(DISCLAIMER: This is a copy of an essay I submitted in my Philosophy of Everyday Life class. Feedback is welcome, but plagiarism is stupid.)
Nothing is certain except for death. It is intangible in its essence–an incredibly fickle happening of chance and circumstance–which renders it easy to forget that we are climbing towards it with every breath. Uncovering the imminence of our own death produces a deep-seated anxiety that grounds our existence in the deeper context of temporality and humanity. Death is fundamental to life, yet our very culture is organized around ways of obfuscating, ignoring, and denying it in terms of a possibility for us as individuals. In contrast, the vast majority of Americans affirm their belief in the afterlife; in other words, living through death. It’s important to scrutinize the implications of such a belief in relation to the opposing view that life ends with death. Confronting one’s own death anxiety is, perhaps, the most salient meditation one can have in relation to the choices one makes throughout everyday life. In terms of choice, death confuses us: It is not malleable in the way that other realms of our life appear to be. This confusion is a symptom of the society in which we live which, at the root, structures all interactions around autonomy and commodity. This view, in relation to death, is mistaken. Life should not be thought of in terms of commodity (currency or time) but, rather, as a possibility (gift or chance). Death anxiety isn’t necessarily something that we are able to repress or quell, but squarely facing our fear of it directly contributes to a higher quality day-to-day existence. Whereas we normally treat everyday life as a means to the next end, I argue that each day should be seen as a new life, or a chance for possibility in the face of the fact that all of us will, inexorably, cease to exist.
Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time is especially helpful in uncovering the ways in which death anxiety permeates our everyday lives. In Heidegger’s philosophy, we are unique in our Being because we are explicitly cognizant of the fact that we exist. This same sentiment seems not to apply to most other animals. That is, they don’t appear to be philosophizing about career paths or lifestyle choices. Heidegger argues that, in some way or another, we always understand ourselves “in terms of [our] existence—in terms of a possibility [for] itself: to be itself or not itself” (214). In other words, we are always aware of the fact that we exist in the world and that what we do is free to possibility in some sense. Conversely, we are able to establish the boundaries between subject and object. Heidegger calls this relationship to ourselves and the world “Being-towards-possibility” (240). This reality sets the stage for a lot of what we perceive that we can and cannot do and, in terms of everyday life, we see our existence as a vehicle for choice. This is a problem of Being, for Heidegger, that death presents itself as the elimination of that very choice.
In her analysis of choice in our everyday lives, Renata Salecl explores death as the negation of control or choice. Capitalism structures the gamut forms of our everyday behaviors, she argues, and this has produced a tacit disposition that all realms of our lives can be turned into choice. This attitude has extended far beyond the material realm, however, as “the insistence on choice in every area of our life has given rise to an obsessive need for control and predictability, as well as a paralyzing fear of death and annihilation.” (134). There are two major problems regarding this way in which we think about death: We have no choice that everyone must die, and the fact that we have the power to end our life of our own volition (129). In other words, we are stuck in a bind of the illusion of choice and, yet, we genuinely do have a choice in the matter. Suicide, as a highly undesirable action for most individuals, appears to be an aporetic choice (which will be explored further on). On these grounds, the vast majority of our efforts in everyday life are concerted around perpetually keeping death at bay. For example, Salecl explores how our culture structures its notable figures in such a way that “freezes faces in time,” which is to highlight the severe anxiety we experience when recognizing the aging process on our own bodies. We idolize those who appear to suspend the effects of temporality, such as wrinkles, flabby skin, etc. This anxiety of aging also in manifest in advertisements, flaunting ways to prolong youth and overcome health obstacles, rendering one’s legacy to be fixed at an arbitrary point (130). These are all ways in which we try to exercise control over death in our everyday lives. Salecl’s thesis also suggests that we suppress anything that severely impairs our ability to feel in control. If we feel overwhelmed by a task, we willingly choose someone who we perceive to be in a position of better understanding–of better choice. I believe this is, perhaps, a largely driving factor behind the persistence of monotheism. That is, we defer our existential anxiety to someone who speaks authoritatively on the matter. This is because death anxiety robs us of this feeling of choice and has potential to put us in a psychologically unstable state. We find, in Salecl’s words, psychological and existential “benefits in forgetting” about the imminence of our own death (134). In forgetting death, we find peace of mind, quell existential anxiety, and can re-immerse ourselves as functioning participants in everyday life. If every time I got in line at the grocery store, the cashier started rambling about the futility of our struggle for existence, I might have the strong intuition to avoid that line in the future. On this basis, it becomes clearer how very few people seem eager to talk about their own death, which is a fear that others seem more than willing to perpetuate. This tendency to fall in line with others, especially in terms of hushing away death anxiety, is what Heidegger refers to as the “they.”
