Philosophy: Reflecting on our mortality

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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…”

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.
Photo: Still Life With A Skull: Philippe de Champaigne