Staring at the sun with our bare eyes is difficult if not impossible. The equivalent is true of death. It is hard to think about death and face it without blinking. Irvin D. Yalom has done it multiple times during decades of therapy practice and talked about it in a wonderful book. I won’t try and relay his message here: I could not possibly do him justice. I would rather you read the book which is beautifully written and deeply inspiring. Some of the things he said really stuck in my mind.
Each one of us has thought about death many times, whether in our daily life or in our dreams, whether because we lost someone close to us or because we heard friends going through difficult times. Death is the Shadow of Life. It underpins many of the things we as human beings do. Its omnipresence makes us move forwards. Kings and emperors built statues representing them to live through the centuries; politicians publish bills and laws named after them for posterity; writers and artists write books and create pieces of art to leave a trace of them in this world; parents have children because this is the most primitive way to access a form of immortality. We accumulate wealth to pay for medical treatment in our desperate attempt to escape death; we publish our lives online to create a parallel existence which lives independently from us, and ultimately will survive our physical body; the whole of society is cooperating in a war that humanity is leading against death. Do we really need to be so fearful?
Humans have created fictions that support them and help them get through this fear of death, present in all of us. Reincarnation, the afterlife, Heaven, Valhalla, all these are fictions which constitute the promise that what comes next will be better than what is now. Even if some specific actions are stated as necessary in order to access this “after”, undeniably each and every one of these fictions take away the responsibility to make THIS life as meaningful and fulfilled as it can be. Yes some fictions will require us to do good deeds, be virtuous and a whole lot of other great things, but they promise that the reward will come later. Why can we not enjoy the here and now and try to make it as rich and colourful as we can?
Yalom voices his beliefs which I share, about our existence and the fact that we have been thrown on this planet and in this life as a result of a random, imperfect evolutionary process; all there really is for us to do, is make the most of the existence we have been given. How attractive would it be to live a life of contentment and fulfilment today? How wonderful would it be to value our family, our friends, and simply be content by connecting with other human beings? How beautiful would it be to live our life as well as we possibly can, and welcome death knowing that we have fully lived? Throughout the centuries, philosophers have explored and debated about life and death and often arrived to the conclusion that death is only fearful to people who have not appreciated well enough the value of life. The question of the meaning of life, from Socrates to Nietzsche, found its answer in fulfilment. Fulfilment in THIS life.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating anyone engages into a life of hedonism and a pursuit of any and every pleasure possible. Actually, like anything else, too much dopamine (the chemical associated with the reward and pleasure centres in the brain) in your system can lead to quite dramatic health issues and paradoxically annihilate pleasure (addictions). Too much pleasure kills pleasure.
A lot of people fear death; this fear is intrinsically embedded in life, I think it comes with it. But often their fear takes the form of something else such as anger, stress, depression, panic attacks… Through his “existential therapy” approach, Yalom works to uncover, underlying these symptoms, what people actually fear, and this often turns out to be death itself. People fear disappearing forever and the nothingness that death brings to mind. Or they fear the meaninglessness of life and of their own existence. Or they fear never seeing any of their loved ones ever again. Or they fear the pain they are going to cause to people they love, and who love them. All these are true and on some level, valid things to fear. But alternatively, there are ways to look at death differently. Death can be seen as the same state of non-consciousness as the one we were into before birth: this is not that scary. We won’t miss our loved ones because we will have no consciousness of life. If we have lived fully and connected and shared with our loved ones and others, then death is not to be feared; we can even offer them a final gift in showing them how to face it. Of course they will grieve and mourn, but they will move on remembering this final lesson, which they can then pass on to others. They will remember all the great things that are to be remembered, until they themselves pass away.
Now what about the fear of the meaninglessness of life? I like Yalom’s liberating concept of “rippling”, which I have already alluded to above without mentioning it. We ripple through the people we have connected with in our life. I understand rippling as some sort of ethereal influence, a deep level impact. We have all influenced people in our lives, on some level, and the way these people behave or think as a result of our own impact is how we survive through time. We will never disappear fully because of the influence we had in other people’s lives, simply by connecting and sharing with them. We live on through the lessons they learned from us and the cherished memories they have of us, just like you live now through the lessons you learnt from others. We ripple through other humans beings. We continue to live through them. Rippling is our legacy; it is what makes our life meaningful.
Death is the Shadow of Life. So let’s step out of the shade and enjoy the sun while it’s up in the sky.