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome in Heidegger’s uncovering of Being is the removal from the “they”. The “they” can be understood as analogous to who/what we refer to when we throw around the term “society”: everyone and no one simultaneously. Immersion in the “they” produces a state of “falling” or “fallenness,” which is characterized by the act of “Being-with-one-another” which is manifest in social conditioning (242). In other words, in Being-with-one-another, there are routine ways in which we encourage others to obfuscate and compartmentalize the possibilities of existence for us. As with Salecl, we see that it’s stressful (if not impossible) to obtain all the relevant data in all realms of our life so, in many cases, we willingly defer our capacity for choice in such cases. Death anxiety is the most notable of these deferential gestures to the “they”. This is true particularly in how we allow the news media to curate our values; we romanticize heroic deaths, and find outrage at injustices, and then forget about them entirely. Though we see cases of death, the “they” has all kinds of devices to prevent us from regularly engaging with the fact that Being implies a finitude upon our own existence, however. That is, we are almost always falling. Heidegger argues that this everyday fallenness is an inauthentic state of Being, which prioritizes the world and others around us and–deliberately or not–pushes death anxiety at bay (242). Falling is a state of ease for us–of both temptation and tranquility–because it allows us to not authentically grapple with the nearly insurmountable stress of ceasing to exist. We can see some of the ways in which we are “falling” in our everyday lives: idle talk, curiosity, and ambiguity (242). These are all Heideggerian terms. Idle talk is the simple act of making conversation, like small talk before class or in line at a retail store. Curiosity is manifest in the novel interests we have in just seeing things, for example, how everyone slows down to get a good look at a car accident; we just want to see for the sake of seeing. Ambiguity is a fogging-over of what is disclosed in general understanding, such as the ways which we pretend death won’t catch up to us, or how social change is perceived as intangible (and therefore, impossible). These three symptoms of fallenness, Heidegger argues, are what detach the authenticity from our very existence (243). In the abstract, authenticity seems to be a state of Being that most people would ideally value in everyday life.
The reason most people don’t authentically face death, Heidegger argues, is due to the anxiety produced in the very thought experiment. We’ve touched on death anxiety somewhat already, but Heidegger uses this word differently than its general connotation, which is not so much concerned with an explicit stress about the future but, rather, a subtle, fleeting moment of sincerity about our own state of Being. This can be seen as a brief surrender from the immersion into everyday life. In anxiety, “the ‘world’ can offer nothing more” and “takes away…the possibility of understanding [ourselves]” (245). Anxiety takes us out of the “they”—out of the “understanding” commonly shared—and reacquaints us with our freedom for possibility and choice. Heidegger argues that we must authentically face Being-towards-death in order to create a “resoluteness” within ourselves (252). To authentically face death, we must understand it as our “ownmost, non-relational possibility” which is “not to be outstripped” (251). This means that we cannot simply empathize with death in the way that it can empathize with other situations or emotions. Death is nothing to be experienced. Death is “not to be outstripped” in the sense that it cannot be evaded; the second law of thermodynamics has seen to that.
Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death, sees the anxiety of death in a differing light from Heidegger. This takes the form of outright death denial throughout our everyday lives. He asserts that one’s feeling of death as non-relatable, or that oneself might be exempt from the finality of death, stems from our evolutionary psychology: narcissism (2). We are aware of our “selves” in a different sense than we are aware of “ourselves.” There is, in other words, a disassociation between the way we think we are and the way we actually are. This proclamation is derived from psychoanalysis: “Freud’s explanation for [death denial attitudes] was that the unconscious does not know death or time: in man’s physiochemical, inner organic recesses he feels immortal.” (2). We may even try to grasp at death for some semblance of understanding, but this is futile, according to Becker, as we still operate under the assumption that we are the exception. I take this to mean that it is not necessarily within our purview to even conjecture what death would be like. In the same way that we cannot properly imagine large bodies such as stars and galaxies, large numbers such as one million, small bacterial microbes in the soil, etc. we are unable to grasp at temporality and finitude. If death is nothingness, as is commonly agreed upon in the secular world, then there is, essentially, nothing to be understood. In this case, it is not the “fault” of our own, but a biological limitation of our neurophysiology. I find this view to be troubling, because it seems very salient to bring death to the fore of our everyday lives, even if it’s only metaphorical.
If Becker is right, however, death inevitably takes the form of a further abstraction from Heidegger’s “ambiguity”: That is, our cartoonish, hooded characterization of Death. Paul Ricoeur, in his final book Living Up to Death, explores how we characterize death as an anthropomorphic “active agent.” (27). This active agent, for Ricoeur, is a “make-believe (conceptual) configuration” which renders death as fictive (22). On this basis, we treat death like a fabrication or a story, which feels more easy to control or transcend. This frame of mind allows us to compartmentalize death as something we are familiar with, so we can put it back on the shelf and move on with our everyday lives. Ricoeur writes that as death becomes named and becomes personified, our familiarization with the fiction allows us to place it “under the sign of absolute Evil,” as a moral story of things to avoid at all costs (25). This character, “Death,” provides us with the illusion we cast upon ourselves that we may be able to bargain with him (as he’s ominously sharpening his scythe). This characterization, according to Alan Watts, comes from the imagination, which “cannot grasp simple nothingness and must therefore fill the void with fantasies, as in experiments with sensory deprivation” (36). This reinforces Becker’s claim that our very neurophysiology presents itself as a limit to understanding nothingness. It has been documented that, in the absence of stimuli, the brain begins to hallucinate. So, most of us do generate this Death character, but in different ways. It may be manifest in the vision of the Christian Hell, which reveals that we fear death, even in the face of everlasting life-after-death. There is also the flipped side of the coin, which has in mind a loving god who has orchestrated our death in such a way that allows for escape from this sinner’s damnation. Along these lines, Ricoeur describes theological speculation into the afterlife in a way that reconciles “suffering as punishment” or, in other words, death as recompense for original sin (28). By being implicated in the game of life, we must pay the price in the end. Such is the toll for being a part of God’s creation, which is the intuition I had previously shared as a religious individual. Unfortunately, this theological mentality has produced, what Ricoeur calls, a “fusion-confusion” in the imagination because, even if Becker is right, that’s no good reason to push death off as a possibility for ourselves (17). But the entire premise of Christianity seems to be on the death and subsequent rebirth of Jesus Christ–a literal denial of death. It is not of my concern here to discuss the validity of such claims. What is clear here, is that the more we abstract death from something which will happen to us–as something actual–the more we feel like we can understand it and even, in cases such as these, overcome it. The tacit belief may be in place that death will catch up to us eventually, but it still seems inadequate motivation to comport oneself towards an authentic, everyday life. What is more common in everyday agnostic attitudes towards the afterlife, Watts might add, is the “fear that death will take us into everlasting nothingness—as if that could be some sort of experience” (36). In other words, we think of death as analogous to being buried alive, as a constant not-being-able to do anything; this is still an experiential projection, however. This fear of death as nothingness, then, for Ricoeur is “an anticipated agony” which is never fully reified until death itself (13).
