The Flickering Flame of Consciousness Will Go Out One Day
A friend was recently racked with melancholy: in the last few weeks, five of his family members and friends were diagnosed with debilitating diseases or cancer. This followed the passing away of a dear friend earlier this year. Like everybody else, facing the decline and death of the near and dear compelled my friend to contemplate life and confront his own mortality.
Convention can bind us to the notion that death is frightful and should not be talked about. However, death needs to be discussed—and contemplated—all the time, not in terms of the fear of life but as a reminder of the brevity of life. The great English author Graham Greene (1904-91) wrote in the novel Travels With My Aunt (1972,)
You will think how every day you are getting a little closer to death. It will stand there as close as the bedroom wall. And you’ll become more and more afraid of the wall because nothing can prevent you coming nearer and nearer to it ever night while you try to sleep…
Death Should Not Be Feared; It’s an Essential Progression of Life
When we’re forced to confront death, we resist doing so. Death is a very natural phenomenon just like birth, and there’s no need to shy away from it. In his famous 2005 Stanford graduation address, Steve Jobs (1955-2011) addressed his pancreatic cancer and his brush with death:
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. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Bertrand Russell’s Evocative Reflection on Transience and Morality
The celebrated British mathematician, political activist, and philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872—1970) wrote a beautiful reflection on death and life in his essay “How To Grow Old.” The metaphors evoked by the way that Russell portrayed human existence “like a river” are overpowering.
The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.
Idea for Impact: The Only Thing We Really Get to Influence About Death is the Course of Our Approach to Death
We may look at death and decline with fear instead of anticipation, but the alternative to death could truly be worse: boredom and stagnation.
Fortunately, though death and decline may be unavoidable, how we look at it is totally up to us.
Every brush with death and serious illness should remind you to accept the impermanence of health and life. It should help you appreciate and live each moment wisely. It should serve to remind you to cherish everything with you while you have them.