Saturday, April 6, 2013

This Being Unto Death

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.


  1. you had me, man, until you started in on the bullshit about "some other state that I can hope for after death." i know that you're trying to reach out to the religious fanatics who still believe in the fairy tale about God and heaven, but it's pure nonsense. is there anyone left with any sort of intelligence who still believes that human identity somehow magically survives the death of the body? it’s just an idiotic fantasy for the weak-minded and weak-willed. it’s an excuse to ignore the problems of this world in the hopes of something better later on.

    stop pandering to idiots.

  2. I don't know if I agree that believing in life after death is just for the weak minded. There have been a lot of studies done in the field of parapsychology that provide some evidence for the survival of the soul after the death of the body. Check out Moody's Life After excellent book focused on the near death experience. This kind of evidence may not appeal to people like Alex, but I personally think that it's pretty persuasive.

    I've had several loved ones die during the past few years and I can hope at least that I will be reunited with them in the next life. It's belief like this that makes it possible to endure some of the suffering that we all encounter in life. If that's just a delusion, then I prefer to keep my delusions rather than think that this is all we have.


  3. In his commencement speech to Stanford in 2005 Steve Jobs had some interesting things to say on death:
    "No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true."
    Read more:

    Some thoughts on death by choice.
    When saying that no one wants to die, Steve Jobs obviously bypasses the issue of suicide or euthanasia.
    It is interesting to reflect on the fact that Socrates actively chose for death, which, in defense of his friend, caused Plato in the Phaedo to formulate an exception in his otherwise general condemnation of suicide.
    In parallel with Socrates, I think it is fair to say that also Jesus of Nazareth actively chose for death: he knew what was going to happen to him, yet he walked straight into the arms of death.
    A believer will argue he did this for all the right reasons, but who is to say that one who commits suicide does so for all the wrong reasons? Even Plato ended up not being able to hold this position to its extreme.
    Finally, I don't think "weak mindedness" necessarily equals a lack of intelligence, as Alex suggests. Although that may be often the case, there are also many instances where strong-mindedness and strong-willedness are equally expressions of a lack of intelligence. Prejudice and arrogance may produce more sound but not necessarily more light.

  4. Ann, the senses that occasionally accompany near death experiences- light at the end of the tunnel, a feeling of deep peace etc, can be recreated in a hospital while someone is undergoing brain surgery by poking specific areas of the brain. Also interesting is the "out of body" experience can also be reproduced by using magnets to stimulate deeper areas of the brain (not accessible via surgery without damaging the brain). The brain is the ultimate virtual reality machine.
    We must begin as a society to accept that this life is all there is and we must learn to live it accordingly. Death is a very difficult thing to accept and the loss of people close to us is incredibly painful and gives us great reason to pause in any belief in a possible benevolent (or malevolent) creator.
    What I always ask is: knowing what we only know for the last 160 years about evolution and the rising of complex beings such as ourselves from single cells a billion plus years ago, exactly when were we as a species granted an afterlife? That line of thought begs the thought that some child somewhere in the chain of our lineage, then, had to be born of a parent who did not have an afterlife. And everyone around him/her also did not have an afterlife. It is a bizarre thought that is best understood if you do not make the assumption that we actually have an afterlife. We evolved. Period. And we do not have an afterlife. That explains many of the horrible things that randomly happend- people starving or getting hit by busses, children being born with grotesque deformities worthy of B grade movies. Things just happen. There is nobody watching over us. Live a worthy and fun life.

  5. The idea of an afterlife may be a bizarre thought, but so is the counterintuitive idea of parallel universes. I just watched on Minutephysics a fun presentation on this ( As it turns out there are currently three different theories, none of them experimentally supported. This does not prevent the formulation of scientific hypothesis to go ahead, because of a stated principal possibilty to arrive at that some day.
    I feel that a similar space of discovery and reflection should be reserved for the hypothesis of an afterlife, that is, if someone feels the need to address this issue in a purely scientific way. There is no evidence that it is in principal impossible to arrive at such experimental proof. Also, given the fact that it is a persistent and universal idea of man, it cannot be simply discounted as something foolish. Furthermore, it is not because a number of speculative hypothesis have been eliminated because of more convincing scientific discoveries, that therefore the whole issue is settled once and for all.
    However, the issue that is raised above is interesting: what is the nature of life? From the point of view of evolutionary processes, how and when was "after-life" added to "life"? What about the evolution of consciousness? Think of Plato's theory of the Ideas. It seems that mankind has been puzzled about these things from the beginning.
    If one day we would discover that parrots or monkies also do, would that really make a fundamental difference?

