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"The Meaning of Death"

By William Alkhoury January 9th, 2024

The Meaning of Death

Is death the end of meaning in life? Many argue that in the end death takes away all significance in one's actions because death ultimately destroys them. What is the point of striving toward a goal when we know that death is our inevitable end? But does death really decrease the significance of life? On the contrary, death gives life meaning, regardless of one's belief system. Whether we are atheists or theists, life is never without meaning. Death does not eliminate the meaning of life but instead constitutes its meaning. In fact, inner limits only add to the significance of one's life. Death should not be viewed as a foe to be conquered or avoided or an enemy to be defeated, but rather as an integral part of life that gives meaning to human existence. Death sets a limit on our time in this world, encouraging us to use that time wisely, to make the most of it, and do something meaningful. We should embrace death and allow it to provide context and purpose to our lives, as it holds the key to growth and the meaning of life. As Franz Kafka aptly stated, "The meaning of life is that it stops."

The problem of death is a universal human question (Kubler-Ross, 27). Death is a universal human experience, an inescapable and unavoidable part of life, and it can evoke feelings of fear, loneliness, and uncertainty. While it can be frightening, it can also offer us valuable insight into the fragility and beauty of life. Through contemplation and meditation, we can become aware of the brevity, uncertainty, and impermanence of life, the inevitability of death, and how it can give our lives greater meaning. The aim of all philosophers has been to elucidate the meaning of death, thus helping human beings to overcome their fear (Kubler-Ross, 2). Socrates, Plato, and Montaigne have taught: to philosophize means nothing more than to study the problem of death (Kubler-Ross, 2). For Cicero, to philosophize is to prepare for death. Death, the Stoics said, was the most important event in life. Learning to live well is to learn to die well; and conversely, learning to die well is to learn to live well. The truth of true maturity and the philosophy of the heart teaches us to accept the transitory nature of life. The most important reason to live in the moment is because nothing lasts forever. Contemplation of death enriches our lives and it is opening of our hearts. Death can give our lives ultimate meaning and can help us to understand the process of dying. By understanding death and its role in our lives, we can come to terms with it and live our lives in a more mindful and meaningful way and with greater intention and purpose. Contemplating death can help deepen our appreciation of life.

Death is the goal to which we are all moving (184, Zaehner). Death is an unavoidable end and irreversible conclusion that all creatures must eventually face. Death knows no boundaries and affects all living things with no exceptions. The awareness of our mortality then, serves as an impetus to recognize and appreciate the blessings of life, as well as to make the most of our limited time given to us, for nothing is more fleeting than life itself (Greenstein). It is this recognition of the fragility of our lives and the knowledge of death that drives our need for a sense of meaning and purpose in life to begin with, reminding us that, though death is inevitable, how we live our lives is entirely up to us regardless of how short or long that might turn out to be. Those who have been unable to fulfill their ambitions, hopes, and dreams and have gone through life without achieving all that they hoped for are the ones with the strongest dread of death. It is only those with a troubled conscience that experience a profound fear of the inevitable end (Frankl, 130). They may feel a sense of guilt for not having made the most of their life. Fear of death only affects those who have not lived their lives to the fullest. Instead of taking advantage of the limited time they have in life, they ignore the inevitability of death and pretend that it will never come. In order to overcome this fear, we must recognize and accept death as a companion on our journey through life, and strive to make every moment count.

The most effective method of conquering death: "die before you die" and "live as if you were living for a second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now." Live your life as if you were getting a second chance. Behave as if you were already dead and therefore have no reason to fear, no second-guessing, no reason for avoiding, and prepared to go all the way. Love your life with unwavering passion, intensity, and with an unwavering commitment to making the most of every opportunity. For if this life is our only one chance, then we better get it right! Let us seize it with utmost purpose and ensure that we leave no room for regrets. This means that we must make the most of our talents while alive so that when we come to die and our physical being is reduced to nothingness we may yield a rich harvest which we shall be able to offer up to God if God exists, and if God does not, then at least we shall have left this world enriched, however little, but having been true to ourselves (186, Zaehner). Die before you die in order to yield a rich harvest of a worthwhile life fulfilled (185, Zaehner).

