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.

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Epictetus on the seas of fate: cultivate the power within

The Roman slaver groaned as it lurched through heavy seas. Below decks, a boy, Epictetus, lay writhing in his chains. His left knee, where the manacle bit into the shin, was trussed in a heavy rag. Two nights ago a crate had come loose in a storm, careered across the floor and crushed his leg. Epictetus had been in and out of consciousness since then.

No one had treated the break. The soldiers who had dragged the crate away retreated when they saw the damage it had done. Now they spoke in whispers and brandished the lash when he begged for help. He was damaged goods. Epictetus could tell that they didn’t expect him to survive the trip.

Epictetus would prove them wrong. All he needed to do was to control the pain. Try as he might, there was no stopping it. He had tried to blank it out, but it was oppressively – there. There had to be some way of dealing with it, the boy thought. What was it that the Stoics taught? Cultivate the power within. Epictetus struggled to apply the Stoic teaching.

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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. [Read more…]