  6. Google's idea of the afterlife: The Inactive Account Manager. "Configure Automatic Reply": a gut-wrenching exercise.

  7. Let me start off by telling you about myself, I was diagnosed with Leukemia last year. I THOUGHT I've seen death. I was very sick at one point. But I'm a believer that cancer is a disease of the mind. The more depressed I was, the worse I felt. On the days when I asked, "Why me?!" I felt the most sick. I trained myself to only think positively. I'm not in denial, I'm just a happier thinker. I look at my life and see what I have, the resources that can help get me better, and know that I'm blessed to even have them. Some might think what I'm saying is totally wrong, but I really believe we're all here for a reason and we'll continue even when we're done. I have no idea how or no idea as to what we'll do, but I really believe we aren't over. I know people think, "how can you say that without even knowing what's going to happen?" It's just a belief, it's a feeling. We're all dying, some sooner than others, but I can't be sad that I may pass before you or someone else. Maybe God needs them here longer, maybe He has other plans for me. We don't know. People may think that my view is absolute BS but that's what got me through my hard times, that's what makes me happy. There's no science to any of this and we'll never know.

  8. About two years ago my boyfriends 21 year old brother passed away tragically from pneumonia and cardiomyopathy. He went into the hospital early one morning because he wasn't able to breathe and while he was there things went down hill. He died 3 days later. No one knew that something like this would happen to such a healthy person but, like you said we're all dying. The only difference is, we don't know when it's going to happen. To this day it frustrates me that he passed so soon because he was a month away from graduating college and he had his whole like ahead of him. It's scary to think that someday I'm going to die too but, I am hopeful that when I do die I will have another chance to see my family and my boyfriend's brother again. We can't live through our lives afraid of death because then we would be so focused on preventing it when we should be focused on what we have right now in this very moment. We should be taking each and every day we are given as a gift to still be alive and healthy and worry less about being forgotten. Our time will come when it comes there's no use trying to figure out when or how or why because like Jeanna said "there's no science to any of this and we'll never know." I know I'm going to die eventually but I'm just grateful for the life i have right now and that's that.

  9. I am currently 20 years old. The thought of death has seldom crossed my mind, but with the passing of loved ones and the constant theme of "death and dying" in the news, I have slowly yet not entirely accepted the fact that my life will come to an end, whether I like it or not. One could say I am still in the "nothing can hurt me, I am invincible" mindset. This I find ironic because I will be entering the field of nursing very soon; surrounded by the pending death of others yet unwilling to accept my own inevitable demise. Which is mostly likely the reason I entered the medical field. I want to help find a cure to any and all illnesses, to care for those recovering from sickness and to comfort those in their final moments. I know, it sounds very unrealistic but these are goals I will strive to achieve. The very first statement to his essay was truly an eye-opener: "I'm're dying too." Physically, yes, we are all dying. Every cell in our bodies are slowly wasting away without us even noticing. This way of thinking is looking at the "glass half empty", I prefer to look at the situation as the "glass half full"- as the classic cliché states. I am an optimist, it might not be the best way of thinking but it is just the type of person I am. I try to appreciate the "little things" and tend to stay away from negativity. Death may be inescapable, but I believe I will live each day to the best of my ability.

  10. I never realized that one shouldn't be ignorant about death until my grandmother died 3 years ago. She was in the hospital at the time and had been previously been admitted 3 times over the past 3 years prior to her death. I never thought about the possibility of her dying because there were no major complications and she seemed fine. The doctor even told my family that she would be discharged within a day or two. Honestly, I wasn't worried because this case was similar to all of the other times when she was admitted and then released with no problem. But, I was completely shocked when I found out that she died unexpectedly. Even at an old age, there were still so many things that she could have done. This made me realize that death should not be overlooked. Since then, I have changed my perspective on life and death. Although it's hard for me, I try my best to live in the present, be grateful, and to try to not do things that I may regret in the future or in the moments before I die.

  11. I have to disagree about the bit that most college students are horrible drivers, and most of us know not to drink and drive (yeah there are a few). However, even though I'm 20 right now and one of those "invulnerable" students you speak of, I feel that I'm experiencing a similar sort of ordeal. Being an avid gamer, tech junkie, anime otaku, and video editor for most of my life has taught me the escapism of approaching a computer monitor, much too often I must add. Games can be like drugs, the appeal of entering a world all to yourself where you can be whatever you want is much to alluring, so much so that entire weeks and even months can be spent playing games. When you add all that lost time together, it really adds up when you think about it. The majority of my friends, both IRL and Online are like me, spending entire days on the computer either gaming, editing video, coding, or just chilling and watching YouTube videos or shows. Having spent so much time in front of computers, I feel that life has passed by so quickly, fast enough that I feel I've missed most of my youth. Adding mortality into the mix is far more horrifying, feeling that I've lost months, maybe even years of my life somewhere in cyberspace that never had any tangibility or reality with other players that don't even know my real name. However, I have been changing more and more since I've entered College, I'm eager to enjoy what's left of my youth before age pins me down and takes away friends and loved ones.

