Hour of the mayfly: life and death the Existentialist way

thinredlineEver stared death in the eye? If you’ve not had the pleasure, like Pfc. Don Doll here in this shot from Terence Malik’s Thin Red Line, I recommend a thought experiment. Imagine that, right now, you are teletransported to the heart of a military conflict. Ker-bang. One moment you are surfing the internet, next moment you are knee deep in the mud with bullets hissing through the elephant grass about you. An explosion thows you down. Shit is real. You could be dead in an instant.

You want to run, cry, call for your mother. But there is no escape. You crouch low in the grass, taking deep breaths. Yout heart is booming in your chest. You are alive – for the moment. This simple truth has enveloped your entire consciousness. How strange it is that you didn’t reflect on this before, you think. Why, all your life, you’ve been stumbling about as if in a dream. Now, all you can think is: I’m still here! Life is not an abstract concept. You are living it, right now.

Death is in the moment too. Amid the explosions, shots and screams, the truth of human mortality is shockingly clear. Death is not something that lies far off in the distance, like the closing scene of a movie or the final chapter of a book. Death can come anytime, anyplace. The bullets are in flight, the bombs are descending. The hand of death may be on you now.

This is the truth of human mortality. Face this truth and it will change you.

What is true on the battlefield is true for us all. No one knows when their time is coming. You can exercise, eat nutritious foods and steer clear of stressful environments. It may lessen your chances of cancer and disease in the long term, but it won’t change a thing when a learner driver misses a red light or a once-in-a-lifetime earthquake brings the roof down on your head. Granted, earthquakes are rare and the chances of a fatal accident are slim if you take appropriate precautions. But this doesn’t change the fact that you do not control the time of your death.

Death may come in sixty years or sixty seconds from now. The reality is, none of us know. This is what it means to confront personal mortality.

Confronting death is like a shock of cold water to the face. The presence of death shatters our fascination with superficial things in life. Suddenly we are wide awake at existential ground zero. We start asking questions. We start thinking seriously about who we are and how we are living. And we start asking what we are really capable of achieving in the time that we have left to us.

HeideggerThe Existentialist philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus were so impressed with the transformative power of death that they made confronting death central to their philosophical way of living. Death, Existentialists argue, brings life and its possibilities into focus. In the process, it reveals what we are ultimately capable of being. 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 and ours alone, that we may or may not take advantage of. We catch a glimpse of our whole person, our total capacity to exist. And we experience an obligation to live up to our capacity before death takes it away.

Mostly we shirk the obligation. It is too hard to bear. We retreat into comfort zones. We shy away from what we are capable of being. The novel that 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 found a way of saying. The mountains of 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 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.

Often when people stand up and take hold of life, they look back on their previous state and ask: ‘What was I afraid of?’ A human life is longer than most. Compare it to the life of the mayfly, the tiny cousin to the dragonfly. The mayfly lays its eggs near lakes and streams in North America. It spends the day buzzing merrily about sunny banks and cool waters, mating and feeding on algae. All day, if it’s lucky. For this is all a mayfly gets – one day or less. A mayfly can die within thirty minutes of bursting from its aquatic naiad stage into an adult form. To watch the mayfly spawn and die is a potent reminder of the transience of life and our necessary human finitude.

Imagine being born a mayfly. Or, imagine being born a mayfly with the knowledge and intelligence that you have today, knowing that life is drastically limited and death is literally imminent. Would you flutter to the ground and lie there twitching in despair, waiting for a passing predator to snap you up? Or would you take stock of the numerous possibilities for pleasure and experience that are granted a mayfly in the course of its short life and say: ‘Yes! There has never been a better time for living!’

It would be foolish to do otherwise. The key to taking something marvellous from the shortest span of existence is to affirm what you have and live.

To enjoy the rewards of an Existentialist life, we need to face death at each opportunity. When you wake up tomorrow, take a moment to reflect on how great it is that you have lived to see another day. Say: ‘thank you’. Life is better when it is lived in the presence of death. Over breakfast, ask yourself: ‘Would I choose Wheeties for my final meal? Is this coffee the best of all espressos? Would I even drink it if I only had an hour to live?’ Keep mortality in mind as you commute to the office. Who knows, by the time you get to work, you may have decided that you are ready for change.

Affirm life in its contingency and finitude. Affirm each moment as a critical juncture – a moment ripe for decision, for determining the way that you live. Live life as a flash of light in the void. Rejoice in the gift of existence and revel in its profound possibilities.


  1. Republicou isso em SONHOSINOCENTESSe comentado:
    verdadeira cara de espanto HAHA .

  2. Reblogged this on Executive Coaching Practice and commented:
    Thought- provoking piece, as always, from Tim Rayner.

  3. Dear Tim,
    You know from my personal memoir how much my life has been shaped by death. My childhood seeking meaning is what caused me to get my degree at CU Boulder in Existential philosophy. In an era where every “like” every “follow” become auto-autobiographical — messages like yours that weave past, present and project a deeper more meaningful future become beyond necessary – ESSENTIAL. So I am now going to refer to you as an essentialist in addition to an existentialist – and while I am at it I will add eloquent. #TR3E

    In the rigor!

    • Many thanks Jennifer. It’s always nerve wracking to write about death. I am aware of the risk of touching on raw experiences, and perhaps doing harm instead of good. It is a great consolation to be reminded that, among the wise, raw experience is the origin of real insight. It’s not always fun to be an existentialist philosopher, but committing oneself to the path feels deeply human, doesn’t it?

  4. G P B Chatterton says:

    I do wish Nietzsche wasn’t constantly referred to as ‘existentialist’. He was a nihilist, egoist.

    • Of course, Nietzsche had a lot to say about nihilism (see esp the first part of The Will to Power), and recognised signs of nihilism in himself. The way he understood nihilism is a little different to how we tend to understand it today: we think associate nihilism with amoralism; whereas for Nietzsche it was a kind of psycho-physical exhaustion, rendering the subject incapable of positing value. Nonetheless, nihilism was something that Nietzsche sought to overcome.

      As the existentialist label: if the shoe fits…

  5. Hi, I am from Melbourne.
    Please find a unique Understanding of death and therefore by extension everything else too via this reference: http://www.aboutadidam.org/dying_death_and_beyond/index.html

  6. Prudence says:

    Thanks. This piece is helpful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: