I was trying to type something on my phone the other day and it autocorrected me. I had spelled the word correctly, but for some reason, my phone (brand shall remain nameless but it’s got a fruit symbol) would not let me write the word I wanted to write. For that reason a friend of mine got a message that I was “going to due laughing”. My phone would not let me write the word ‘die’. This seemed so strange to me, until I really thought about it. Perhaps, in my semi-reflective, pseudo-intellectual state, I took this to mean that as a society we are so desperately trying to divorce ourselves from the idea that one day we will die, that we are even programming our phones to avoid the word.
The hugely popular Harry Potter books tells the tale of the Three Brothers, with the ‘wisest’ one written as the brother who spends his life hiding from Death with his cloak on invisibility until he is ready to die, at which point he greets death ‘as an old friend’. Whilst this isn’t such a bad idea it has one, terrible flaw. We can not truly run from Death, and we do not get to decide when we are ready. We have to be ready to make peace with it at any moment. For all our distractions, Death can see through our cloak of invisibility.
The Stoics reminded themselves every day that death is a part of life, and it is not for us to decide when it comes for us. This is wonderfully echoed by the character Gandalf from the Lord of The Rings books (with a line famously uttered by Sir Ian McKellen in his portrayal of the wizard): “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” This is a very Stoic thought, and yet one we have become largely intolerant of. For reasons which would take up far too many words to adequately explain, even if I could do the explanation justice, as a culture we are very much of the idea that death is the enemy to be battled and avoided at all costs. Indeed, psychologically we may be hard wired to avoid, fear and feel disgust at the idea of death. Death is evil, and Life is good. That is what we are told, and what we believe. At least, until we become acquainted with it. I will put it to you here that, in the words of Epictetus, “Death is nothing terrible, otherwise Socrates would have thought it so”.
If you have lost someone, especially in circumstances you felt were unfair, such as through an accident, act of violence or illness, I won’t lie – this post may be triggering for you. I am writing this post from a place of personal significance, the house where I used to spend holidays with my mother in Sweden. She is buried not far from here, and it was my most recent visit to her grave that gave me one of the final paragraphs of this post, and inspired me to write it. She died at an age some might call young with a terrible disease and I have felt intense anger, fear and a sense of injustice and truly believed that Death is the enemy. I understand the fear, and negativity towards Death and I do not seek to glorify it. Life is most certainly preferred, but as Death will come for us all one day, I see no reason to not make peace with it.
To begin, we’ll look at what it is that makes Death so…repulsive. Then, I will dedicate some time to explaining my thinking around Death now, with the philosophical background that lead me to this place.
Why Death Feels Like The Enemy
As I mentioned earlier, there are many reasons, far too many for me to be able to adequately explain, why we feel like Death is the enemy. But if I were to ask you to consider your own demise, the image would be unpleasant and rejected immediately. We do not like contemplating our own oblivion. I still remember the horror of recognising and really understanding the concept that we are not alive for infinitely longer than we are alive, literally.
The endlessness of pre- and post- existence is so vast that it is too much to think about. Doing so now, granted in my slightly inebriated state (A later version of me editing this has made some minor spelling and grammar corrections but is, on the whole, pleased with the coherence of this post), makes my mind spin. I once, to my shame, gave a rather banal retort to a friend when discussing why death is nothing terrible. They, a devout believer in their chosen faith, was trying to understand why I did not believe in the afterlife. The discussion began to degenerate, drink had been had, and upon asking me if the thought of being dead frightened me I lied through my teeth and said no. As if sensing my weakness they pounced: ‘why not?’. I gave the hackneyed and unconsidered reply: ‘well it didn’t bother us not being alive before we were born so why would it bother us being dead?’.
This point may seem to carry validity but it doesn’t do any good at winning that argument. It also isn’t convincing. Clearly, something better is needed. I want to introduce you to two concepts to help explain any existential angst you may be experiencing at this point in a (potentially) vain attempt to prevent you from clicking away from this post. The first is the Terror Management Model, and the second is the idea that death takes something very specific from us, our ability to start anything new.