As we’ve seen, one who is Being-towards-death authentically finds death to be revealed to them as a possibility, which yields Ricoeur’s sense of “an anticipated agony.” The paradox here, as Heidegger underlines, is viewing death as “the possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all” (250). This interpretation of death is to be understood as inevitable, as a natural order of life and not really an “experience.” Heidegger’s philosophy here aims at creating in us a resoluteness, or “resolution which understandingly projects itself” authentically towards death (252). Resoluteness comes from a conscious disenchantment from the “they,” which pulls us out, back into authenticity. We might be rather metaphorical in how we conceive of death, but I’m inclined to say that Heidegger is right here: We can’t let our anxiety or social values dictate the way we reason with our own lives. Heidegger’s anticipatory resoluteness that is characterized by an authentic being is an “understanding which follows the call of conscience and which frees for death the possibility of acquiring power over [our own] existence and of basically dispersing all fugitive Self-concealments” (254). This can also be seen through the lens of Salecl, in which an authentic being transcends the “tyranny of choice” in all realms of our lives. This transcendence–anticipatory resoluteness–allows for one’s freedom to engage in the world in a whole new way, which is authentic, autonomous, and free from the mythos the “they” produces. The concern here is mostly focused on the fact that we do not actively extract ourselves from the “they” in our everyday Being. Most people are perfectly okay not thinking about death and death anxiety; in fact, it is pretty morbid in our society to talk about one’s own future death. Heidegger illuminates the fact that we all are temporal beings, which are intrinsically finite and bound to cease existing eventually. It is not certain when, or how we are going to die. What seems crucial in Heidegger’s philosophy is that we choose for ourselves how we orient our lives and how we engage with the world around us. I think this is a much better way to live one’s everyday life. I worry, however, that this reorientation can also lead to nihilism, which Friedrich Nietzsche thoroughly explored.
Nihilism is, simply, the belief that life is meaningless. Nietzsche addresses the problem of nihilistic thinking as a sort of “weightlessness” that can be re-grounded by his notion of the “eternal recurrence of the same” (105). The eternal recurrence of the same is a hypothetical “What if?” question that can help sate the nihilist: “This life, as you live it now and as you have lived it, you will have to live once more and countless times more” (147). With each passing action one must ask themselves, “Do you will this once more and countless times more?” (148). The objective behind this thought experiment is to make one realize the error in trying to assess value in one’s life by some external standard (in this case: a college degree, a six-figure salary, etc). We constantly consider “meaning” in our lives to be ranked by the scale and approval of our achievements. That is, if we are not working towards something, then we tend to consider our lives of little value. This working-towards feeling, which is often condemned if one does not comply to such a standard, ceases at death. Again, death becomes a capitalized Evil. One must “be productive” or they are considered burdensome, or dead-weight in a capitalist society. But this is not how we should think about our everyday lives. Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence of the same is intended to open our eyes to the reality that if you had to live your life over and over, it wouldn’t matter anymore what you did, but how you did it. Nietzsche also describes our paradoxical conceptualizations of death and the problem involved in such thinking. He writes that “whatever wants to live, or rather must live” must constantly be in a contradiction between our worldhood and ephemeral nature (150). This is because our interaction with death is fundamentally negating the present. Nietzsche is trying to point out that existence is defined not in terms of “good or bad” but in terms of intensity and the love of one’s own fate, regardless of luck or circumstance: He calls this “amor fati” (118). Another way out of nihilism, for Nietzsche, is to live a life-affirming existence as opposed to a life-negating one (150). By wishing your life to be different–that is, trying to transcend death–you are ignoring the marvelous opportunity you have to be alive and a part of the infinite flux of possibilities. Overcoming this tendency of life-negation reveals the problem of becoming capable to die or, in other words, finding a comfortable place in one’s life to “stop.”
Understandably, the prospect of not existing any longer is not a cheerful one. Often, as we’ve seen, our everyday lives are structured around always moving forward. There is never really a genuinely appropriate place to put one’s life to an end. But, recalling Heidegger, death is inexorable; we remind ourselves of how close death truly is if we are to live authentically. In considering this, one realizes that death always implicates those around the dying. Paul Ricoeur writes that death is “the one event we can never experience individually” or, in other words, our death is always for that of the other (30). Our dying is at once our own and, simultaneously, only there for the other to experience. Our dying is the survival of others, as Ricoeur argues (41). The dying “need” us to live, “quite simply, to live with all our strength in the memory of their death.” (31). Everyone is inescapably implicated in death and, yet, the “they” allows us to quietly negate it altogether. We speak of “passing on” or being “in a better place,” when we, ourselves, are encountered with the death of an acquaintance or a loved one. For those of us who have had this experience, it’s easy to empathize with the responsibility one feels towards the newly-dead’s memory. As commendable as this feeling is, I encourage an alternative, which is to take up what Ricoeur calls the “’bare anxiety of living’ in its aspect of ‘chance.’” (33). Recall Heidegger’s description of death as one’s ownmost non-relational possibility. There is no way of experiencing death or presenting it in a way that is manageable (or even understandable) in the present moment. As Ricoeur writes, “Death is not a lived experience.” (34). Death, simply, is. Apparently, becoming capable to die is so excruciating primarily because of those we leave behind. But, keeping Nietzsche in mind, we must live with intensity, with a love of our own fate. So, in order to concretize a better, more authentic death attitude, we must now examine the experience of death anxiety in the situation of those who are knowingly in the process of dying through illness of some kind.
