Over the past few weeks, I have found myself faced with the idea of death more than what is usually typical of my relatively charmed life. Although I’m fortunate enough to say that it has not affected me in any direct sense, there have been multiple occasions in recent weeks when I have watched people I care about try to cope with the ultimate inevitable that we all must confront at some point. Some deaths are untimely, unexpected, and tragic, from which the abrupt nature can leave a wake of unimaginable torment. On the other side of that coin, I recently watched a good friend of my family lay to rest the love of his life. Although this instance was anticipated, that didn’t seem to placate the pain that follows such a loss. Any time we lose someone close to us, the void that is left can feel like too much to bear.
It’s a cruel paradox of nature that we’re born into a species so intrinsically programmed for survival while being acutely aware of the eventual fate that awaits us all. The knowledge of certain mortality has been the crux of man ever since having had the ability to contemplate the plight of our existence. It emanates questions like; “why are we here?”, “what is my purpose?”, or even “what is the meaning of life?”. If it’s all meant to end anyway, then what was the point of it all? Our history books are littered with centuries of thinkers who have driven themselves mad trying solve this riddle. Every religious doctrine ever conceived has been largely devoted to providing answers to these questions. To even breach the subject, I feel an obligation to do so delicately and carefully. To breach it at all is to know that I risk crossing a boundary in the eyes of some. The topic of death is a naturally sensitive one, but I think that something which impacts us all so heavily is worth at least stopping to think about.
From the time we are old enough to understand it, death becomes a reality for us. We see it as a dark, looming unknown abyss at the end of a clock cycle, ticking seconds away like some sadistic alarm set to chime at a time yet unknown. We fear it. We’re fascinated by it. We worry about it. We joke about it. We create works of fiction imagining a world where it can be circumvented. Things like the fountain of youth, the Lazarus pit, cryogenic freezing, mutant regeneration; these and more have been objects of our fantasy for generations. Some turn to their faith in eternal life for comfort and live their lives in accordance with the ethical guidelines that will get them there. Some spend a lifetime ignoring it until that is no longer an option. But, no matter how you slice it, the notion of imminent death rules over our lives in some way. One of the cornerstones of ancient Stoic philosophy is the belief that to no longer fear death is to no longer be a slave. Is there any way to truly get to a place where death no longer leads our lives? If there is, I’m sure it’s easier said than done.
Just to be clear, I am in no way attempting to provide any answers. It would be pretty arrogant for me to claim any insight into the meaning of life or what comes after. But as people who are trying to navigate this life in the best way we know how, I think we could all benefit from contemplating and organizing our thoughts. What in this life do you find meaningful? What brings you comfort or solace in times of mourning? My thoughts on the matter are constantly evolving, as I believe they should be. And although it would be easy to do, it seems like a bit of a cop out to end this article without sharing my personal thoughts.
So, my answer as it stands now is this: what gives our lives the most meaning is what we leave behind. No matter how much time we spend on this earth, the totality of our earthly experience can be summed up by what we spent our time doing, the lasting impacts we have made, and the legacies we leave. I think that whether it’s our own death or that of a loved one, we can all find some solace in knowing that there is always something tangibly residual of that person that remains. Some piece to be carried on or appreciated by future generations. The meaning of my life could be the legacy of my daughter, or the ripple effect caused by my actions. In that respect, we may live on indefinitely; a perpetual state of new growth rising from the ashes of another. I think the essence of this sentiment can best be encapsulated by the final words of Marcus Aurelius, who said: “Go to the rising sun, for I am already setting”.
I am interested to hear some of your thoughts. If you have anything to say or add to this discussion, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you all for reading.
Jason Duff is a local resident who writes columns for the Record-Herald.