So, starting with the rather dry sounding Terror Management Model. This model states that we are adapted to avoid things that might cause us to contract an acute case of deadness. It is why we feel disgust at contaminated sights and smells such as excrement or rotting food. It is why we have an aversion and moral disgust to things like murder, war, famine. It is also what many governments pin their hopes of changing health behaviours on. Look at a packet of cigarettes, and chances are the front of it is plastered with gruesome images of the results of smoking. When we are not faced with images of death we seek more spiritual, transcendental fulfilment (which is the subject of another post), but the moment we see something that reminds us of our own mortality, we are motivated away from the spectre and scythe.
The effectiveness of using gruesome images to change behaviours (otherwise known as fear appeals) is a hotly debated topic, and on a personal level they only seem to be used in three domains: anti-smoking, drink and drug abuse. The other problem domain of obesity seems to be one that is protected from fear appeals, instead focussing on the benefits of exercise and healthy eating. The effectiveness of that approach also seems to be up for discussion, though in my personal opinion I would prefer this life affirming message spread to those with smoking, drink and drug habits and to cease the demonisation of those with those habits whilst other, just as destructive tendencies are given a free pass, but this is not the forum for my views on this.
This model seems to make sense, intuitively. We don’t like being faced with death, so we are motivated away from it. This doesn’t do much to explain why we don’t like the thought of death. Yes, evolutionary adaptation makes sense, but it isn’t a fulfilling explanation. We require something to satisfy our conscious mind that is, as far as I know, unique in desiring meaning and not being satisfied with the basic wants fulfilled like all other creatures we know of. Then I came upon this explanation that seems to make sense to me, so I’ll do my best to present it to you here, with my own little additions and spin on it. Death seems terrible to us because it is the end. We live our lives one project to the next, and we take solace in the fact that there is always something new on the horizon. In the English language many of our colloquialisms revolve around renewal of purpose and mission when faced with disappointment.
Turning over a new leaf.
When a door closes a window opens.
A new chapter.
All of these things said to steel ourselves to make the best of our existence, but with death there is no new chapter. All doors and windows close. The party is over, at least for us. There is no new project to take on board. The projects we have started may be left unfinished.
Death then seems to take this from us. It robs us of the thing we have been doing our whole life. From birth there has been a drive towards the next project. From desiring to function as an independent human, to then focusing on school to get certain exam results, to achieve a particular job and social standing to acquire x, y or z. To finish this task to get that thing to feel this way. It all is over. People feel most alive and motivated when they are completely engaged in that process, but death takes that from them, and worse still, seems to do so when we least want it to happen. How many people have died with projects left unfinished?
It may not have been the biggest project. It might have been finishing a letter; seeing if their flowers will bloom as they planned; or even finishing a conversation that was cut short on Tuesday.
Maybe, it was just telling someone how much you loved them.
If it wasn’t just us that ended, but everyone and everything, then oddly it might not be so bad. Because as bad as it is to know our story is ending, it is somehow just as bad to know that for others, the book goes on. They get a new chapter where our final one ends. Maybe some of those projects we worked so hard to finish are going to be carried on by someone else, and the knowledge of that, that unknowing theft of purpose, hurts just as much. Maybe what makes death terrible is we feel it is the end of our story, before we have decided we are ready for it to end. We are cheated of writing that fantastic climax we feel all these projects have been building towards our whole lives.
After all, what good is a story if it is only half finished?
Death as a Positive
Death, far from being a point of fear, can be a motivator and is the source of meaning.
This is a very Stoic idea at its core. They lived in a time where death was common but grief was no easier. The Stoics charge us to live the best lives we can without fear of death, as it is something we ultimately have no control over. It is only terrible because we make it so. We attach ourselves to things that are never wholly ours. Even your friends and family are not yours. They are separate entities with their own stories that so happen to cross over with you to a greater or lesser extent. And because of that enjoy them whilst they are there, but when they depart you can accept it. That doesn’t mean be happy about it, or even not feel sad. Just don’t feel cheated or deprived. Derren Brown, in his fantastic book Happy, makes the point that it is at the point when we are closest to death that we should be taking the fullest ownership of our lives (if you want recommendations for other books on Stoicism, read this post). Yet it is often at this point that the focus of their story shifts from the individual making their exit, to the family members. The tale becomes one of sorrow and loss. How the person lost the fight and departed this life, and how the family and friends lost someone close to them.
