What does it feel like to seriously confront death?

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.

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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.

View Answer on Quora

Comments

  1. Love this line ‘We all live with a sense of potential sealed beneath the ice of everyday life’ – quietly inspirational post 🙂

  2. this is a wonderful post Tim
    I really like the unusual angle to view the “Thinker”
    thank you
    I enjoy reading your posts though I am not a scholar and my use for philosophy is to look for new ideas to paint and draw.
    In my opinion the need to find the potential of our own being and to fulfil it is valid also in all the spiritual traditions not only in atheistic one. I would say that precisely because paradoxically it is so simple and yet so difficult a task, there seems to be also a tradition of doing anything to avoid it in most of the religious traditions which claim an ownership of spirituality. In fact what Camus says about the affirmation of life despite the meaninglessness of existence would fit very well with most Christian or Zen mystics I think. … I liked the expression of one Zen teacher who said: …..that’s when the rubber hits the road ….

  3. brilliant – actually just what I needed to know at the time I needed to know it – thanks.

  4. This is a great response! Awesome job!

  5. Yukiko Yamasaki says:

    Thanks for sharing your valuable insights. I have found your journey of becoming aware of your core value as a philosopher intriguing What interests me greatly about your exposition here is that it reveals the fact that you take the value seriously in an attempt to fulfill not only the purpose of your existence in the world, but the obligation of the self. I think we are all too familiar with the resilience proclaimed by rather absent-minded people who are against the reality of death, but your resilience we witness comes from the struggles of living up to your whole being and working hard in face of the limit of life or namely, mortality. From your account of “confronting death,” I gather that that way of living — living by caring about life — is closely in align with the practice of giving the most open and authentic gifts to others, to the world, as you mentioned somewhere in the Twitter. We move forward only by giving of ourselves. From this perspective, the philosophy for change is critical to the Gift culture we live in today.

  6. what is your opinion tim, that death is another form of being?

  7. thank you for the post, love philosophers –the best ones, like you, say something that makes life better for the reader or listener…I read philosophy as others night read self-help books – finding concepts applicable to by life moment by moment, my decisions large and small.

    • Thank you, I’m very pleased that you’re a reader. So few these days – we scan instead. My stuff is written for reading. I’m trying to do just what you say: to find a language that is applicable to life, ‘to decisions large and small’. To let people’s experience of the world do the talking, so that the post is just a tissue of prompts, shifting our way of thinking.

      Thanks again for the comments.

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