Death is often spoken of in terms of illness, as though death is something to be overcome. Sickness implies wellness at the other end of the tunnel, or that’s at least what we reasonably hope for those in positions of hospitalized care. In examining this vocabulary implicature of illness, Watts argues that death, in this case, is as natural—as fundamental to life—as birth (38). One cannot “be” before Being and, conversely, one cannot “be” after Being. I think it’s safe to say that this realization has prompted the Western resurgence of placing so much stock in “the present moment.” It is important, as Watts comments, to see death as a “necessary end of human life—as natural as leaves falling in the autumn.” (38). This is because we tend to see ourselves, in terms of our own mortality, as analogous to artificial plants–ones that never wilt or die–which is clearly untrue. While death might be too intangible for us to understand, we are a part of it even now. I find that this is why it is important to keep death in mind throughout our everyday lives, as the continual awareness of death reveals the world itself to be “flowing and diaphanous,” as Watts writes (39). Nothing is as solid as we experience it to be. Keeping death cognizant shows everything as impermanent, and how the ordinary way we try to conquer death is like trying to grasp smoke out of thin air. We resist the feeling of death’s inevitability, that “there might be some way of fixing it, of putting it off just once more.” (39). Here again, Watts thinks this insistence on death-avoidance comes from what we call the ego or soul, this idea that we “will survive bodily dissolution.” (39). Even if this were to be the case for humans—that we have a metaphysical self that transcends death—it’s hard to deny Watts’ proclamation that “’I’ and all other ‘things’ now present will vanish.” (40). Embracing this mentality is difficult; it takes persistence and effort to maintain. In buying a plant, the goal isn’t usually to watch the flowers wilt and fall off. But without those flowers wilting, there can be no room for new growth, for new life; as we grow, so others die. Denying our own deaths can have grievous consequences for those around us, those who we are scared of leaving in the first place. But this extends back to those who deny the death of others, particularly the slowly dying.
Paul Ricoeur underlines the difference in our mentality towards the dying versus the living. As long as one remains lucid, “dying people do not see themselves as dying, as soon to be dead, but as still living” (14). This distinction between “dying” and “still living” can be found in the language one uses around the deathbed of the knowingly dying. Christopher Hitchens, in his posthumous book, Mortality, notices the peculiarity involved in the linguistic shift that takes place regarding the slowly dying: “People don’t have cancer: They are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this.” (6). This is all well and good, but the power of the metaphor dims after a time. Hitchens also wrote of the incessant feeling one receives when perceived as slowly dying (whether from illness or old age). It’s as if, in a very morbid way, one who is slowly dying has become a celebrity of sorts. Through my experiences, such incantations towards the slowly dying have the unfortunate side-effect of dehumanizing them in many ways. For example, there is at issue Hitchens’ frustration in “the awful fact that people are then listening ‘sympathetically’” when encountered with the slowly dying (48). Aesthetically, it feels as if we are doing the right thing by wishing someone well in recovering–showering them in sympathetic claims. But this is not always the case and is usually not the kind of interaction one seeks out on one’s own deathbed. We treat the slowly dying as if they needed a reminder of their condition. These reminders of dying, Hitchens describes, are akin to “being shackled to [one’s] own corpse.” (1). This is a distinct disassociation from embodiment that we experience in our everyday lives. This is because, in a very literal sense, we are our bodies; our body goes and we follow. Slowly being dehumanized both from sympathizers and our own embodiment, according to Hitchens, is a feeling of being “badly oppressed by the gnawing sense of waste” which one experiences in being cared for (3). Removing the feeling of possibility from everyday life–the feeling that I am “able to”–quickly becomes agonizing, if not paralyzing for the cared-for. Hitchens goes on further to say that knowingly dying makes one feel “swamped with passivity and and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.” (7). Being mortally sick produces a unique shift in death attitudes, in contrast to the everyday death anxiety we’ve explored so far. Hitchens writes how the mind is magnetized by forcing itself to face death squarely with “some modicum of stoicism…while being simultaneously and highly interested in survival.” (14). The slowly dying face this contradiction: Accept death and, at the same time, fight against it. One feels at once cheated and disappointed at the news that they are quickly approaching death.
