Death and Meaning

If we are to live fully, we must became aware of our death. Ideally, we should pursue not just an awareness, but what M. Scott Peck calls “ a romance with death”.

Not to romanticize it in a morbid, nihilistic way, but to honestly grapple with it and, in the end, make it our friend. It is one of the more profound ironies of our existence that life can only be meaningful in the context of our imminent dying.

Maybe it won’t come knocking right this very moment, but it will come. It is just outside the door. We might as well make death’s acquaintance before we let it in.

We commonly deny death, consciously or not, and seek relief in any number of diversions. This is unfortunate, because in doing so we limit our consciousness. According to Dr. Peck, death is actually the opposite of what we think. Death is not a taker-away but rather a giver of meaning. In Further Along the Road Less Travelled, he says:

More than anything else, my romance with death has given me a sense of the meaningfulness of this life. Death is a magnificent lover. If you are suffering from a sense of meaninglessness or ennui, there is nothing better I can suggest to you thanthat you strike up a serious relationship with the end of your existence. Like any great love, death is full of mystery and that’s where much of the excitement comes from. Because as you struggle with the mystery of your death, you discover the meaning of your life.

This is not a new concept of pop psychology. 2,000 years ago, the Stoic philosopher Seneca said: “Throughout the whole of life, one must continue to learn how to live, and what will amaze you even more, throughout life one must learn how to die. Not how long, but how well you have lived is the main thing.”

Thus to Carlos Castaneda’s mentor in Journey to Ixtlan, death is a most trustworthy companion and adviser. Don Juan counsels:

The thing to do when you’re impatient is to turn to your left and ask advice from your death. An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if your death makes a gesture to you, or if you catch a glimpse of it, or if you just have the feeling that your companion is there watching you.

Death is the only wise adviser that we have. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and that you are about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you’re wrong; that nothing relay matters outside its touch. Your death wil tellyou ‘I haven’t touched you yet’

Dr. Albert Schweitzer believed that a man who dares to live his life with death before his eyes has already attained peace and joy.

We must all become familiar with the thought of death if we want to grow into really good people. We need not think of it every day or every hour. But when the path of life leads us to some vantage point where the scene around us fades away and we contemplate the distant view right to the end, let us not close our eyes. Let us pause for a moment, look at the distant view, and then carry on. Thinking about death in this way produces love for life. When we are familiar with death, we accept each week, each day, as a gift. Only if we are able thus to accept life – bit by bit – does it become precious.

And finally, Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs weighs in on how an awareness of death can propel one to greater achievements.

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life.

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something…almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.

The late journalist Tony Snow on his impending death of cancer:

The mere thought of death somehow makes every blessing vivid, every happiness more luminous and intense.

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