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Death and The Meaning of My Life

A ten-year old once asked his mother a question: “Mom, what if years after we die, no
one will remember us, what we said, or what we did, what is the point of doing what we are
doing today?”

If you were an honest mother, what will you tell this little boy?

If you are a member of the Catholic Church you would say that the meaning of life lies in
the resurrection from the dead, As Catholics you believe that there is life after death, and that
the soul is immortal. Whatever you sow in your earthly life, you will reap in heaven.

If you were a Hindu, you would say that the meaning of your life follows the law of
Karma. When you die your soul will be reincarnated into form depending on what you did in
your previous life.

If you were a pure materialist, such as Democritus, you would say that there is no
meaning to what we are doing apart from what we are doing now. When we die, the body
(and the soul which Democritus also believed to be made up of atoms) will one day disintegrate
in thin air.

Notice how different these answers are from each other, yet not one of them is know to
be more true than the others. Some of them may be believed more than other but if an answer
has not yet fully passed the test of justification, for as long as it is not proven to be true, it will
still remain to be an opinion. In this case the answers about what happens to when we die
remains a matter of belief. While there is nothing wrong with anchoring your life on religious
beliefs (unless you are a committed atheist who would condemn religious believers as foolish
people), it is important to remain open with the truth of uncertainty. No one is ever sure
because no one, not even the atheist who thinks that there is nothing out there after death, has
ever come back after they died. The bottom line is that all human persons are equal in
ignorance in the face of death. As someone once said, death is the great equalizer.

The task of philosophy is not to provide another answer to the question of what happens
after death, but to ask the question what is the meaning of our lives in the face of the
uncertainty of what happens after death. In other words, the task of philosophy is to address
the question that the little boy asked above. The philosophical reflection on death is, ultimately,
the same philosophical question about the meaning of life. Is there meaning to all our striving,
our wanting to be the best that we can be, if we are not sure of what happens to us after
Heidegger and Being-Unto-Death

Martin Heidegger was the first philosopher in the history of thought to have “brought
human mortality to the center stage of philosophy.” He pushed reflections on death farther.
Until Heidegger, the concern of most philosophers, from the time of Aristotle, was the question
on how to live a good life (Cohen, 2006). Heidegger, found it important to reflect on death
because it is the most fundamental question that a human being must learn to face. If we do
not reflect on deaths, chances are we are not living an authentic life.

It is a fact (facticity according to Heidegger) that the human person dies. There is nothing
that can be done about it. Not even the richest man in the world can bribe death. The problem
however lies in how human being anticipate the coming of death. Some people try to appease
their anxiety (angst) by their beliefs about the after life. But no one has ever had an experience
of life after death. No one has come back from the dead to tell us their story. Life after death at
most is only a matter of belief. This “not knowing” brings about a feeling of dread (angst).

Those who do not have the “courage to be” as Paul Tillich put it, meaning those who do
not have the courage to face death, end up living the inauthentic life of denial manifested in
their “idle talk”, ‘curiosity’, and ‘ambiguity’. Those who have the courage to face the fact of
inevitable death live an authentic existence, a life of achieving meaningful visions before death
takes them, going through the “miles to go before I sleep.”

We are all, however always in danger of being submerged in the world of objects,
everyday routine, and the conventional behavior of the crowd. This is what Heidegger terms as
inauthentic existence, a form of running away from the face of death, from the reality of one’s
finitude, from one’s fallenness. To forget the fact of death, one gets absorbed in the superficial
concerns of the crowd, such as religiously following a routine just as everybody does – wake up
in the morning, take a shower, eat breakfast, go to work, go home, go to bed, and wake up
again in the next morning to do the same thing all over again. In the meantime, the fear of
death is subdued and muted by the noise of the crowd.

The angst is also drowned away by senseless obsessions over things, or by greed or want
for power. Some people find themselves obsessing about looking young, refusing to face the
inevitability of the slow disintegration of the body. Other obsess about securing their wealth
and property, running away from the fact that all these will one day be gone. Some people
focus on gossiping on other people’s lives as if the meaning of their own lives is not as
important as the lives of others. Heidegger refers to all these as inauthentic chatter which
never quite succeeds in putting the angst away.

It is this angst that leads us towards an existential reflection on death. As soon as we come
squarely with the truth of the possibility of our death and the uncertainty that surrounds it, we
are made to be aware of how we have been living our lives inauthentically. The person who
finally comes to see this can follow two possibilities: either she continues running away and
takes up an attitude of denial, or she reconciles with the possibility that she, like the others, will
die one day. As soon as the person accepts this possibility with full openness, she can now live
life more deliberately.

Steve Jobs’ speech which he made after a year he was diagnosed with cancer, reveals a
person who has reconciled with his death and set out to live his remaining life authentically. He
said to the graduating students in Stanford University, class of 2005:

No one wants to de. 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 dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by
Dogma – which is living with the result of other’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of
others’ opinion drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the
courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you
truly want to become. Everything else is secondary (Stanford News: 2005).

People like Steve Jobs who died of a terminal disease are, in a way blessed because they are
awakened from the inauthentic chatter of everyday life before their deaths. Not many of us
have that “fortune” of somehow knowing when you are going to die. To many, death comes as
the biggest traitor, astonishing us and our loved ones in the least expected ways. Thus, as a
student of philosophy, we are tasked to take the challenge of constantly reawakening ourself
from idle chatter.