This is the tragic narrative that robs the purpose and meaning from the person doing the dying. What should be an ability to write their final chapter, that culmination of their life, instead becomes simply a participating role in someone else’s story. Others take centre stage until we become a cameo in our own lives. That is terrifying. It is all too easy to allow that narrative to take place as well. I remember when my mother was on her way out. Honestly, she had gone a long time before, her body was just waiting to follow her, but even so, the narrative stopped being about her. It was about me and my family. How we were coping. How the doctors were helping here or not helping there.
And throughout all of it, my mother was an oddly peripheral main character. Of course she had dementia and so wasn’t there anymore, and in a way became the absolute embodiment of what we fear death to be.
Her ability to write her own ending forcibly taken from her before she had a chance to decide it. The same happens to those lost to accidents or other tragic events. But for many of us, when Death comes calling we will have had a feeling for awhile. Whether due to the creaks and wisdom of old age or a sombre faced medical professional, we often have a sense of when it is coming. And that is the moment that we can all make the choice to write our own final chapter. How many stories do we hear of people being diagnosed with a terminal illness start to do incredible things. A story that touched me recently is of a man a friend of mine knew who was unremarkable his whole life. Until he got diagnosed with cancer, told he would be dead in 6 months and then promptly quit his job and climbed Kilimanjaro to raise money for Cancer Research. He did that knowing his story was coming to an end and wrote a blinder of a final chapter.
There are other cases of people using the time to reconnect with friends and loved ones, or just spend more time with their families and doing their favourite hobby. A film I am proud to have seen is called About Time, a shameless rom-com by Richard Curtis involving Rachel McAdams (be still my beating heart), her love interest Domhnall Gleeson who has an ability to travel back in time to different points in his own life, an ability shared with his father played by Bill Nighy. The real relationship in the film isn’t that between the lovers, but between father and son. When the father finds out he is dying he and his son use their abilities to spend more time together. Just something as simple as playing table tennis or reliving a walk on the beach one last time.
Cue the tears (at least for me).
That is, perhaps, what we all wish we could do. Wind back the hands of time and write ourselves a different story. The question I pose for you here is…why wait?
Why wait for the tragedy? Why wait for the dour doctor with exhausted sympathy? Why wait for the creaks of wise old age?
Why not accept the inevitable now? Yes, I will die. Yes, I do not know when it will come for me. But when it does, whether that be at the hands of a bus driver having a bad day; or the same disease that took my mother (as is very possible); or maybe when I am a ripe old age, I will be ready to greet Death.
I will make sure each day I am writing the best story I can, and one I can be proud of. Yes, maybe if I have time to write that next chapter it might be a bit better. But as of right now, it is one I am proud of. I am proud of the character I have ended up being. I am happy with his motivations, and values, and virtues, and actions.
And, if I wake up tomorrow, I am happy to have another day to write another page. To start that next project, whilst just being aware that I might not finish it. But that’s OK, because starting it was the right thing to do. If we can accept Death, then we won’t be so afraid when we have to meet them. Indeed, we can use Death to motivate us to ensure we are telling the best story. To make sure that at no point we are selling it short. That doesn’t mean quitting your job and travelling the world or raising hundreds of thousands for charity.
Maybe it just means making sure you are proud of your actions each day. Being the kind of person you are proud of. Forgiving that person who annoyed you. Finishing that project at work. Making the effort to speak to someone who might need it. Giving an hour to a charity close to your heart.
Telling someone close to you how much you appreciate them.
We think of graveyards as sad places, Death’s victory ground. I think they are libraries, full of stories that have been told, read and loved by so many. The end of the story may be sad for many people, but that doesn’t detract from its beauty, or the joy those stories gave people. And whilst we can’t know every story there, we can still learn from them. Even when the story didn’t end according to the plan of the author, it still gave people joy. Now, all we need to do, is ensure the author stays in charge right until the last page.
Death is not the enemy. Far from it, Death is our best source of motivation. Death is that teacher who you thought you hated but managed to drive you to do better in ways you didn’t realise. Yes, Death can come calling when we’d rather have just a bit more time, but that is not for us to decide. To use that quote from Gandalf again:
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”
I hope you enjoyed this post. I’m planning on turning it into a video/podcast as well, but I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, but also this style of post. If you found this an enjoyable read please let me know and I will write in this style more.
Other posts are coming soon.