    Overall I feel that life itself can be relative to those who look at it, some take it as an opportunity to work hard and strive to the top, others seek release from it, feeling that life is challenging based on a particular situation or event that has occurred in their life. However you take it, I believe, as you do, that life is the ultimate gift. Life is a privilege as well, despite it's shortcomings, through life nobody else can be you, there never has been, nor will there ever be another one of you. Life is special and should be celebrated, not cursed or thrown away, and as short as it might be, those years you spend are special along with the memories accumulated along the way. I believe that no matter what religion you follow, there is a universal afterlife, the life after your life. Whether it be in heaven, hell, purgatory, paradise, or your lasting legacy on earth, you continue to live on as much as you choose to. What you leave behind: memories, works, art, and the lives you touched are all part of your legacy, and if you work hard enough in life you have the potential to live forever in the hearts and minds of others. I feel that we dwell within each other life we touch, and this might be alluding to Neon Genesis Evangelion a bit, but I truly feel that the memories and the "selves" left with others truly decide our ultimate fate: whether we live on or fall out of existence. This might nullify things a bit, but I do believe in my Catholic values instilled upon me and will follow them unto death, and I truly do believe that there is a heaven and all that follows it. But overall I feel that life should be devoted to others, the true essence of being, in my opinion, is how much we existed for someone else, otherwise if we have lived for our own selfish means, that is when one truly dies. Moral of the story: all life is sacred, from your most hated enemy, to the often forgotten self, all life should be treasured. But most important of all is that we should live for others, I feel that if everyone did that, the world would be a different place. Ghandi once said that we should "be the change [we] wish to see in the world," and I couldn't agree more.

    all the best
    Mike Schultz

  12. Uncharacteristically to a 20 year old girl, the notion of death has been active in my young mind one too many times. It may be due to the fact that I lost my grandmother at a young age, or that I witnessed my grandfather painfully suffer like a dog from Pulmonary Fibrosis. But prior to losing either of them, I vividly remember numerous sleepless nights at a very young age because of my disturbing concerns about "death". It made my heart race and gave me anxiety. I just couldn't understand it. My father's daily story's about tragic news (attempting to keep us informed and teach us lessons) didn't help my case either. I was a worry wart like my grandmother. So one could say I am very aware of the fact that we are all dying. Every single day. But through my faith I have learned to accept it. This is the time in our lives to figure ourselves out; what our purpose here on earth is. And you know what? It may take my whole life time to figure it out. But I know one thing is for sure. I came on this earth to make a difference in someones life no matter how big or small it is. So no, when I die, my words will not die with me. When I die, the feeling I projected onto the lives I have touched will not die with me. When I die, the lessons I have taught to others will not die with me. Yes, in time these factors will slowly fade, but they will never fully diminish to those we have truly touched. I believe everything is a chain reaction. As years pass by, these words/feelings/lessons may not directly effect someone hands on, but that someone you did reach is now passing that knowledge on to the next and so it continues. No one knows how long they have here on earth so it is crucial we use it wisely. As hard as it can be, I try to the best of my ability to live in the present rather then drown myself with the "what ifs" of the future, because truth is, we are all dying by the second. We might as well make the most of it.

    Christina Restivo

  13. Mark Twain said it best, "The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time." I honestly cannot remember the particular moment in time when I came to the realization that the whole "death is inevitable" cliche was actually entirely true. Once that can be accepted, one can begin to live. Knowing I can be taken out of the game of life at any moment has left me with a sense of peace and consciousness. I won't digress into what I believe life truly is all about, but accepting death is a prerequisite to understanding in just about any philosophical argument or thought. With that out of the way, I'm able to live in the now and embrace my purpose/passion because I try to make an impact or a difference in the lives of people I come across in my journey. I really agree with the part in this blog that says it's a positive action to put death into perspective as it teaches us what is important in life and what isn't. Though what important in someones life may vary from person to person, I believe there is a universal connection that has us all linked, and seeing this bigger picture is another way to embrace new perspectives. You learn to appreciate more in your life, and be thankful for the healthy relationships and support you have.

    Michael Russo

  14. I think death, itself is a life lesson. It helps you appreciate what's really important in life. A lot of young adults think " I'm young nothing can happen to me, i'm invincible " and we can see in the news how many have lost their lives by careless things, maybe texting and driving, driving under the influence and just in seconds lives are lost. If we live life by thinking " I'm going to die so why should i do this or that " you aren't living life. Its a harsh reality that we are enjoying our lives knowing that one day we will die and i guess that gives us more of a motive to be more appreciative of the things we have. We need to focus on the NOW not the LATER because it will drive us crazy.