Being treated this way all the time can be exhausting and mundane, but it can also have the opposite effect. That is, victimhood–in this case, knowingly dying–contains a “permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic.” (42). Hitchens describes this phenomena as feeling as though “If I check out, I’ll be letting all these comrades down.” (18). But, if left alone in the process of dying, what is truly on the mind of the slowly dying is what Ricoeur calls “the Essential” (which will be explored further on) (38). Ricoeur asserts that “what occupies one’s still preserved thoughts is not concern for what there is after death, but rather the mobilization of the deepest resources of life to still affirm itself.” (14). It seems, then, that the dying person does not make judgments based on thoughts of afterlife or nothingness, but in spite of them. The still living “fight” illness, as if mortality were to be perpetually overcome. Again, we characterize death as the opponent, as the unknown “other.”
The alternative to these common secular approaches of the knowingly dying is, of course, the belief in afterlife. That is, that life does not end with death; we are born again through the process of bodily dissolution. Paul Ricoeur, for example, considered himself not as a “Christian Philosopher,” but, rather, as a “philosopher who is also a Christian.” I believe this to be an important distinction because, in his everyday life, he didn’t philosophize primarily through the lens of Christianity. He believed, perhaps counterintuitively, that only in the face of death does “the religious [become] equated with the Essential.” (15). By “the Essential,” Ricoeur means the facets of everyday existence which we take for granted (13). As one approaches death knowingly, things we have come to take for granted become more obvious–more important to us than we normally gave them credit in our everyday lives. Family is one such example, as is God. This is why it is common to hear of the dying as making peace with God, or to have—at the last minute—legitimized their children as their heir, etc. In the face of impending mortality, one at once realizes that which is valuable, that which is to be cherished. In terms of religious attitudes towards death, Ricoeur argues that their realization is different than the secular person. It is uniquely motivated out of the love of “the other, my survivor.” (42). Again, death is always for the other. This detachment from everyday life, unlike suicide, “is not just loss, but a gain: liberation for the essential.” (42). In other words, those who “find God” in the moments of their dying are searching for the justification of existence (and often find it). I think this tendency arises from the need we have to find a nomos which orders and gives purpose to our lives. God can be seen as one such nomos. This reinforces Ricoeur’s idea that in one’s final moments, the act of turning to God is a gesture which reveals that, in one’s final moments, “God remembers me.” (43). If we understand mortality as Heidegger explored it, death only happens for the one dying. Therefore, death is lonely by definition. It’s understandable that many would turn to God in the face of the ultimate loneliness. This mentality projects a consolation for the expense of suffering and leaving the world through a less preferred route. Ricoeur describes this consolation as “an imperfect detachment.” (43). By this, he means that one believes, even in the face of the contradiction involved with such a belief. He writes that those who find God reveal, for the first time, “the question of the vertical relationship between time and eternity” (43). The phrase ‘God remembers me’ is conjured in the “eternal present, which is the time of the fundamental, of the essential” (43). God, as with the way we characterize Death, is restricted to the realm of space-time which–conceptually–is illusory. Whether or not God is listening, it seems that we still inauthentically engage with our lives by trying to bargain with the supernatural.