In essence, "dying before you die" invites individuals to release their identification with the transient aspects of life, allowing for a deeper awakening to the true nature of reality. Death teaches us something about who we really are. Accept death as the chief fact of life and as the main signal that all the things you hope for will be utterly destroyed in due course and that once you come to be able to neither long for nor fear death we begin to transcend life and death, and come into unity and identity with the Changeless Absolute (Kubler-Ross, 71). For death means to be reunited with the eternal and timeless from which our lives in time can only appear totally insignificant and unreal (185, Zaehner). As the Greek inscription found in the capital of Mount Athos reads, "If you die before you die, you will not die when you die."

Although the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us (30, Yalom). Recognition of death contributes a sense of poignancy to life, providing a radical shift of life perspective (40, Yalom). The integration of the idea of death is our salvation, rather than sentencing us to an existence of terror or bleak pessimism, it acts as a catalyst to plunge us into a more authentic way of life, and it enhances our pleasure in the living of life (33, Yalom). Death is the condition that makes it possible for us to live life in an authentic fashion (31, Yalom). In the words of St. Augustine, “It is only in the face of death that man’s self is born” (30, Yalom).

Ultimately, living a life full of meaning and fulfillment is more important than how long we live. Whether we die at a young age or older is less important than whether you have fully lived the years you have had. One person could live a more meaningful existence in eighteen years than another does in eighty. Be life long or short, it's completeness depends on what it was lived for (Amish Proverb).

Yet why must we die?

1- It could be argued that the longer something lives the more lifeless it becomes, losing its aliveness, maybe losing its meaning.

Alan Watts said, "The more a thing tends to be permanent, the more it tends to be lifeless." Permanent objects lack the vibrancy and passion that come with a finite life. According to the ancient Greeks, humanity was better than the Gods because we are mortal. The gods are eternal and will never fully experience the passion and the aliveness of what it feels like to be human. Even the gods are envious of humanity because we must die. Or God has chosen that it is better to be human than divine. Because the infinite freely becoming finite is a greater value than the infinite remaining infinite.

2- What would our lives be like if they were not finite in time, but infinite?

If we were immortal, we could legitimately postpone every action forever (64, Frankl). It would be of no consequence whether or not we did a thing now; every act might just as well be done tomorrow or the day after or a year from now or ten years hence (64, Frankl). With immortality, we would be untroubled by the finiteness of our lives. We could take our time with every decision and not worry about missing out on fleeting opportunities. We would be justified in procrastinating everything, why bother if you have the next 1,000 years to finish the task? But in the face of death, a boundary to our possibilities, we are under the imperative of utilizing our lifetimes to the utmost, not letting the singular opportunities pass by unused (64, Frankl). Understanding that our lives are limited, we feel a sense of urgency to make the most of what we have and to live our lives to their fullest potential.

3- Life is meaningless because it is short, but the duration of time it lasts does not enhance its sense of meaningfulness.

If life is meaningless if it is short, then how would perpetuating the length of time and lifespan enhance life's meaning? If life is meaningless, then life is meaningless whether life is long or short. And a longer meaningless life is more absurd than a shorter meaningless life. If we were able to live forever, we would still be concerned about meaning (465, Yalom). Either life has a meaning and retains this meaning whether it is long or short; or life has no meaning, in which case it takes on none, no matter how long it lasts (67, Frankl). Whether life is long or short, it will have no value if it has no inherent meaning. In fact, the longer it lasts the more meaningless and absurd it becomes. Therefore, the length of time is irrelevant to the question of value and meaning. It is by no means an objective truth that nothing is important unless it goes on forever or eventually leads to something else that persists forever (466, Yalom). Death is irrelevant to questions of worthwhileness--and hence to meaningfulness. Death does not diminish the potential for value and the length of life does not necessarily determine its meaningfulness. Values are not lost when life ends. Values are not devalued by mortality (121, Meaning of Life). We don't not buy the roses knowing they will wither and fade. In fact, that makes them all the more precious, cherished, and beautiful.

