“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” (Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: A Memoir)
While we all know that we will die, that the ‘trap door to nothingness’ moves ever closer, this is a fact upon which few wish to dwell. Even though, each day countless individuals reach an untimely demise in the prime of their life, rarely do we contemplate that this risk hangs over our head as well.
“How strange that this sole thing that is certain and common to all, exercises almost no influence on men, and that they are the furthest from regarding themselves as the brotherhood of death!” (Nietzsche, The Gay Science)
It is common to assume that this avoidance, this willful blindness to what approaches, is a sign of psychological health. Rather than concentrating on the morbid side of existence, should we not spend our time focusing on life – on the living? While this seems reasonable at first glance, countless philosophers, theologians, and psychologists, stretching back thousands of years, have suggested otherwise:
“Virtually every great thinker. . . has thought deeply and written about death; and many have concluded that death is inextricably a part of life, and that lifelong consideration of death enriches rather than impoverishes life.” (Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy)
What these individuals recognized was that far from a morbid practice, periodically thinking about our approaching death can be life-enhancing. The benefits associated with this practice were first expounded many centuries ago in religious texts and among the writings of Greek and Roman philosophers, but recent psychological studies have backed-up this ancient wisdom. For as Eric Barker points out in his book Barking Up the Wrong Tree, “people who contemplate the end actually behave in healthier ways – and therefore may actually live longer”. (Eric Barker, Barking Up the Wrong Tree)
That contemplating death can have this effect, is not too surprising, given the dramatic change that often occurs to people with near death experiences. While psychiatrists and clinical psychologists often struggle mightily to induce even moderate positive changes to a person’s character, if a man is convinced he is about to die and then granted the blessing of more life, very often he will experience a dramatic psychological transformation. If we have any sanity we will not flirt with our physical death merely to improve our psychological health. We can, however, experience similar, albeit less dramatic effects, by periodically contemplating death. Or as Irvin Yalom put it:
“Though the physicality of death destroys an individual, the idea of death can save him.” (Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy)
Reflecting on the tenuous nature of existence, can ‘save us’ for a simple reason – it provides us with a proper and realistic perspective of life. To live fully we must be cognizant of our limitations, the most significant of which is the scarcity and uncertain duration of time we are each granted. Failure to recognize this limitation, and to live accordingly, is one of the most tragic tendencies of mankind for it often leads people to sacrifice and devalue the present in the false hope that there will always be a future in which to make amends.
“Those who strive and hope and live only in the future always looking ahead and impatiently anticipating what is coming, as something which will make them happy when they get it, are, in spite of their clever airs exactly like those donkeys … whose pace may be hurried by fixing a stick on their heads with a wisp of hay at the end of it; this is always ahead of them, and they keep on trying to get it. Such people are in a constant state of illusion as to their whole existence; they go on living ad interim [in the meantime], until at last they die.” (Arthur Schopenhauer, Collected Essays)
Reflecting on death can help us escape this illusion by forcing us to stop ‘wandering about in times that do not belong to us’ (Pascal, Pensees). But in addition to re-orienting ourselves toward the present moment, contemplation of death also puts us in a better position to grasp the truth of Henry David Thoreau’s statement that “[t]he price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” Far too many people waste a great deal of time on things which contribute little of positive value to their life – be it unhealthy relationships, dead-end jobs or destructive habits.
Often we know we need to change, to stop wasting our time and to focus our efforts elsewhere, but we delay and justify our delays with the excuse that in the future conditions will be more ideal. As we become more acutely aware of our mortality we will realize in the words of Seneca that “[j]ust where death is expecting [us] is something we cannot know; so, for [our] part, expect him everywhere”. This recognition can imbue our life with a new sense of urgency and help us realize that with death always approaching “existence cannot be postponed” (Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy) and that waiting for ideal future conditions is a dangerous game to play.
Periodically contemplating death can also improve our relationships with others. If we are more cognizant of our own mortality, we will also become more aware that the lives of everyone we care about hang by a similarly thin thread. Never knowing when the final time will be that we see someone can make us more appreciative of the times we do spend with them, for as Sigmund Freud wrote “limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of the enjoyment” (Sigmund Freud).
While the benefits of contemplating death are immense, few adopt this practice – rather most people are of the attitude that such thoughts should be avoided and pushed out of awareness. Death however, can be compared to the sun. Both are integral components of life but staring at either for too long only leads to debilitation – damaged eyes in the case of the sun and paralyzing anxiety in the case of death. Turning away completely from death, however, can be just as debilitating. For as the rays of the sun are needed to sustain life, periodic reflection on death seems necessary to imbue one’s life with a spark of urgency and an appreciation for the present that so many in the modern-day lack. “It is only in the face of death” wrote Saint Augustine, “that man’s self is born.”