Hitchens, as one such example, repudiates Ricoeur’s kind of analysis of finding God on one’s deathbed. His arguments against theism will not be explored here, but it is worth examining the opposing atheistic disposition in relation to life-after-death. Hitchens begins by analysis of Pascal’s famous wager: Belief in God has the greatest probability of good outcomes (namely, heaven). But a fatal flaw is made in this wager, as “Pascal assumes both a cynical god and an abjectly opportunist human being.” (21). If the God we imagine is even a coherent concept, then it seems that the God who would reward the person who ditches the “principles [they] have held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute” is no ethical God at all. The last-ditch effort to deny death by affirming belief in the afterlife, Hitchens writes, is a “hucksterish choice.” (21). This kind of God rewards cowardice and dishonesty, yet still punishes the irreconcilable doubt some people, such as myself, have in the face of belief. I think, in other words, that in living one’s life as Being-towards-death, one must avoid this promise of life-after-death. It contradicts the very foundation of what is commonly considered to be ethical in our society–truth, courage, virtue–and Hitchens might have had the inclination to agree. The contradiction lies in that the person who prays “thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that [they] can instruct god how to put them right.” (22). Witticism aside, there is a notable asterisk in the motivation of those who pray for the transcendence of death. This is because, in this dying action of finding God, we deny death and negate that which truly matters in life.
There are more positive ways to view the predicament of the slowly dying, however. Friendship and Literature are the two tangible ways I think that we can genuinely overcome both our death anxiety and our neurophysiological limits in conceiving death. Friendships are commonly rekindled on deathbeds. One in such a position is encountered with a flurry of cards, flowers, family members, and terrible loneliness in the absence of them. Ricoeur writes how “friendship helps not just the person dying but the understanding [for both parties involved] itself.” (23). Death–as always for the other and, yet, non-relational–becomes something actualizable in the interaction between the living and the slowly dying. Friendships help tether a sense of understanding when neither friends fully understand or know how to handle the imminence of death. I know from experience that words fail me in the face of the slowly dying. One wants to connect to those dying, yet cannot fully empathize with such an experience and doesn’t know what can and cannot be mentioned. But honesty in communication seems to be key here. That is, admitting the unfamiliarity and peculiarity of such an experience can do wonders to relieve the tensions, awkwardness, and discomfort of the slowly dying. In this honesty, both parties admit their vulnerability and true progress towards understanding can be made. But I’d like to go further and say that we shouldn’t be so quick to avoid the slowly dying. As friendships are rekindled on the deathbed, so I believe we should be willing to forge friendships in the first place. This is an emotionally arduous undertaking, but I find it fundamentally inauthentic to avoid engagement with the slowly dying. In avoiding them, and shutting them away, we haven’t gotten any closer to authenticity. Friendship, even though painful in cases such as these, is necessary to live one’s life better.
Literature is another such example of an authentic mode of Being-towards death. The parallel between life and literature was explored in relation to death by Jean-Paul Sartre in his essay What is Writing? Sartre says that in naming the world, implied is a “perpetual sacrifice” of that which is most “essential.” (308). Writing, in other words, requires concision; there cannot be too much or too little. Those who have ever tried to write a story will be familiar with the painstaking efforts of “cutting” out material that feels crucial to the world of the text. When we try to “live on” through our “bodies” of work, it is in vain, for Sartre, because language is but a set of tools “which gradually wear out and which one throws away when they are no longer serviceable” (309). Like words, dead flowers, and eventually bodies, nothing lasts; language is no such exception. Language is perceived, in our everyday lives, as a fundamental “structure of the eternal world.” (309). It seems evident to most people that language just is, as opposed to the fact that language is ever-changing. Contrary to popular belief, I think that language is not contingent so much on what words mean but, rather, how we use them. This becomes especially clear in considering the gamut of technological jargon that has sprouted in the last few years: “selfie,” “texting,” etc. It’s likely that these words, too, will disappear. Yet, this does not diminish the activity of using language. This seems to apply to Sartre’s argument, which reveals how “The speaker is [always] in a situation in language; he is invested with words. They are prolongations of his meanings” (309). Words are seen as tools to produce evidence of oneself, of one’s perspective, of one’s “true” nature. Language produces a sense of “not [sharing] the human condition,” that one can “live on” through their words (309). Implied in Sartre’s essay is the negation that one does live on through their written words. Paul Ricoeur, however, seems to provide a less cynical assessment of surviving death through language. I find this to be complementary, rather than contradictory, to Sartre’s views on writing. Ricoeur argues that writing can be thought of as “working a reconciliation with life” or bargaining with time (38). Through writing, one may “become capable of dying” which is the crux of his final fragmented essays (95). Ricoeur uses this idea in contrast with Spinoza’s idea that writing is “a way of casting off by keeping a firm hold on oneself through recognizing and bringing into the world the other” (39). Recall our characterization of Death: We name something, and are then able to grapple with in some shape or form–we bring it into the world. If there is to be any consonance found between these philosophies, it is within the paradox. It seems clear to me that, in writing, the self synthesizes a new self, one to be perceived anew by others. Both language and literature, as Ricoeur argues, allow for “the courage to confront death through writing.” (37). This seems to be a much more cognizant and authentic way to deal with death anxiety in everyday life. One might never finish one’s written work, as with friendships, but that does not diminish the importance of such an act.
