I answered a question on Quora: ‘What does it feel like to seriously consider the prospect of your own death?’ You’ll know if you’ve read Life Changing that I believe that confronting death is the best way to get in touch with who you are and what you think is important in life. Answering this question enabled me to go deep into 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, which doesn’t make our existence any less random or arbitrary). Conceding there is no ultimate meaning to life, however, doesn’t stop us from wanting to know the meaning of our own life. As Albert Camus claims, human beings are remarkable for the fact that they can acknowledge the meaninglessness of existence and affirm life regardless.
The 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.
Philosophers like Heidegger and Sartre claim what confronting death leads to the affirmation of life. What does it mean to affirm life? Affirming life is to acknowledge what one is ultimately capable of being. I am not capable of being the President of the United States, even if I’d like to be this person. If I were a US citizen, I probably still wouldn’t be capable of it. It’s not in me. I am capable of being a father and parent, though I’ve chosen not to take this path in life. I realized years ago that were I to take it, it would impinge on what I know to be my ultimate potential, which is to write this kind of drivel and be a philosopher. I am not saying that I’m a great philosopher. I am saying that on a deep level I know that this is what I am here to be. God didn’t decide this fact – I decided it 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 am ultimately capable of being.
I affirm the meaning of my life every day. I affirm – or try to affirm – my ultimate potential.
This is my desire. Yet the goal itself is something that I haven’t achieved yet. When I seriously consider the prospect of my 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.
This 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.