to adequately appreciate either. For some, only minor alterations to one’s day-to-day is necessary: perhaps cooking a meal for one’s significant other once a week or taking one’s child to the park more often. For others, this entails making radical changes in life: perhaps quitting that miserly job or fulfilling one’s dream to climb the Himalayas. But only by living our lives against the backdrop of death can authenticity be discovered and our days seized.