Personal Development: Gemma Rose contemplates death, in a good way! She explores the natural laws of the cycle of life and how we integrate death in “Western” culture.
Probably just a couple of inches from my desk, there is about a 50-metre drop. My desk sits parallel to a large window, which is practically the height of my room. There is no window sill, or any type of protective barrier, except the window is actually divided into two, so that only the top half can be opened. When I look out of the window, if I really imagine it, I feel like I’m suspended half way in the air. Yet, a little post-it note on the window divider keeps me grounded. In florescent pink letters, it reads: “I AM GOING TO DIE!!!”
Death: it’s a fate that doesn’t discriminate, differentiate or favour. We are all going to die. Yet, for most of the time, we don’t really like talking about it, let alone like facing it in our journey of personal development. Could it be that we try to keep ourselves young, or we prefer youth over old age, because the latter reminds us of our mortality?
What is it about death that makes us scared? Is it the being dead part, or the dying part? If it’s the being dead part then our fear is illogical says the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. He sets out the ‘no subject of harm’ argument: death “is nothing to us”, because when we are alive, it has not come; and when we are dead, we cease to exist, as does our capacity to experience.
It’s most likely that what we fear is the pain or terror of dying. Yet, that is not the same as death. Another Epicurean argument is from the poet Lucretius: “Look back at the eternity that passed before we were born, and mark how utterly it counts to us as nothing. This is a mirror that Nature holds up to us, in which we may see the time that shall be after we are dead.” If we don’t find our inexistence before birth so bad, then why should we find our inexistence once we are dead so? Lucretius thinks they are exactly the same state.
Of course, as persuasive and logical as these arguments are to our personal development, there is still the irrational part of us that finds them hard to swallow. What is the best way to deal with death? Oliver Burkeman, of The Antidote suggests a middle way. He says that we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of thinking that death is bad, because it is. Death means the cessation of being with loved ones, smelling the roses, savouring a delicious meal; essentially, of life. Death also signifies the end of hopes, dreams and what could have been. This is where we get to the crux of the argument: by remembering that we must die, we must make the most of what we have today. By living a more meaningful life, we ought to live with as little regret as possible.
In case we have trouble distinguishing between the small and big stuff, Burkeman suggests this exercise by the psychologist Russ Harris: imagine you are 80 years old (or even older) and you are looking back on your life. Then, complete the sentences: “I wish I’d spent more time on…; I wish I’d spent less time on…” This can be a guide on the road to personal development throughout our lives.
In The Meaning of Things, the philosopher A.C. Grayling writes about death as being the resurgence of a new cycle. He writes that “nothing seems so dead as clematis in winter”. Yet, once spring arrives, its green fingers start to sprout. My Mum, in her golden years, fears death less as she gets older. “Nature has a way of sorting itself out,” she says. This is a comforting way to look at death: that it’s part and parcel of nature’s cycle. “All are from dust, and to dust all return,” notes the book of Ecclesiastes.
Another comfort is to believe in the afterlife. The Pulitzer Prize winner The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker states that we think of ourselves as immortal ‘heroes’, that religion (and thus the afterlife), art, charity, institutions as well as wars and conflict all symbolize our desire to live on, even when the physical dies. Becker remarks that these ‘immortality projects’ may have built great civilizations, but they’ve destroyed them too.
In the philosopher Alain de Botton’s vlog, How we will die he gives three pieces of advice to take to heart: be kind to those around us and to ourselves; understand our true talents and potential and put them to use; and appreciate every day, “…aware that the end might not be so far away.”
As I finish up this column, I’m suspended in the air again. Just above my post-it, the sun starts to rise over the clouds; its rays are making me squint. In the moment, I’m thankful for this beautiful day.