There still remains the problem of suicide, or the act of taking one’s life willingly, and the controversy surrounding such an act. Suicide voluntarily puts an end to one’s “work,” so to speak. Living on through one’s writings and friendships is, in some ways, transcending death. Suicide, however, negates both. That is, it disallows the ability to transcend death in some way. Ricoeur writes how–as motivation for suicidal action–people in concentration camps, war zones, or even doctors during the plague began to see “the whole of humanity as already dead and as having to die en masse.” (23). This switch in disposition renders death—or in this case, suicide—as “a kind of abbreviation, a shortcut” from this anticipation of agony (23). So, suicide can be seen as a consensual departure from this agony. In general, people who commit suicide have no wish to actively cause harm to others. Ricoeur argues that those who commit suicide encounter humanity in this way—that we are all, already in the process of, dying. In experiencing the world in such a life-negating manner, one sees the community of the dead as “more real than the community of the living.” (36). This is a complete reversal of the way we treat the sick and dying as “still living.” This reversal is arguably a detachment of the self. The self, along with everyday life, becomes a means to an end, something that Ricoeur says “is what has to be lost” in order to engage with death authentically (41). Suicide, then, involves a “renouncing [of] those imaginary projections of self-identity after death” which we have explored (41). Yet, suicide has its obvious consequences on those around the death. Suicide is literally choosing a “way out,” but, as we’ve seen, death is always for that of the other. Suicide often, if not always, results in feelings of guilt, regret, and deep pain for those who remain. Suicide may be a way of overcoming death anxiety, but it often comes from a place of misunderstanding and miscommunication–both with oneself and others. In the cases of the slowly dying, however, a different argument could be made. To literally be aided out of one’s misery seems sad but, in some unfortunate cases, very necessary. One must be careful, therefore, in dealing with the choice of physically negating one’s own life.
There are clear disconnects between the way we talk about death and what death actually is. I find it dangerous to avoid remembering that on a regular basis. As we’ve seen, we are temporal beings who cannot escape finitude. That much, we don’t have influence over. There is no guarantee that one may ever transcend death (through technology or afterlife) or that one may ever become “capable of dying.” This realization prompts–at least in my case–a sense of urgency, a sense that I am free to shape the world in some small way. There is no “after death” as far as scientific evidence is concerned, so, for me, it makes no sense to think about the world in that way. Rather, reflecting on death can radically change one’s everyday life. In this process, one might take that vacation they’ve been putting off, or take the initiative to tell their kids they love them, etc. An important insight in these meditations on death is that, in many ways, one only lives on through one’s relationships and writings (for a time). This echoes the sentiment left by Emily Dickinson that “A word is dead / when it is said / some say. // I say / it just begins to live / that day.” We’re all going to die–and that sucks–but, perhaps, attempting to tether one’s everyday life in the eternal present may enable a few, more vivid experiences to open up all around. In actively thinking about death as the “end,” one may be able to “live on” in the sense that the choices made now can transform the world into a better place for those who come after us.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York: Harper, 1962. Print.
Hitchens, Christopher. Mortality. New York: Twelve, 2012. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and R. J. Hollingdale. The Nietzsche Reader. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977. Print.
Ricœur, Paul. Living Up to Death. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2009. Print.
Salecl, Renata. The Tyranny of Choice. London: Profile, 2011. Print.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, and Wade Baskin. Jean-Paul Sartre: Essays in Existentialism. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1972. Print.
Watts, Alan. The Book; on the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are. New York: Pantheon, 1966. Print.