I’m dying…Did you know that?
Don’t get too upset about it: you’re dying too. We’re all dying. In fact from the very moment we’re born on this planet, our lives have been a steady, inexorable progression to the grave. We’re literally “being unto death”—to use the memorable terminology of the philosopher, Martin Heidegger.
I know what you’re thinking right now: “That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Who doesn’t know that they’re going to die?”
But it isn’t really obvious at all to most people. If you’re elderly, or sickly, or have had a close friend or a family member die tragically, then maybe you have appreciation for the fact that you are a being unto death. But if you are a typical college student at the peak of your physical development, you probably only understand death in the abstract. Death for most twenty- year-olds—actually, for most people regardless of their age—is something that happens to someone else: to Aunt Sally who had cancer, or Grandma who was 90, or to that starving child in the commercial about Africa.
But you certainly don’t think it’s going to happen to you…not for a very, very long while anyway.
When you’re in your twenties, the last thing you want to do is spend your time thinking about death. There are wild parties to go to, romances to be had, careers to be started. Who has time to think about death? When you’re young, you’re also convinced that you’re indestructible. That’s why most twenty-year-olds are almost always reckless jerks on the road. They don’t ever stop to think that getting behind the wheel drunk and driving 80 miles an hour on the expressway is the perfect recipe for swift demise.
Believe it or not, I was young once too. At one time in my life I too thought that I would live forever. I used to laugh at old people and their assorted ailments. I remember once working a security job when I was a freshman in college and was teamed up with a 60 year old former cop named Lenny. Lenny would have to run to the bathroom every half hour or so and I’d inevitably make some wise crack about his old man bowels. I remember quite well, though, what he used to say to me: “Just you wait, Mike, one day you’ll get old and you’ll be crapping bee bees all day long too.”
Thankfully, I’m not crapping bee bees yet. But as I pass through my fourth decade on this planet, I also am quite aware that I am no longer that young, 130 pound smart ass who never gave a moment’s thought to sickness or old age. The hair is definitely thinning out now, and strands of grey are starting to appear out of nowhere. When I was in my twenties, I was so emaciated that I used to drink weight-gain formula that I bought at a fitness store, just so my ribs wouldn’t stick out quite so much. Now I have to watch everything that I eat and work out almost every day to forestall the inevitability of middle-aged sag.
The first time I was aware that I was no longer a young person was when I was on the subway with a group of college students for a class we were having in Manhattan. We were all hanging onto a pole in the train car, and I happened to glance down at our hands all bunched together. And then I saw it: that brittle, veiny, craggy old hand in a sea of soft, collagen-rich, wrinkle-free hands. There was no mistaking it: I was no longer young.
So you see, I really am going to die. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but relatively soon. And I can’t deceive myself about that fact any more the way I could when I was younger. The old man hands that I stare at every time I type something on the computer won’t ever let me forget that fact.
And, when I die, I tell you, that the universe and everything in it will die with me. What good does it do me that humanity lives on if I am to be no more? When I die, my art dies with me; when I die, my words disappear as if into thin air; when I die, all the hopes and dreams of a lifetime are buried in the grave with me.
Or is there some other state that I can hope for after death that might take away some of the bitter sting of human mortality? Certainly thinkers much more profound than I am have developed fairly persuasive arguments for the immortality of the soul that should not be cynically dismissed. But you and I must also acknowledge that all claims to a life beyond this one are matters of hope and faith, and may very well amount to little more than the desperate longings of fearful minds.
Fortunately, while I’m alive I have philosophy, which Plato in the Republic so aptly called a “preparation for death.” He meant that philosophy prepares the soul to live out its existence after death in an incorporeal state. But I think that, when we consider philosophy a preparation for death, we mean something much more than this. We mean that philosophy places death front and center as an object of contemplation in order to teach us what’s most important about our transient human condition.
The acknowledgment that I’m going to die in fairly short order forces me to think seriously about the way I am living out the precious time I have on this planet. Am I living a worthy life, a noble life, a virtuous life? Am I leaving the world a better place than I found it? As the Quaker Stephen Grellet once put it, “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good that I can do, therefore, let me do it now. For I shall not pass this way again.” Am I, in fact, doing the good I can while I am here? Or am I just adding to the sum total of human misery, inflicting my own nasty emotional baggage onto others around me?
I’m dying and so are you, but it’s nothing to get morbid about. In fact, you just might find that contemplating on death now and then helps put our human existence into true perspective, sifting out what is really important in life from what is utterly frivolous and insignificant. And the inevitability of death teaches us, above all, that our fragile human lives are the most valuable gift imaginable and ought to be fully cherished each and every moment, for …
We shall not pass this way again.