I answered a question on Quora: ‘What does it feel like to seriously consider the prospect of your own death?’ As you’ll know if you’ve read Life Changing, I believe that confronting death is the best way to get in touch with who you are and what you really think is important in life. Answering this question enabled me to go deep into some intimate territory. Thanks to Seb Paquet for inviting me to take the plunge.
It’s the people who haven’t done what they came to do in life who are the most scared of death.
As an atheist, I don’t see any reason to suppose that there is an ultimate meaning to life. Human beings are a cosmic accident (an accident that was inevitable in the scope of eternity, though this doesn’t make our existence any less random or arbitrary). Conceding that there is no ultimate meaning to life doesn’t stop us from wanting to know the meaning of our own life, however. As Albert Camus says, human being are remarkable for the fact that they can acknowledge the meaninglessness of existence and affirm life regardless.
This attitude of existential revolt defines the human condition. It’s a bleak teaching, but having reflected on it for 20 years, I’m ready to say that Camus was right.
What does it mean to affirm life? Nothing more or less than to acknowledge what one is ultimately capable of being. I’m not ultimately capable of being the President of the United States. Even if I were a US citizen, I still wouldn’t be capable of it. It’s just not in me. I am capable of being a father and parent, though I’ve chosen not to take this path. I realized some years ago that were I to take it, it would impinge on what I know to be my ultimate potential, which is to be a philosopher. I’m not saying that I’m a great philosopher. I’m saying that on a deep level I know that this is what I am here to be. God didn’t decide this – I decided it for myself. To be precise, I recognized that, as a result of some chance conjunction of facts and circumstances, involving my bio-chemistry, my psychology and life history, this is what I’m ultimately capable of being.
I affirm the meaning of my life every day. I affirm – or try to affirm – my ultimate possibility.
This is my true desire. Yet the goal itself is something I haven’t really achieved yet. When I seriously consider the prospect of my own death, this is what comes to light for me. It is as if I haven’t yet done what I came to do in life.
The prospect is ahead of me. It is entirely up to me to achieve it.
My outlook on death is broadly Heideggerian. In Being and Time (1927), Heidegger argues that confronting death brings to light ‘the totality of our potentiality-for-Being’. In a moment of vision, we grasp our full sphere of potential – a realm of potential that is ours alone, that we may or may not achieve. We catch a glimpse of our whole person, our total capacity to exist. And we experience a tremendous obligation to live up to our whole person before the finality of death takes this capacity away.
Mostly we shirk the obligation. It is too hard to bear. We retreat into comfort zones. We shy away from what we are ultimately capable of being. The novel you have stowed half-finished in the bottom drawer of your desk. The broken relationship that you could heal with a few gentle words, words that you’ve never managed to say. The Himalayas – haven’t they been calling you for years? We all live with a sense of potential sealed beneath the ice of everyday life – dreams and desires that we want to claim, but that we somehow feel incapable of making our own.
Take an axe and break the ice. Confronting death can be a frightening experience. But it focuses you on your unique possibilities and liberates your passion for change.