    - Ana Moronta

  15. I agree that Death is something that has always been inevitable, and youths today do have an "invincible" mentality. Most of them anyway. But as for myself death is something I realized could happen at any moment. In my junior year in High School I used to see this kid Mike all the time, he seemed to fit in with the popular crowd and from my perspective he seemed to be happy, always had a smile on his face. I wasn't really close to him, he was just someone I saw in the hallways from time to time. Then one day the principle made an announcement saying that that kid Mike had committed suicide. The whole school was in shock, as if the thought of death was unfathomable. That made me realize the harsh truth of life that anyone can die at any moment. There's no telling how it will happen or when it'll take place. It doesn't matter if your one of those hot heads on the road, or a quiet person at school. We all live in the now, and involve ourselves in other things like school, facebook, T.V. and all that other good stuff. Living life to its fullest, and staying close to the people around us in my opinion is the most important thing to cherish because there's no telling what sort of deadly curve balls life can throw at us.

    Desiree Figueroa

  16. As a 20 year old girl in college, I can honestly say that I agree with you that most people my age have no thought of death and think they will always wake up day after day and go about their daily routine. I however feel differently. I am very aware that tomorrow could be my last day to live. I watched my perfectly healthy father be diagnosed with cancer and die within a mere 6 months when I was just 15. His last words to me were "Don't be afraid to live." This past summer I watched an 18 year old boy bleed to death on a beach that I have spent my entire life growing up on just because he lost his footing while climbing down just a few feet off of a bluff after taking a picture with his other happy, healthy 18 year old friends. That boy thought he would go to sleep that night and wake up the next morning. But he didn't. His twin brother never thought he would have to watch his brother bleed to death in front of him and then call his parents to tell them there was an accident, but he did. In the end, no one ever knows what tomorrow is going to bring or if tomorrow will even come at all. Since my father died, I have tried to always keep what he said to me in mind, but it was not until this past summer that I have truly begun to live that way. I take each day as a gift and truly live it as if it were my last. I'm well aware that one day I will die. However, this does not make me turn away from doing things to help others. I believe that one good deed does get passed on to another person like a chain reaction. I don't care if I'm forgotten in 60 years. What I care about right now is living my life to the fullest and making an impact on the people I'm surrounded by now in hopes that they will impact others around them and so on.

  17. I am also 20 years old about to be 21. I rarely think about death. I tend to think about things like what I am going to do this weekend or what I'm having for dinner and sometimes my life ahead of me as I will be going into the medical field. Of course having a job in the medical field I am going to come across death. It is inevitable and it is a part of life. However, you cannot let things like that bring you down. You have to look to better yourself everyday. You have to realize there are so many things to be thankful for and so many reasons to be happy. A person cannot wake up everyday with idea of how they are ultimately going to perish. Although this is true, it isn't healthy. However, one cannot completely ignore the fact of death. Death is going to happen eventually to everyone. You cannot walk around thinking you are invincible from dying. Because you are in fact going to die you just don't know when. You have to be mindful and cautious not to do stupid things, like driving drunk, because you are risking your life and the lives of others making death happen sooner. I am not naïve to the idea of death because I know I am one day going to die. However, I like to have a positive outlook on my life and I like being excited for things I have planned for the future.

    -Michelle Mase

  18. I agree that we should acknowledge and embrace death, we should always keep the
    thought in the back of our mind to reflect on every now and again. The reason
    being for therapeutic purpose, if you Ignore it people don't realize it as being
    a real inevitable part of our lives as human beings. This simple thought can
    pull us out of our fantasy of immortality because it doesn't actually exist.
    What we can do with this information is choose to use it in a meaningful manor,
    we can realize that in our short time on earth we should focus on the most
    important events that can truly impact our lives while we are here and to forget
    about the petty insignificant things that shouldn't take up our precious time. I would like to
    quote Tim McGraws song Live Like you were dying, when he says "I hope you get the
    chance to live like you were dying" because it is so true if death stared you in
    the face and you knew you only had a short time left here i am sure you would have focused your time and energy on meaningful and important things
    rather than idiotic events and arguments that barely impacted your life. Always
    keep in mind we are mortal and let that remind us to focus on the bigger picture, our impact on this earth in this lifetime. So what are you going to do with your time?

  19. I never thought about death when I was younger fast forward to today as 26 year old man the thought of my mortality has become more real. I feel the more I get older the more people pass on which is just the cycle of life I guess. I currently work at a hospital and I see death on a daily basis but when I first started working there that’s when it became a reality that death is inevitable, and like you stated in the article that we think we are immortal at a younger age which I think is true. I remember being in high school and not knowing many people who passed on and the ones I did were elderly or sad stories on the news. Not even entertaining the thought it could happen to me but as I get older I see it more and more with people all different ages. Ever since my first day of work I looked at the topic of death differently and I enjoy every minute and am thankful of every day I have because we don’t know when it will be our last.

    -Michael Jimenez