4- The Talmudic sages sensed the truth that "the recognition of death is a necessity for continuing life (Kubler-Ross, 46).

Life preserves itself by transforming itself (Progoff, 148). Dying leads to new life. The human being feels the urge to experience and understand the ongoingness of life, to feel deeply that one is an active participant in the continuity of the life process (148). Humanity reaches out to larger realities, ultimately humanity reaches toward transcendent facts. Humanity's native tendency to express human will becomes an urge to maintain an individual identity beyond the limitation of the body. Humanity strives with death, and though humanity cannot overcome it physically, we overcome it “ideologically.” Humanity's urge to strive for enduring life is inherent in our nature. Humanity's endless struggle toward “self-perpetuation.” The urge to immortality is an experience of the individual seeking to perpetuate one's individual will. "Why was I born, if it wasn't forever" as Eugene Ionesco eloquently expressed. Humanity's social nature inherently involves a sense of immortality experienced in and through something higher and larger than oneself. The will to immortality is humanity's innate sense of connection to life in all the aspects of our experience (231, Progoff). "The will to immortality” means humanity's inherent need to live in the light of eternity (262). Inherent in humanity's evolutionary nature, to secure our immortality by maintaining an identity between one's individual will and the continuous historical life of the social-cosmic group (213). Thus identifying oneself with the immortal soul. Should a person succeed in it, they would indeed be worthy of “immortal life,” and that was the reward that the hero sought: to “save one's soul” from death (238). The issue has always been one of immortality and of the salvation of humanity's soul born out of the problem of death. The Result is a sense of connection to life that extends beyond the present moment in all the directions of time. Immortality becomes then not merely continued individual existence, but a sense of more-than-personal participation in everlasting life. In this experience, the individual finds a “new soul”, not quite literally but in essence, because they now perceive their personal existence in a new light (250). Humanity needs a point of view through which we can experience our immortality in a believable and livable form, as an enduring and productive connection to life.

Death is the final stage in the development of human beings (K-Ross, xi). Whatever the reason, individuals who have understood death's meaning seem better able to live and grow because of their experience (K-Ross, 117). Death unlocks the door of life (K-Ross, x). Death is the key to the door of life (K-Ross, 164). We can learn to live our lives with meaning--with full appreciation of our finiteness, of the limits on our time here (K-Ross, 6). The incorporation of death into life enriches life, it enables the individual to extricate themselves from smothering trivialities, to live more purposefully and more authentically (54, Yalom). We can only truly live and enjoy and appreciate life if we realize at all times that we are finite (K-Ross, xxii). However, the Roman philosopher Seneca said in a letter to Paulinus: "It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested." Perhaps death reminds us that our time is limited and that we'd better accomplish our purpose here on earth before our time runs out (K-Ross, 117). Aware that we should live today and not postpone it. Live each day as if it is the only one you have (K-Ross, x). Live more fully through better understanding death's meaning (K-Ross, xii). Affirm life in the face of death. What is hard is living--living until you die (K-Ross, 73). The real challenge is to fully live the time you have (K-Ross, 74). Facing death means facing the ultimate question of the meaning of life (K-Ross, 126). If we really want to live we must have the courage to recognize that life is ultimately very short, and that everything we do counts (K-Ross, 126). Our task is to live our lives passionately, fiercely, and with intensity. To live our life, to love our life, and to say "Yes" to our life, in spite of everything, and then allow life to live through you. When it is the evening of our life we will hopefully have a chance to look back and say: "It was worthwhile because I have really lived."

Closing Quotes
  • "When I came to die, discover that I had not lived." - Thoreau
  • “The shortness of life, so often lamented, may be the best thing about it.” - Arthur Schopenhauer
  • "The goal of all life is death." - Sigmund Freud
  • "Die at the right time: so teacheth Zarathustra." - Friedrich Nietzsche
  • "You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough." - Mahatma Gandhi
  • "The principle of irreversibility is the basis of the meaning of life" - Viktor Frankl