By: Joe Pettit
Don’t ask me why, but I have been thinking about death a lot lately. I have been remarkably free from experiencing the pain of an untimely death of someone I love, so everything I am about to say should be taken with a dose of caution. More than usual, I really may have no idea what I am talking about. But I have found that the more I think about death, the more I think I am learning how to live.
Let’s start with the science of life. All life is an open energy system that requires the input of new energy to maintain itself. We are, in fact, bundles of life, as each of our cells are these open systems. Each cell will die either when it no longer gets the energy it needs, or if its structures lose the integrity required to process the energy.
In other words, the very essence of life is temporary. It is unreasonable to think of life in any form that we know it as going on forever. This means that I cannot think it is wrong for me to come to an end. It is impossible to think of the life that is me without also realizing that such life is temporary.
Such a realization challenges any notion of death as such being an evil because it is impossible for there to be life without death. If life is good, then death must be accepted, and if accepted, then less feared. Death is natural.
Reflecting on what life is also makes clear how fragile life is. The systems that must work together to keep us going can easily fall apart. I say this not to be morbid but to note two things. First, it is not surprising when something does fall apart. Illnesses of all sorts are simply reasonable expectations with these highly fragile ecosystems that we call our bodies. Second, fragility counsels care. There are good reasons to tend to our bodies, to care for them, and to protect them. By doing so, we are not trying to live forever. We are just being clear about who we are. When, finally, we do break down in a more fatal direction, we will not be surprised.
Even more temporary than biological life is enjoyment. By reflecting on this, I think we can practice death every time we truly enjoy – that is cherish – our moments of life. When we enjoy life with someone or simply somewhere, we enjoy something that in its very essence is passing. I do not cherish a person or a place generally but rather right here right now. The details of the person or the place matter if they are to be truly cherished, truly enjoyed.
But none of these details are permanent, and so to cherish them is to accept that they are temporary. The more we are aware of the passing nature of all that we cherish, the more prepared will be fore when they are gone.
I want to be clear about something. I have been reflecting on these things not to prepare me for my own death or someone else’s death, but rather to understand better what it means to live. This has proven especially helpful in two ways.
First, life is much less of an endurance test for me than it used to be. Most of us are familiar with the experience of life as a grind. Sometimes this grind is found in the care of our families, or in our jobs. But when we view life as a grind, we live it too generally and miss all the details that are right in front of us. Now, even when I am worn out by chores, by driving children everywhere, or by teaching material that students just could not seem to care less about, I notice details that I entirely missed before: the details of my children’s faces, the flowers beginning to bloom, clouds in the sky, colors everywhere, and the fashion statements of my students (no one wears jeans without holes anymore). When I notice these details, life is not at all a grind anymore. It is not an endurance test, but something I enjoy. Noticing these details energizes me.
Second, I take life much less for granted. If I do not notice the details of the present moment, they are soon gone. One could say they perish. Of course, they also perish when I notice them, but that is the lesson. Recognizing that the details of my living will soon pass away helps me to pay more attention to those details before they are gone. I feel that I am living more fully when I do this than I did before. Living with greater appreciation of people and places helps me to see that perishing is normal, but it also helps me to experience what life truly offers.
I have met people who seem to think that life is a joke. For them, living only to die is ridiculous and pointless. But this position implies that life could be otherwise, and I do not think it can. If life cannot be life without ending, then death does not make life ridiculous and pointless, it only makes it temporary. To counter that life should not be temporary seems to deny that life is also momentary, and it is the moments of life that should be cherished, not simply being alive.
Does all of this mean that I deny the reality of eternal life? For now, let me just say that I have no idea what such life would be like. The only true life that I know of is temporary.